Henry Hobson Richardson died in 1886 at the age of 47, but thankfully most of his buildings are still living. They are alive in their artful asymmetry, natural materials, and playful disregard for the architectural “rules.” Forms move—extending, submerging, tangling, all becoming a whole. And that’s before you even step inside.
As devoted admirers of this continually inspiring architect, our firm has been celebrating his birthday on September 29th, with a lunch each year, since 1982. Most people know him as H.H. Richardson, but friends called him Fez.
The lunch venue is down a busy little street off Boston Common, through a door you’ve never noticed, at a club unabashedly content in its original 19th-century decor. You realize the lunch is serious with a side of quirky when Jacob Albert hands out 40 year old buttons printed with a sepia-toned monkish Fez face. New employees are inducted into the tradition by selecting a passage from the enormous H.H.R. monograph by Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer and reading it aloud for discussion.
There is always a special guest with a connection to Richardson, from academics to the rector of Trinity Church. Former guests, take no offense here, but one of my favorites was David Richardson, his grandson. At that lunch, Fez had been dead for 120 years, but here was the youngest son of the youngest son of Richardson himself. And like his grandfather, he was a big personality and a great storyteller.
We owe these festivities to Jim Righter, founder of our firm and (I’m not going too far out on a limb here) Richardson’s greatest admirer. Jim discovered him just after graduating from Yale Architecture School in 1970. He began teaching and taking students along with him to look at buildings. The more he looked at one Richardson building, the more he wanted to see others. Jim and his wife, Sandy, would later become lifelong parishioners of Trinity Church, Richardson’s most well-known commission.
But in 1972, Jim made a trip down to North Easton, Mass., home to one of Richardson’s biggest patrons—the Ames family, railroaders and shovel makers. Jim liked this Richardson collection so much he kept going, introducing countless young architects and students to North Easton, where Richardson designed five buildings, including the distinctive Gate Lodge.
Jim has a natural gift for talking about buildings (or furniture, or even paper clip design), but to walk around a Richardson building with him is an experience you don’t forget.
His typical enthusiasm is heightened. Standing on the Main Street sidewalk, Jim points at the Ames Free Library. “Now,” he says, voice rising as he points down the walkway toward the main entry, “look at this, how the entry arch crashes through the string course above it; and the main door should be centered on the arch, but it’s not; and this bell tower, merging and emerging asymmetrically at the corner … that’s a Richardson building!”
Step inside and the fun continues: There’s a barrel-vaulted reading room centered under the ridge of the asymmetrical roof.
So raise a glass to Fez—happy 185th birthday, big guy. If you know him already, look again. And if you don’t, visit one of his buildings sometime—there are dozens around Boston. Stand back, peer in close, be sure to go inside and whether you’re in or out, walk around, because there’s often a surprise around the corner.