H. H. Richardson’s design for Trinity Church on Boston’s Copley Square firmly established him as the most important architect in this country, and also made him the first to be recognized and respected abroad. This distinction was reinforced when his fellow architects selected Trinity Church to head the list of the ten best buildings in the United States in 1885. A century later, it was the only building from the original list to be included in a similar survey sponsored by the American Institute of Architects. More recently, Geoffrey Baer included the building in his PBS documentary “Ten Buildings That Changed America.”
Richardson received the commission through a competition in the spring of 1872, of which he was one of six architects invited to submit. By the time construction began on the building itself in 1874, Richardson had moved his home and office to Brookline, so that he could closely supervise the building. He would remain in Brookline for the remainder of his life, resulting in the largest concentration of his work being located in Boston and surrounding towns.
Work began in 1873 when 4,500 wooden piers were driven into the ground to support the enormous weight of the building. Four huge piers in the sanctuary support the weight of the tower, and sit upon granite pyramids underground, measuring forty feet wide by twenty feet tall. This massive engineering feat was essential, given that the site sat in the middle of the Back Bay, a former swampy area that had been filled in over the preceding fifteen years.
The overall plan of the building is in the shape of a Greek cross, with the Parish House extending to the northeast, reflecting the original irregularly shaped plot of land.
The exterior comprises four different types of local granite and is trimmed with Longmeadow brownstone. Richly carved ornament is set amidst walls featuring Richardson’s trademark polychrome stone work, including checkboard and zigzag patterns on the front façade, and eight-petaled flowers on the apse.
Inspiration for the overall design includes the French Romanesque which Richardson studied extensively during his years at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in the early 1860s. His refinement of the style led to what later became known as Richardsonian Romanesque and characterized the buildings in the later years of his career. The cathedral at Salamanca, Spain served as a model for the large tower.
In 1876, at Richardson’s request, the congregation hired John La Farge to complete the interior decoration. As noted by Keith Morgan in his Buildings of Boston, “(La Farge), assisted by Augustus St. Gaudens and a team of American artists, produced the most extensive scheme of figurative and architectural painted ornament of any American building up to that time, influencing the emergency of mural decoration in American public buildings.”
The interior features an exceptionally open auditorium for Rev. Phillips Brooks, a Harvard classmate of Richardson, considered one of the finest preachers of the late 19th century. A marble bust by Daniel Chester French dominates the baptistry, and was completed in 1897. It commemorates Brooks’ 22 years as rector of Trinity Church, and his two years as Bishop of the Diocese of Massachusetts, in which position he served until his death in 1893.
The church features a dazzling collection of American and European stained glass windows. Five are by La Farge, including the Christ in Majesty window set into three lancets over the main entrance, and his New Jerusalem window in the north transept.
That area features a series of windows by Sir Edward Burne-Jones for Morris & Co., who also designed the window, David’s Charge to Solomon, located in the baptistry. A humorous note is that Burne-Jones incorporated Morris’ image in the window, as the severed head of Goliath being held in the right hand of David.
Other English windows include a series of seven surrounding the chancel by Clayton & Bell of London and several by Henry Holiday, also of London, including Three Scenes in St. Paul’s Life, shown below.
The building was consecrated in February 1877 with the total cost of the site and building at $635,000. In 1897, Richardson’s successors, Shepley, Rutan and Coolidge, added the richly carved west porch, combining Richardson’s general scheme and the design of St. Trophime, a Romanesque church in Arles, France. The firm returned to add the massive sculptural pulpit in 1914. Architects Maginnis and Walsh extensively remodeled the apse in 1937-1938 to reflect the shift toward a more ceremonial form of worship.
A major restoration and expansion was begun in 2003, and continues to this day, with significant work on the exterior being undertaken during 2017.