A Matter of Style: Richardsonian Romanesque
The Romanesque Revival style had its beginnings in
religious architecture. The original style was common throughout the Mediterranean
region during the 11th century. In the 1840s, American Christians were
attracted to the picturesque quality of the churches of the Middle Ages.
They wanted that quality replicated in their own parishes, and so a revival
of interest in Romanesque architecture began. Romanesque Revival became
the favored style for American churches for the next 60 years and expanded
to major public buildings, commercial buildings and eventually residential
architecture before the turn of the century.
The style reached its peak in popularity in the 1870s thanks to the work
of noted American architect Henry Hobson Richardson. His work specifically
adapted the French and Spanish Romanesque forms into an eclectic and dramatic
style, derived from the already popular Romanesque Revival and referred
to as 'Richardsonian Romanesque.' This derivative style was intensely
popular in the northeast, where many examples can be seen in residential
architecture in particular. A great deal of posthumous publications, predominantly
those on Richardson's housing designs, influenced some of the most noted
American architects of the turn of the century, including Louis Sullivan
and Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Romanesque Revival style is characterized by masonry construction
and the general use of the semi-circular arch for all wall openings and
decoration. Asymmetrical organization, both in plan and elevation, is
common to the style. Belt courses, or decorative stone courses that run
horizontal across the entire building or major portions of it, are also
prevalent. Falling just below the eaves, arcaded corbel tables are often
found on the gabled facades of revival churches. Finally, medieval ornaments
such as quatrefoil windows and geometric brickwork are often a part of
the revival style.
The most common quality of Richardsonian Romanesque architecture is its
heavy, fortress-like form, a great elaboration of that of basic Romanesque
Revival. The massive load-bearing masonry walls of Richardson's style
are often rough-cut, or "rusticated," adding to the perceivable weight
of the structures. Every effort is made to break up the otherwise massive
buildings; asymmetrical forms, differing patterns and colors of masonry,
and collections of hips, cross gables and tower roof shapes are all utilized.
The details of Richardsonian Romanesque generally coincide with Romanesque
Revival; however, it is in the execution of these details that Richardson's
style breaks away from its revival predecessors. The rounded stone arches
of the revival style are elaborated into massive arched porticoes. The
typical columns show the great weight they are supporting in the squat
proportions that they display. The building's general asymmetry is exaggerated,
provided in the form of projections, towers, turrets, spires, chimneys
and dormers. Recessed loggias and groupings of windows demonstrate the
thickness of the walls, as well as give opportunity for elaborate stone
The only obstacle to the continuing popularity of the Richardsonian Romanesque
style was its construction technique of load-bearing masonry, rather than
the wood construction of contemporary styles. Stone-facing techniques
had not yet been perfected, bringing the construction costs of Richardson's
style much higher than its alternatives. Thus the style is found particularly
in grand public buildings and the unattached single- family and townhouse
residences of the wealthy of the time.
Richardson's most well-known works include Boston's Trinity Church, numerous
public libraries throughout Massachusetts, the Allegheny County Courthouse
and Jail, Chicago's Marshall Field Warehouse (demolished 1930), and many
private residences in Boston and Chicago, including the Glessner House
on Chicago's Southside. Subsequent work by his followers can be found
throughout the country, recognizable by the striking style that H. H.