Henry Hobson Richardson


(Originally published in Art New England, July-August, 1983 as part of Special Places/On the Road with Seven Writers)

Only thirty miles south of Boston are four wonderful buildings by the great H. H. Richardson (1838-1886), in a town that is itself an extraordinarily good small collection of nineteenth-century architecture.

The setting is perfect. Almost every picturesque style is represented in North Easton: Cape Cod cottages, Greek Revival and Gothic villas, Queen Anne and Mansard houses, all perched on prim green lawns like pieces of a patchwork quilt. There are estates in the styles of French chateaux, a stone Gothic church with John La Farge windows, and even a Richardsonian real estate office.

North Easton was the home of the Ames family, who made a fortune manufacturing the tools needed for westward expansion and the Civil War. Their 1803 factory is a low, severe brick building now used for offices and shops. Between 1877 and 1890 the Ames family commissioned H. H. Richardson to build in North Easton the Oliver Ames Free Library, Oakes Ames Memorial Hall, Old Colony Railroad Station, and a gate lodge for Langwater, the Ames estate. All were landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted. Richardson’s buildings seem to rise up from the land and life of the town to tower above it.

Oakes Ames Memorial Hall looms over the small center of town like a medieval cathedral, approached by a long, solemn stairway cut through rock. A battered base of rough-cut granite follows the contours of a stone hill, rising up to a tower in one corner. A sandstone porch has low, bulky columns with massive capitals carved with animals and leaves; a wall of brick and a red tile roof aspire upward.

The town has never fully used the hall. Its monumentality is forbidding – it seems more like a place where Macbeth might murder a visiting king than one where a New England town meeting could be held. But as a sculptural presence, it dominates the town. Abstract, bulky, permanent, it seems to grow out of the stone hill it rests upon.

The library’s asymmetrical parts – deep Syrian arch in a triangulated entrance, longitudinal stacks with a continuous band of high windows, a small tower – are hugged together in a dense, compact mass by force of proportion and color, and by the movement of dark on light stone. Inside, the more refined but less vital hand of Stanford White is felt in a vaulted ceiling and cozy alcoves of butternut wood, and in a mantelpiece framing a bronze portrait of Oliver Ames, “the shovel king,” by Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

The railroad station is a place between places. It is rooted in the ground and rises up from it like a tree with huge, arching branches. Vast wooden arches contain the windows of the waiting room inside, and outside benches carved with animals’ heads like a Viking ship – another wooden place between places – all huddle beneath a great, spreading roof of green.

The Langwater Gate Lodge is built of huge, uncut glacial boulders from nearby meadows and creeks, with bands of polychrome granite and an encompassing red roof pierced with little eyelid dormer windows. It seems built by a giant who piled up rocks one on top of the other, and the rocks become architecture before our eyes.

Richardson makes us see the transformation from nature into art. He used the colors of the earth like paint, and handled stones and trees with massive strength and a sculptor’s grace. The force of his genius at times approached the force of nature. The poetry of his architecture is governed by a romantic harmony which makes the stones sing.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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