Richardson Romanesque:
House Style of the Rich

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Richardson Romanesque was the house style for the rich. You had to have money – and lots of it – to build a mansion in masonry, which was the construction material that best suited the new style of the 1880’s and 1890’s.

All those stone masons cost money, setting courses of heavy stonework and carving, as they did, recreations of medieval floral decoration, and heraldic animal heads.

Henry Hobson Richardson (1838 – 1886) Portrait: National Portrait Gallery Washington DC

Henry Hobson Richardson (1838 – 1886)
Portrait: National Portrait Gallery Washington DC

The distinctive style is named after architect Henry Hobson Richardson who worked in Boston. His most famous work in the style, and the building that established his reputation, is Trinity Church, now a National Historic Site in downtown Boston.

Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston, Completed 1877. An early postcard view.

Trinity Church, Copley Square, Boston, Completed 1877. An early postcard view.

Richardson developed the style in a free manner, incorporating elements of the medieval Romanesque architecture of southern France. With the additions of architectural design elements from Spanish, Syrian and Byzantine examples of Romanesque, the style grew to be distinctly his own.

He specialized in large commercial and institutional buildings, like courthouses, public libraries, city halls, insane asylums, and, of course, churches, but turned his hand to residences as well.

Buildings in his style are instantly recognizable when the combination of heavy, rough masonry, rounded arches, squat, round columns, and delicate stone tracery carving on column capitals, window surrounds and on arches over doors are observed as parts of an overall architectural composition.

An overall irregular massing was common, accented by varied and picturesque rooflines. Offset towers, or semi-towers were frequently used to great effect. Stained glass windows added their share of medieval colour and gloom to interior spaces like libraries, halls and staircases.

Given such an attractive list of easily copied design elements, it was understandable that his style was widely copied by other architects across North America – but always with the nod to its originator – by calling the style “Richardson Romanesque”.

Admired by nouveau riche captains of industry for its apparent massive permanence and its subtle alliance with the numerous institutional buildings clothed in the style, it was understandable that the Richardson Romanesque style would be adapted for the monster houses of their day, symbolizing the impregnability of the owner’s high social status.

Across the United States and Canada, great mansions were constructed in the trademark rough stone, outshining their more modest neighbours, and creating a fortress for living. Although the interiors would often give a nod to the style in the form of arched stone fireplaces and impressive entrance halls, other rooms were simpler in their execution. Rough stonework and heavy arches might be fine for a fortress, but it was not a comfortable oeuvre for either interior decoration or family living.

So the interiors of homes built in the style were usually less severe. Wallpapers and fabrics set against rich woodwork, set the tone. The rooms may have been larger, and more numerous, but they essentially were more expensive versions of what was popular with other friends and neighbours at the time.

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