H.H. Richardson - Table of Contents
Buffalo's Other Big-Name Architect: H.H. Richardson
by Cynthia Van Ness, MLS
While Frank Lloyd Wright fans the world over await the completed restoration of the Darwin Martin House on Jewett Parkway, Buffalonians can expand their appreciation of our fair city by discovering the significant local works by other admired architects.
The "holy trinity" of American architecture is generally considered to be Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886), Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), and Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959). In downtown Buffalo, Sullivan is represented by the Prudential Building at 28 Court Street, a pioneering, terra cotta-clad skyscraper completed in 1896 and recently restored to its original glory. Wright's Buffalo houses are, of course, well-known. Richardson, like Sullivan and Wright, also has a devoted following.
Based in Brookline, MA, Henry Hobson Richardson was brought to Buffalo by William Dorsheimer (1832-1888), a Buffalonian who served as member of Congress and Lieutenant Governor of New York State. Thanks to Dorsheimer's architectural patronage, Buffalo is (or was) home to the biggest and the final commissions of Richardson's career.
In Buffalo, two designs by Richardson survive: the Dorsheimer House, 434-438 Delaware Avenue, built 1869-1871, and the Buffalo Psychiatric Center complex, built 1870-1871. Demolished in 1919 was Richardson's last commission, the Gratwick House, built in 1886 at 776 Delaware, near Summer.
Richardson was the first American architect to introduce a style that became so popular nationwide that it was named after its originator. Characterized by massive, rough-hewn masonry, often in red sandstone, Richardsonian Romanesque buildings frequently have dramatic arches, soaring towers, and rich surface details and textures. The Connecticut Street Armory and Lafayette Presbyterian Church, for example, show Richardson's influence in their use of arches, towers, and Medina red sandstone.
The Psychiatric Center, originally called the State Asylum for the Insane, was the largest project of Richardson's career. The use of random ashlar sandstone, with towers, turrets, and arched entrances, marks the Hospital as the beginning of his mature, oft-imitated style. Buffalonians like to imagine all kinds of torture taking place in its dramatic twin towers, but at the time it was built, the State Hospital represented a humanitarian advance in the treatment of the mentally ill. Patients had private rooms with sunny halls. The building was outfitted with indoor plumbing, something found in few private residences at the time. The grounds, landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted, were intended to be park-like and soothing.
Richardson's Hospital buildings are presently vacant and their future uncertain. They are best seen on a clear sunny day, from the base of the central administration building (with the paired towers). Out-of-town visitors to the complex have been known to exhibit the Sistine Chapel syndrome (long, unblinking stare directed skyward with dropped jaw).
Though contemporaneous with the colossal Buffalo Psychiatric Center, the unassuming Dorsheimer house is so seemingly "un-Richardsonian" that it is frequently been overlooked by fans of Richardson's later, more imposing Romanesque works.
William Dorsheimer's home has been researched by Buffalo State professor and scholar Francis Kowsky, who describes it as "a reflection of French suburban architecture." Richardson spent three years in France and returned to an America that was, at the time, infatuated with all things French. While in Paris, he would have seen new houses on the outskirts of town with red brick walls, gray slate roofs, and light stone trim, with floor plans consisting of a central stair surrounded by four rooms. This pattern served as the inspiration for Dorsheimer's mansion.
Richardson's unbuilt designs give us a fascinating glimpse of the Buffalo that might have been. These include: