Term Paper: Richardsonian Romanesque House Styles

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Art History

The Lure of Eclecticism:

Richardsonian Romanesque Houses in Nineteenth Century America

The Nineteenth Century was a period of considerable historicism in art and architecture. As Americans and Europeans struggled to come to terms with the effects of growing industrialization, they liked to the past, to earlier times for models that seemed both familiar and satisfying. The lure of gothic and Romanesque was in large measure, too, a part of the Romantic spirit of the age. Romanticism sought to capture the deep spiritual and emotional essence of the West's many ethnic groups, looking back into history at fundamental beliefs, and the ancient legends and tales that had helped to shape them. Richardsonian Romanesque was a major form of this historical romanticism in architecture. Like other architectural styles - Renaissance Revival, Second Empire, Beaux Arts, and others - that were common after the mid-Nineteenth Century, it incorporated a variety of disparate elements to achieve an overall "feel" of the period it attempted to evoke. Henry Hobson Richardson worked in the style primarily in the Eastern United States, especially around Boston where he was from, but the Richardsonian Romanesque quickly became popular throughout the Midwest and further west, even as it declined in appeal in the region of its origin. Characterized by such elements as rusticated stone, thick pillars, recessed entrances, oriel windows, prominent towers, and the like, the Richardsonian appealed to the imagination, conjuring up as it did images of an idealized medieval world. Progressing from churches and other public buildings, it soon became a favorite of house builders, perhaps symbolizing the dream of many of America's newly successful to dwell like lords in their very own castles.

The Richardsonian house was intended to present an image of solidity. Often central in plan, they rose solidly out of the earth like an ornate pyramid adorned with subsidiary turrets and chimneys, the lines of these projections echoing and reinforcing the upward thrust of the sharply-peaked roofs. "Whether in wood or stone, Richardsonian Romanesque buildings were really masses of textural or morphological ornament cumulatingly producing an effect of tremendous solidity."

Richardsonian style house built by Frank Freeman at 108th Street and Riverside Drive in New York City, and illustrated in a History of Real Estate, Building, and Architecture in New York City (1898), appears almost to be the topmost portion of medieval church.

Eclectic to the core, it combines various elements of actual Romanesque, Gothic, and even Renaissance architecture in ways not found in the original examples. The overly large windows are not typical of Romanesque, and are square off in the manner of a later period though their heavily rusticated spandrels recall somewhat the shape of heavy, broad Roman arches, as does the massive, recessed central doorway. The corner turret mimics the octagonal shapes frequently found in church architecture of the early Middle Ages, though the tower's placement is more reminiscent of neo-Gothic fantasy than of anything truly medieval. As for the careful symmetry of each facade, this, as well, is hardly medieval, but speaks rather to the values of the Renaissance, though again, the presence of the corner turret endeavors to provoke a quaintly medieval effect. In a sense, it is as if nearly all that preceded the Modern Era were broadly medieval without regard to the particularities of period or local architectural tradition and culture.

Richardsonian structures frequently made use of materials that would not have been employed in their apparent prototypes. Richardson himself was a major proponent of the Shingle Style of architecture, one that employed large and obvious shingles, of various, design, all over the house, the shingles being notable elements of the decorative scheme. Richardson's Stoughton House, built in Cambridge, Massachusetts from 1882 to 1883, is an excellent example of the style. It features a plan that is,

Free-flowing and restrained, with large rooms arranged in an L. around a stair hall which protrudes at the corner in a swelling short tower. The porch, instead of standing free against the house, is formed in a recess carved out of the mass of the house so that the basic geometry is not weakened.

Again, this fuses together the ideas and assumptions of numerous different periods. The prominent lines of shingles evoke a house of early New England, the huge round tower in the crotch of the "L" seems less a Romanesque element than an attempt to provide for spacious public rooms in the heart of the house. Indeed, the overall plan nicely accommodates Nineteenth Century ideas of house design and physical comfort. This is evident even from the outside. The windows are of contemporary design, and certainly admit much light and air. The chimneys suggest those on Tudor houses and give further evidence of the creature comforts inside, much as the various projections and gables suggest lots of cross-ventilation and a significant attention to the requirements of a well-to-do late Nineteenth Century family.

Richardson, who studied at the ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, was among the first Americans to expound its principle that the external form of the building should somehow express the structure's internal arrangement. He used "masses of masonry in strongly expressive ways to accentuate points of entry into a building, bands of windows, and solid structural supports."

As on Riverside Drive, the stonework emphasizes the different parts of the house. The viewer's attention is drawn to the main rooms by large windows of the central block, the great peaked roof sitting atop the main portion of the house like a huge crown. Subsidiary rooms are set off in the tower, and other projections, too, distinguish the more minor portions of the house from those that are accorded primary purpose. The heavy rustication of the window and door fames underscores the importance of what lies beyond. The deeply-recessed central doorway invites visitors into the house, as well as sheltering them when they call. Clearly visible chimneys act like signposts pointing to the more important rooms that are furnished with fireplaces. They also, no doubt, guide the observer to the domestic "heart" of the structure, the kitchen where food and refreshments are prepared for guest and family alike.

Contemporary critics, such as M.G. Van Rensselaer, intuitively recognized the Richardsonian home's attempt at capturing the very essence of domestic security and comfort. Wrote Van Rensselaer in her 1888, Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works,

Strength in conception; clearness in expression; breadth in treatment; imagination; and a love for repose and massive dignity of aspect, and often for an effect which in the widest meaning of the word we may call "romantic." The first is the most fundamental and important quality, and upon it depends to a very large degree the presence of the others.

In their wondrous wealth of medieval-inspired detail, Richardsonian houses encapsulated the Late Victorian era's romantic idolization of all things pertaining to the family and household. Home and hearth find their expression in the linkage of domestic enjoyment to an almost fabled past. To live surrounded by "round arches and square-sectioned openings, his stone mullions, his arcades and loggias, and his Byzantinesque decoration," was to be at one with the heroes of medieval epic and legend. In keeping with the eclectic spirit of the time, those who commissioned a house in the Richardsonian style would have seen no conflict in the fact that it was the typically modern industrial factories that gave them the wealth to erect their faux Romanesque showplaces. Though they armed their private fortresses with the latest in modern conveniences - gas and electric lighting, central heating, and a variety of rooms for every conceivable purpose and work-saving mechanical device - they liked to conceal all these things within the structure of medieval and Renaissance decoration and form. Stoughton House, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was located in a nerve center, so to speak, of modern learning and thought, yet its appearance, seems to locate it - at first glance - firmly in the traditional world of pre-industrial Europe. Similarly, the house at 108th Street and Riverside Drive was located in one of the most modern cities in the world, a burgeoning metropolis that was almost the antithesis of the medieval city to which such a building aspired.

Enormously popular in the settled and fairly Europeanized East, the Richardsonian style would spread rapidly throughout the West, where for many it would symbolize the comforts of established civilization and economic i.e. industrial success on the "new frontier."

The Richardsonian style was popular throughout America in the late Nineteenth Century because it suited the mood of the times in its eclectic approach to architectural taste. As with other popular styles, it combined the elements and aesthetics of numerous different period to create a uniquely idealized and romanticized medieval flavor all its own. Its broadly Romanesque qualities symbolized solidity and security for hardworking, successful people who desired to make their homes tranquil oases of domestic bliss. Furthermore, the Richardsonian Romanesque appealed to a culture that was still struggling with the more jarring aspects of the industrial… [END OF PREVIEW]

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