HH Richardson

How many times have we heard the phrase “life is too short?” It really can’t be overstated because in the grand scheme of things, life is too short. Today I would like to visit the works of an accomplished architect that who never saw his 48th birthday.

Henry Hobson Richardson, or better known as H. H. Richardson, was born on September 29, 1838 in St. James Parish, Louisiana. After spending his youth in both Louisiana and New Orleans, Richardson initially attended Harvard University to study Civil Engineering. Realizing his true interest was in architecture, he attended the famous Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris until money ran out towards the end of the US Civil War in 1865. Primarily a European institution, he was just the second student from the US to attend.

Richardson was a student of Romanesque architecture. Thick walls built with large blocks, large curved arches, and symmetrical towers were the distinctive features. Upon his return to the US, Richardson was commissioned to design the Trinity Church in Boston’s Copley Square in 1872. This arguably was his most famous work, and earned him his place as one of the premier architects of his era. Students of Richardson’s work coined it “Richardson Romanesque.”

OK, I know what you’re thinking. Where is he going with this? Well along with the Trinity Church, Harvard University’s Sever and Austin Halls, the New York State Asylum in Buffalo just to name a few, Richardson designed the former train station in downtown Ashland. With its large block structure and hip roof overhanging the perimeter walkways, the Ashland station was one of a series of buildings designed by Richardson for the Boston and Albany Railroad in the late 19th century. Today it no longer serves as a train station, where the MBTA built a new structure up the tracks toward Worcester, but the exterior is essentially the same as when it was built. The current owner is one of our area doctors.

I am going out on a limb here a bit because Richardson died on April 27th, 1886, and the Ashland station was built in 1886. The original 9 Boston and Albany stations credited to his work were Auburndale, Chestnut Hill, Elliot, Waban, Woodland, Wellesley Hills, Brighton, Framingham, and Palmer. I did not find any reference to Ashland until the additional 23 stations designed by him or his former staff and eventual successors Shipley, Rutan, and Coolidge, were built. At any rate, Richardson is credited with the architectural design in Ashland whether or not he saw its actual completion.

I think the best example of Richardson’s rail station work for the Boston and Albany is the former train station in downtown Framingham on the corner of routes 135 and 126. This building is remarkably similar to its sister in Ashland, but on a larger scale. Built in 1883, Framingham’s station boasted a large central fireplace, a modest dining area with a crown glass bay window, carved sandstone lion’s heads inside and out, and the same large block construction as Ashland. Noting its historical significance, Framingham was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975, although I’m not sure about the status of Ashland.

Richardson’s Romanesque style featured almost perfect symmetry. What you see to the left is usually mirrored on the right. The train station designs didn’t have the towers that Richardson often included in his larger designs like the Trinity Church or the New York State Asylum, but they are magnificent still.

It is really too bad that we seemed to have lost the imagination and flair of these designs. Sadly, the MBTA stations in both Ashland and Framingham to me are basic functional building blocks totally devoid of any style or grace. I realize that the new stations were not designed to offer the amenities of the old, but I doubt that 100 years from now anyone will be commenting on their beauty.

Steve Leacu for Ashland Directions
March 2011