H. H. Richardson home threatened with demolition

Dec 17, 2020

Interior view of H. H. Richardson's home office, Brookline, Mass.

UPDATE: At its December 29 meeting, the Brookline Preservation Commission voted unanimously to delay demolition of 25 Cottage Street, 39 Cottage Street, and 222 Warren Street for eighteen months. Read more.

25 Cottage Street in Brookline, Massachusetts, was home to one of the most influential and legendary architects in American history, Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886). Immortalized across the country through his namesake Richardsonian Romanesque style, Richardson’s work solidified an American architectural vocabulary in the years following the Civil War and trained a new generation of professional architects who would transform the country’s built environment through the early decades of the 20th century.

His work, an attempt to discipline the English Picturesque by combining it with the Medieval French Romanesque, is characterized by mass, order, and repose. Well known examples near Brookline include Boston’s Trinity Church, Sever Hall at Harvard University, Crane Memorial Library in Quincy, and the Train Depot in North Easton.

The style that arose is distinguished by robust stone buildings, usually with a distinctive sculptural shape, an interplay of symmetry and asymmetry in massing, and heavy and dramatic features such as semi-circular arches, deep openings and windows, and rusticated stone with contrasting color or texture. The distinctive version of the Romanesque Revival that Richardson popularized can be seen in various forms in communities across North America.

A large figure with a personality to match, Richardson intentionally chose to live and work outside of the hustle of Boston in a “Jamaica planter’s” or West Indian style house that alludes to his youth spent on a sugar plantation in Louisiana. Richardson maintained a complicated relationship with his Southern heritage, having moved north to attend Harvard as a young man and being persuaded by his peers not to enlist in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. Richardson instead traveled to France to study for as long as his family’s money could support him, returning to the U.S. in 1865 to establish himself as an architect in the prosperous northern states. In 1874, he rented the Brookline house from his friend Edward W. Hooper and established his office and library in the parlors on the first floor.

Richardson created an environment that freely mixed professional and home life, with draftsmen walking through his living room as they moved between office and library. Eventually, as more room was needed, Richardson constructed a long, simple wing of drafting rooms extending from the house. This intimately connected home-studio environment fostered a pleasant and instructive setting that attracted many new architectural graduates to work for him, and those who worked for him expressed both professional admiration and personal affection for their instructor. The close proximity of studio and home also allowed Richardson to work around the challenges of chronic health issues that caused him to work irregular hours and frequently confined him to his bed.

Although his impact was enormous, Richardson’s professional career was relatively short. After he passed away, his wife, Julia Gorham Hayden, was able to purchase their rented home. Although the drafting wing was demolished, the house was kept otherwise very intact, including much of the finishes and furniture from Richardson’s lifetime. It remained with Richardson’s descendants until the passing of Richardson’s grandson at the turn of the twenty-first century. Since then, neighbors, friends, and preservation organizations have pursued a twenty-year effort to ensure the property is preserved. While the efforts have been successful in short increments, they have not resulted in robust, permanent protection for this nationally significant house.

Unfortunately, in November of 2020, the property and its neighbors at 39 Cottage and 222 Warren (the 1857 home of John Charles Olmsted) were acquired by a developer who quickly filed an application to demolish the Richardson House.

However, demolition can be averted again

The Brookline Preservation Commission will hold a Demolition Delay hearing on December 29, to decide whether to impose an 18 month stay on demolition.

Historic New England urges the Brookline Preservation Commission to delay demolition of the Richardson House and vigorously pursue discussions with the developer about its long-term preservation. We look forward to the opportunity to comment at the hearing and the possibility of finding alternatives to the loss of the home. The Richardson House is a significant part of our collective cultural history and represents not just the larger-than-life legacy of Richardson as perhaps the most important architect in U.S. history, but the complex and interesting man and the family behind the legacy. It is the physical embodiment of the idea that greatness can be achieved by imperfect people, living and working together in borrowed houses.

Make your voice heard

You can be notified of the hearing and are encouraged to send comments by contacting Preservation Planner Tina McCarthy at [email protected].