Architects of an American Landscape: Henry Hobson Richardson, Frederick Law Olmsted, and the Reimagining of America’s Public and Private Spaces by Hugh Howard

Once, decades ago, when I was in my 20s, I helped a historian named Charles McLaughlin with an article he was preparing about the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. McLaughlin had just begun editing Olmsted’s papers, and together we sifted through copies of letters and drawings, stacked precariously on a long table. Mixed among the plans for Central Park (Manhattan) and the Back Bay Fens (Boston) were some other drawings—of buildings, not landscapes. I picked up a few of the oversize sheets. “What are these?,” I asked.

What followed was a gentle, patient introduction to Henry Hobson Richardson, Olmsted’s intimate friend and occasional collaborator—the man who designed Boston’s landmark Trinity Church and (predominantly) New York’s State Capitol, created a national template for what a public library could be, and more or less invented the rambling Shingle Style house.

Olmsted and Richardson were kindred spirits, McLaughlin explained. For two decades they were intellectual partners. Sometimes they worked together—for instance, on the sprawling Richardson Olmsted Complex, once an asylum, in Buffalo. Their combined influence was so pervasive and long-lasting that much of what appears to be their work is actually the work of those they taught or inspired. Not many people, McLaughlin said, get an “-esque” added to their names.

An Unlikely Pair

Hugh Howard, in his smart and immensely readable Architects of an American Landscape, brings the friendship of Olmsted and Richardson to the foreground. In this double portrait, he allows Richardson, who is not a household name the way Olmsted is, to step slightly closer to the easel.

Olmsted’s 1874 plan for the acreage around the U.S. Capitol.

They were an unlikely pair. Olmsted (1822–1903), born in Hartford, Connecticut, was intense, at times temperamental. He had been a seaman and a farmer, and then a journalist, producing avidly read reports from the antebellum South for what became The New York Times. Olmsted was already a prominent figure in New York when, with no design experience but a knowledge of English public gardens, he entered and won the Central Park competition.

Richardson (1838–86), a Harvard graduate from a prosperous New Orleans family, was Falstaffian in his appetites and his girth—he weighed 340 pounds at the time of his early death—and in his gregarious capacity for friendship. His family’s fortunes collapsed after the Civil War. He arrived in New York from the École des Beaux-Arts, in Paris—well dressed, well educated, well spoken, and penniless—and took lodging on Staten Island. Olmsted was a neighbor.

They arrived on the scene at a moment of need and opportunity. “When Olmsted was a child,” Howard writes, “no one in the United States lived more than two miles from undeveloped land.” After the Civil War, America became more urban and industrial. Wilderness areas demanded preservation. Cities needed green space along with new and different kinds of buildings. Railroads linking the nation required train stations—high-visibility showcases, like today’s airports.

The New York State Capitol, designed by Richardson and others.

Before Olmsted, landscape architecture scarcely registered as an occupational category in America. By the time of his death, he had created an entire profession, given it a name, and, Howard writes, “breathed fresh air into one American city after another”—scores of parks and parkways in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Portland, Baltimore, and elsewhere—not to mention laying out the winding thoroughfares of Yosemite.

When Richardson started work, there were no schools of architecture in the United States; a symmetrical classicism was the default architectural style. Richardson’s style was quirkily Romanesque, as in one of his first great commissions, Trinity Church. His taste for heavy masonry marks a specific era, but his innovations live on—the balanced irregularity, the flowing and open horizontal floor plans, the eyebrow curves and arched arcades, the respect for nature and context.

He designed every kind of building—sacred, commercial, public, residential—and his personal tutelage amounted to a multi-generational laying on of hands.

Richardson’s sketch for the Old Colony Railroad depot in North Easton, Massachusetts, and its passenger sheds.

He trained Charles Follen McKim and Stanford White, two thirds of the future powerhouse firm McKim, Mead & White. He greatly influenced Louis Sullivan, a central figure of the Chicago School, who in turn trained Frank Lloyd Wright. In a momentary lapse from his suppurating self-regard, Wright even confessed to “a secret respect, leaning a little toward envy,” when it came to H. H. Richardson.

One of the merits of Howard’s book is the way it broadens to encompass Gilded Age culture at its pinnacle. That age offers much to look away from—the urban squalor, the untrammeled capitalism, the zest for colonic irrigation. But it was also a time, in some circles, of farsighted civic spirit. Achievements in literature, journalism, and the arts remain fresh. Mark Twain, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Henry Adams, John Singer Sargent—they meander through Architects of an American Landscape as if taking a break between Caleb Carr novels. When the cultural grandees of the era banded together, they could wield real power.

Howard devotes a chapter to the fight, led by Olmsted and Richardson, to save Niagara Falls from destructive development. Mills and factories were diverting the water. Hucksters had put up fences around the rim, demanding payment from tourists for a glimpse. The successful campaign—reminiscent of the fight, a century later, to save New York’s Grand Central Terminal—was waged not only through backroom pressure but with words and images. Frederic Edwin Church, a friend and ally of Olmsted’s and Richardson’s, helped shape public opinion by exhibiting his monumental painting Niagara, which drew astonished crowds as it traveled from city to city.

I live in Boston, where Richardson and Olmsted were active—and again lived as neighbors—and am lucky to see examples of their work every day: Trinity Church; the Back Bay Fens. Throw in all the “esque,” and much of America is today touched by the legacy of Richardson, Olmsted, and their protégés. One part of that legacy is a long view of time. Architects, whether of landscapes or of buildings, are conscious of their obligation to a future they will never see.

Howard underscores this quality, so rare today, and the affection and loyalty it elicits. “How else to explain,” he writes, “a century after its completion, how Trinity Church compelled I. M. Pei to clad his John Hancock Building in mirrored glass, the better to reflect the neighboring church? How else to account for the survival of Central Park, largely unchanged and cherished for all the virtues Olmsted designed into it sixteen decades ago?”

Cullen Murphy is an editor at large for The Atlantic and the author of several books, including God’s Jury: The Inquisition and the Making of the Modern World and Are We Rome?: The Fall of an Empire and the Fate of America