Phillips Brooks

A tribute to Henry Hobson Richardson

April 27, 2012 will mark the 126th anniversary of the death of Henry Hobson Richardson, architect of Glessner House Museum.  Generally regarded as the first important American architect, Richardson was also the first to earn the recognition and respect of architects in Europe. 

John Glessner wrote extensively about his interactions with Richardson, including their visits to his home and office in Brookline, Massachusetts.  To honor the anniversary of Richardson’s passing, we present a few excerpts from an unpublished manuscript about Richardson that John Glessner wrote in 1914.

“His career was brief.  In his time, he was the greatest architect America had produced and keeping in mind the other great men since then, I doubt if there has been any his equal.  However comparisons are invidious, and it is the last thing that Richardson would have done or have wished any one else to do to draw such or cry down any contemporary.  He was not even critical of a fellow artist, and never would point a defect in another’s work, though ready always to help with suggestions when asked.

“He had supreme confidence in his own powers and that sort of man never is envious or critical of others.  Laughingly he said both of (Charles) McKim and of (Daniel) Burnham that they had the hardest problems that ever confronted men in their profession – they had designed buildings for their prospective fathers-in-law and then married the daughters with the possibilities of continuing criticism ever after.

“Mr. Richardson was watchful of criticism of his work, especially newspaper criticism, but unconcerned if that criticism didn’t find some really weak point.  If it did, that was a totally different matter.  ‘Oh, I know the weak points in my work’ he said.  Well, Mr. R. what is the weak point in my house?  ‘I don’t know that now; if I did I would correct it.’

“We went together to Phillips Brooks house on Clarendon and Newberry Sts. (in Boston) and justified going in during Mr. Brooks’s absence.  You know an architect may go into any house he has built at any time until it is finished, and there is one closet in the attic of this house that has been left unfinished purposely.

“We went to Trinity church together one weekday morning and sat there practically alone.  There is always a reverent feeling comes over one at such a time, but it was especially marked in this case, in that large lonely room, except for the sun shining through the windows.  Richardson talked of these windows – this one by LaFarge that one by Burne-Jones – all powdered with angels.  He talked of the building as a whole and how pleased the Trustees were, etc.  ‘But they ought to have waited,’ he said.  ‘If they only had waited.  See what I can do now.’”

(The image accompanying this article is the portrait of Richardson by Hubert Herkomer completed shortly before his death.  The Glessners obtained a photographic (heliotype) copy of the portrait from his widow and it has hung in the house continuously since the late 1880s.  On November 10, 2012 during the Glessner symposium, keynote speaker and author James F. O’Gorman will discuss the significance of the portrait to the Glessners and to the ways in which Richardson is remembered today).