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Richardson and Olmsted’s Enduring Legacy

The pair made a great difference in their respective fields, and their joint works remain a treasure.

Architects of an American Landscape: Henry Hobson Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted, and the Reimagining of America’s Public and Private Spaces by Hugh Howard (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2022), 416 pages.

The dual biography is the obvious choice if youre writing about Rodgers and Hammerstein or Barnum and Bailey, discretionary when it comes to most other individuals. The two-for-one approach can be meretricious aggregation, but it can also prove a great help, as it will almost inevitably focus on some common sphere that connected the two (and likely omit some of the more minor details that encourage readers to put down a biography). 

That is happily the case with Hugh Howards Architects of an American Landscape: Henry Hobson Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted, and the Reimagining of Americas Public and Private Spaces. The joint approach is deeply merited here, considering these two figures brought the American built landscape to a preeminence it had not previously known in their respective spheres of architecture and landscape design. What’s more, the two employed similar methods, collaborated together repeatedly, and were friends. Howard notes that Richardson is a god to architecture enthusiasts but poorly known otherwise; Olmsted enjoys greater prominence. If yoking Richardson to Olmsteds coattails can bolster the former’s popularity, then all the better!

There are odd-couple elements to the pair that lend appeal to their lives and this book. Olmsted was a serious and sober-minded son of Hartford, Connecticut, without formal education, who won his Central Park work despite a slim resume; pure talent, for once, won out. Richardson was a sybaritic reveler born outside of New Orleans, who had about as prestigious an educational path as one could, from Harvard to the École des Beaux-Arts (he and Charles McKim were the first Americans to enroll after Richard Morris Hunt). 

Both men’s careers had already launched when they met at some point after their arrival in post-Civil War New York in 1865. They were associates at the Century Club; their offices were a one minute walk apart. Richardson lived in the Clifton neighborhood of Staten Island, Olmsted moved there in 1866. Both men regularly took the same ferry, launched from Vanderbilts Landing, to Manhattan.Is this the caliber of neighbor you run into on your commute? I didnt think so. 

Richardson had made his signature stylistic turn to crafted rustication, making his first use of local bowlders and using them in rough-hewn form without courses. His total embrace of Romanesque revivalism was still a little down the road. Olmsted had begun shaping naturalistic landscapes, often using exactly these sort of stones. 

Buffalo lawyer William Dorsheimer brought both Richardson and Olmsted to that city for separate projects, a home and a city-park system, in 1869. The following year, the pair embarked on their first collaboration there, the Buffalo State Asylum for the Insane. Richardson produced a Romanesque design delivered in unexpected forms. The main structure, Howard notes, has the form of a European town hall, but flanked by a series of pavilions. Richardson originally lined them up in a row, but Olmsted had other ideas. He suggested that Richardson stagger the buildings diagonally, in a V-shape, and tilt their orientation leftwards from facing the street directly, such as to break up their massing and provide maximal exposure to sunlight. Richardson agreed. Olmsted designed different landscapes for each side— pastured pleasure ground, as he put it, to the front, and farm landsto the rear. It remains a remarkable structure, happily returning to life recently as a hotel, with other occupants sought.    

The two had repeat professional interactions after building the asylum; Olmsted had Richardson added to the Staten Island Improvement Commission; Richardson repeatedly tipped Olmsted off to Boston work prospects (Richardson moved to Brookline in 1874, Olmsted moved nearby in 1881). 

Dorsheimer, since elected Lieutenant Governor of New York, recruited them both to overhaul the construction of the New York State Capitol, which had been rising slowly and over budget after six years (some things are always the same). Richardson proposed a then-radical overhaul, shifting the style of the building at the third floor, grafting, in effect, a Romanesque structure onto a Renaissance base. Olmsted helped sort out the mess of existing construction contracts and architect Leopold Eidlitz provided other help.

