Originally published in The Town Paper, Vol. 5, No. 4 - Fall 2003
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 detailing.
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. Richardson developed.