If architects were immortalized on Mount Rushmore, one of the portrait faces would represent Henry Hobson (H.H.) Richardson. As it was, Richardson was a larger-than-life figure who, following the Civil War, designed a variety of building types — both public and private — that are considered to be the first to embody a distinct American style. These masterworks include churches, libraries, commercial spaces, residential houses, a state capitol, a county courthouse and jail, a chamber of commerce, and a hospital for the insane. They were constructed in, among other places, Boston, Buffalo, Cincinnati, and Chicago during the master builder’s brief, jam-packed life.

Like his contemporaries Mark Twain, Emily Dickinson, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and Winslow Homer, Richardson expressed the aspirations, hopes, values, and virtues of his nation after its wrenching internal conflict. Completed in 1877, Boston’s Trinity Church, with its bold central tower, banded granite and sandstone walls, and wide rounded arches, heads most lists as the greatest American building of the 19th century. Others, such as the Allegheny County complex in Pittsburgh, have popped up in unlikely places — the prison served as a set in the 1984 movie Mrs. Soffel.


Phyllis Tuchman