Welcome back to Curbed Classics, a column in which writer Lisa Santoro traces the history of a classic New York City building. Have a building to nominate for a future installment? Please suggest it to the tipline.
Henry Hobson Richardson is undoubtedly one of America's greatest architects. Many buildings throughout the northeast and midwest were built from his plans, from churches (Boston's Trinity Church, 1872) to libraries (Thomas Crane Public Library in Quincy, MA, 1881) to commercial structures (Chicago's Marshall Field Wholesale Store, 1887) to private residences (John J. Glessner House, 1886) and civic buildings (Pittsburgh's Allegheny County Courthouse, 1888). His masterpieces led to perhaps the strongest accolade an architect can receive?having an architectural style named after him. The "Richardsonian Romanesque" style referred to buildings of substantial mass with design features such as rusticated and polychrome masonry, semicircular arches used in windows, doors, and porches, ornamental carving and picturesque rooflines. But before Richardson established himself as a prominent architect with an equally impressive portfolio, he spent his early professional years on bucolic Staten Island. The house he built for his family still stands, representing a prominent architect's early touch on a pristine landscape.
After he returned from his training in Paris, where he became only the second American to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Richardson and his wife Julia relocated to Staten Island, at the insistence of Richardson's dear friend and a Staten Island resident, landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted and Richardson had met two years earlier, in 1865, through the newly-formed American Institute of Architects and the Century Association, a private club with the mission of promoting interest in the fine arts and literature. Olmsted, in collaboration with Calvert Vaux, is best known for his designs for Central Park and Prospect Park, projects that continue to serve as benchmarks in landscape architecture and design. Clearly a proponent of natural landscapes, it is no surprise that Olmsted lauded Staten Island as the ideal residence. Although the island was experiencing a huge influx in population as a result of real estate speculation and the desires of many to flee the congestion and industrialization of Manhattan, it still retained its idyllic and rural sensibility. Richardson would also deem these attributes agreeable and, in 1867, he and his wife rented a small cottage on the island. Later that year, after the birth of their first child, they purchased a 1.7 acre plot of land overlooking New York Harbor in what was formerly known as Clifton, now Arrochar. After selling 0.8 acres of the property to another family, they were left with 0.9 acres on which to build their new home.
This residence was Richardson's opportunity to design a house of modern convenience (equipped with gas lines even though gas power had yet to come to the island, for example) that also adhered to the principles of his beloved Beaux-Arts style. The Stick Style house, which was completed in 1869 and stands at 45 McClean Avenue, was clad in wooden clapboard, a material that was not too expensive and that added dimensionality to the façade. The house embodies the picturesque ideal for which Richardson is remembered: located amidst trees at the top of a hill, it had tall brick chimneys, open porches, and projecting bays and overhangs. Its location must have been an inspiring one, as Richardson designed a studio within his home, often choosing to work there rather than in his New York office. Richardson also paid homage to his training in Paris in the design of the steep slate-covered mansard roof with intricate iron cresting.
Although a new resident, Richardson was strongly invested in his community and longed to make an impact. With Olmsted's support, he became a member of Staten Island's elite, joining other prominent intellectuals of the time who had settled on the island. Such forward-thinking men included Judge William Emerson (brother of Ralph Waldo), newspaper editor Sidney Howard Gay, and prominent writer and orator George William Curtis (the namesake of nearby Curtis High School). Both Richardson and Olmsted were appointed to the Staten Island Improvement Commission, which formulated a comprehensive plan for sanitation, water supply, roadways, and the siting of new buildings to guide future development of the island. Much to the chagrin of its supporters, the plan was never implemented. But it did have one positive outcome nonetheless?it fostered a continued collaboration between Olmsted and Richardson. According to the New York Landmarks Designation Report, Olmsted recommended that Richardson design a monument, which now stands in Washington D.C.'s Congressional Cemetery, for Alexander Dallas Bache, a scientist and surveyor whom Olmsted had served with on the U.S. Sanitary Commission. Returning the favor, Richardson would commission Olmsted to create landscaping schemes for roughly a half dozen of his later projects, including his commission for the Buffalo State Asylum.
But his growing career meant that Richardson's tenure on Staten Island would be short-lived. In 1872, he received the commission to design Trinity Church in Boston. He designed the beginning stages of the church from both his home studio and New York office for two years, until it became necessary to relocate to Massachusetts to oversee the construction of what would become his masterpiece. In 1874, he moved his family from the Staten Island house upon a hill to another house upon a hill, built in the 18th century in Brookline, Massachusetts. His new residence was in such close proximity to his new project that reportedly he could see the construction from his second story window. Richardson's portfolio is even more impressive considering that he lived a relatively short life, dying from Bright's Disease, a form of kidney disease, at age 48.
Only one other New York City building, the headquarters of the Century Association at 109-111 East 15th Street in Manhattan, is attributed to Richardson, so we are fortunate that his Staten Island residence still stands. But it no longer has some of its original Richardsonian characteristics. The Richardsons held onto the house until after Henry's death in 1886, when it was sold at auction. Within the first few decades of the 1900s, the house was segmented into rental units and two one-story additions were added to the house, one at the northwest corner and one at the southeast corner. One of these additions now contains the front door to the house, completely changing the house's original orientation. In the 1940s, the ground floor was converted to physicians' offices and eventually the apartments above were converted into office and storage space. At some point, the original wooden clapboard was removed and replaced with white vinyl siding, which remains today. Many of the original open porches that allowed uninterrupted views of the natural landscape have been enclosed. Only the mansard roof with its various dormers and chimneys and iron cresting remain from Richardson's original design, and the house, on what is now a busy thoroughfare, is not easily recognizable as one of the prominent architect's early works.