It was an engaging crew, Howard writes:

On more than one occasion, when Richardson had been at his New York offices, the four men traveled together on the night steamer from Manhattan to Albany. There was never so much wit and humor and science and art on that boat before or since,New York World writer Montgomery Schuyler said of the conversations he overheard while churning north on the Hudson.

Richard Morris Hunt declared the buildings shift of style absolutely inharmonious,but Richardson produced a remarkable midstream transformation, a hybrid structure among the greatest of state capitols.

The pair’s interactions and consultations continued. Olmsted was unhappy with the design of a bridge for his Back Bay Fens project in Boston. Olmsted took his case to the Boston park commissioners, arguing that the design of the Boylston Street Bridge,” could not be left to the habitual drift of the Engineering mind.’” He had a guy, so to speak: I wish you would consider whether you could not let me have Richardsons assistance?’” Richardson designed a bridge that would both settle into its landscape and welcome it. He added voluptuous curves to the roadbed, with two sets of tourelles, half turrets that corbelled out from the sides of the bridge.

Their work for the Boston and Albany Railroad building commuter stations in the 1880s was one of their most remarkable collaborations, an innovative melding of architecture, landscape architecture, and branding. The novelty of their work came from the fact that the stations were being built to precede new communities, rather than serve existing communities. They sought to create a coherently scenographic journey home to new suburbs. Richardson designed relatively modest structures largely defined by their rooflines. They did not neglect the details, as Richardson designed benches, fireplaces, and even gaslights. Olmsteds landscaping was a sublime complement, planting skillfully to occlude rail cuts and accentuate scenic paths around the stations, planting willows and ivies to blur boundaries between the built and natural.                 

There are great human moments in the book as well, like when Olmsted and Dorsheimer took Richardson to Niagara Falls, where the latter seemed enchanted. Richardson lived deeply; Stanford White, early a draftsman to Richardson wrote, How Richardson can be, I cant tell; for, setting aside all brandies, gins, wines, and cigars, he seems to subsist chiefly on boiled tripe which he insists upon calling the entrails of a cow.’”

There is a cinematic close to the book set in April 1886, when Olmsted visited Richardson in his Washington, D.C., hotel room. He seemed obviously unwell, struggling to breath and perspiring. Olmsted encouraged him to go home. Then a client arrived:

As they talked, Richardson rallied, and he soon dominated the conversation as he so often had in the past. No longer slouching, he sat erect. 

Richardsons discourse that evening encompassed the art of architecture. The most valuable of the architects tools, he told Olmsted, were tracing paper and India-rubber erasers. There was no virtue in an architect more to be cultivated and cherished than a willing spirit to waste drawings.His voice clear and emphatic, Richardson elaborated: Never, never, till the thing [is] in stone beyond recovery, should the slightest indisposition be indulged to review, re- consider, and revise every particle of his work, to throw away his most enjoyed drawing the moment he felt it in him to better its design.

His eyes flashed. The exhausted and dangerously ill Richard- son seemed to have vanished. In his place, the invigorated and impassioned enthusiast rose to old heights, seemingly healthy, smiling as he laughed like a boy, really hilarious.

An hour into his visit, Olmsted rose to take his leave. As they parted, he promised to pass on news of Richardson to a mutual friend. I shall have to report that I never saw you in better condition than you have been this evening,said Olmsted. Both men knew it wasnt true, but Richardson laughed in agreement.

Richardson died a few weeks later. Olmsted was a pallbearer for the service at Richardsons own Trinity Church in Boston. Saint Gaudens, Stanford White, Henry Adams, and others were along to see him off. 

These two unlike men,Howard writes, the pragmatist Olmsted, a manager, futurist, park man, and environmentalist, and the artist Richardson, right-brained, frequently impractical, and instinctivebecame great friends. Together they improved the world in which their fellow citizens, then and since, live, work, learn, and play. Even if details are familiar, they always stand repeating. The pair made a great difference in their respective fields, and their joint works remain a treasure.

Anthony Paletta lives in Brooklyn. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TACs coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.