Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 17, 2000
Ken Breisch Henry Hobson Richardson and the Small Public Library in America MIT Press, 1997. 354 pp. Cloth (0262523469)

Architectural history as often serves to mythologize celebrated architects as to examine their careers critically. The nineteenth-century Boston architect H. H. Richardson is a case in point. It was less Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer’s pioneer biography, Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works, published two years after Richardson’s death in 1886, than Henry-Russell Hitchcock’s The Architecture of H. H. Richardson and His Times of 1936, that is the key mythologizing text. Although Kenneth A. Breisch does not berate Hitchcock for his interpretive agenda, he does reexamine Richardson’s buildings with respect to “his times.” Breisch filters this examination through the series of library buildings that Richardson and his firm produced between 1876 and 1886. Four of these were “village libraries,” small town, free public libraries that during the last quarter of the nineteenth century represented an emerging American cultural institution. Breisch also considers Richardson’s Billings Memorial Library at the University of Vermont (1886), his unsuccessful competition entry for the Hoyt Public Library in Saginaw, Michigan (1886), and the Howard Memorial Library in New Orleans (1888), designed by Richardson’s successors, Shepley, Rutan & Coolidge, as an adaptation of the Hoyt scheme. Breisch uses the village library to consider a range of contexts. He thereby expands the study in typology of his subtitle from an exclusively architectural scope (the rational discipline, encoded in the teaching of the École des Beaux-Arts in the early nineteenth century, of organizing buildings serving the same purpose in spatially similar ways) to a more inclusive scope that detects underlying systemic patterns in cultural politics.

Breisch begins with chapters on patronage and the development of the architectural type of the library. He demonstrates that Richardson’s refinement of an architectural type reflected the changing sociological “typologies” of the communities in which his village libraries were built. Richardson’s libraries were constructed as benefactions by members of families whose wealth derived from locally based industrial operations. The success of these operations financially distanced the donors from their hometown neighbors. Breisch demonstrates the social complexities that had come to complicate what members of the donor class nostalgically recalled as the lost innocence of their towns. Factories, immigrant workers and their families, and asymmetries in wealth threatened the mythic cohesiveness, solidity, and simple virtues of Anglo-American New England that Richardson’s libraries were held to symbolize. The libraries’ social role was to conserve the history and Anglo-American cultural identity of small town, New England life not only through literature but also through access to art, natural history, and patriotic exhibitions reflecting the values of the donor families.

Breisch also emphasizes the efforts of nineteenth-century library specialists to devise spatial arrangements that rationally facilitated the storage, care, and distribution of books to a public whose constitution was increasingly diversified. He especially notes architectural interest in the small town public library as a new building type current in the 1860s and 1870s, when Boston was at the epicenter of the public library movement. He follows with chapters on Richardson’s village libraries, each of which emphasizes a different context.

The chapter on the Woburn Public Library in Woburn, Massachusetts (1877-79), Richardson’s first public library, examines the building in the context of contemporary architectural culture. Breisch’s analysis is carefully nuanced. He considers different aspects of the design: its mixed program, planning, provision for the storage of books, site orientation, natural illumination, spatiality, interior design, ornamental detail, tectonic detailing, spatial organization, and stylistic derivation. What Breisch deduces from each layer in his analysis is how deeply Richardson’s design was embedded in French, English, and American architectural culture of the preceding twenty-five years. Rather than emphasizing one stream of interests and awareness to the exclusion of others, Breisch reveals the composite nature of Richardson’s singular buildings. Richardson was characterized by Van Rensselaer and other contemporaries as intuitive rather than intellectual. Yet whatever his mode of apprehension, he produced buildings of tremendous affective power. Breisch’s analysis of the Woburn library shows that such affectivity stemmed in part from the way that Richardson transformed the energy generated by oppositions within these discourses (the rational and the romantic, the exotic and the domestic, nature and culture) into intense perceptual experience.

In a chapter dealing with Richardson’s next two libraries, the Ames Memorial Library in North Easton, Massachusetts (1877-79), and the Crane Memorial Library in Quincy, Massachusetts (1879-81), both considerably smaller than the Woburn library, Breisch explores the context of design to show how the mechanics of composition influenced the production of character. With the North Easton and Quincy library commissions, Richardson derived a library type. This was based on the spatial organization of the Woburn library and entailed the alignment of the entrance hall, the reading room, and a two-story, navelike book room along a lateral axis parallel to the front elevation of the building. Breisch stresses the pursuit of simplification, a trait that Richardson’s critics since Van Rensselaer and Montgomery Schuyler have noted. Because Richardson produced a sequence of schemes for the Quincy library, this process of condensation can be made visible. Breisch illustrates a pair of diagrams in which regulating lines are traced on the plan and front elevation of the Quincy library. Although hypothetical, the diagrams suggest that Richardson’s formal compression was based on his use of square-sectioned proportioning, accounting for the building’s powerful combination of material density and formal economy. Breisch glosses this formal analysis with a passage from Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture to show how the intense impression the architecture made on beholders could be interpreted ideologically as embodying a mythic New England character.

In a chapter on the Converse Memorial Building of the Malden Public Library in Malden, Massachusetts (1883-85), Breisch examines the context of patronage. Breisch observes that all the libraries were built as memorials, and analyzes the Converse Memorial Building (constructed by parents as a memorial to a murdered son) as elegiac architecture. Breisch explores the ways in which Richardson systematically integrated this commemorative purpose into his spatial organization of the library and its site, even to the extent of projecting an adjacent church that the Converse family considered building.

Breisch’s last chapter and an epilogue deal with the criticism Richardson’s library type encountered. Here, the libraries are examined in the context of conflict over managerial authority. Who—the librarian, the board of trustees, the architect—had the power to determine the spatial organization of the library? Having quoted in the first chapter a librarian’s denunciation in 1864 of buildings designed for architectural spectacle rather than the efficient management of books and readers, Breisch focuses on the Victorian librarian William Poole. Poole was a vehement critic of Richardson’s libraries because Richardson consistently employed a system of alcove and gallery shelving that dispersed books around the edges and up the walls of two-story high book naves rather than concentrating them in ranks of shelves in a stack room, with no shelf so high that an adult could not reach the top shelf. Poole was the professional adviser to the trustees of the Hoyt Memorial Library in East Saginaw, Michigan, for the design competition they staged in 1886. Richardson submitted a design that complied with Poole’s stipulation for an efficient book stack room rather than a spatially dramatic book nave, but it was not selected. This dispute highlights the conservatism of Richardson’s architectural practice, which, at least for libraries, was not attuned to models well accepted by the time Richardson designed the Woburn library, as Breisch’s illustration of village library designs of the 1870s demonstrates. Breisch also demonstrates that when Poole produced a model library plan in 1885, its implied massing suggested the profiles of a Richardson village library. Richardson used a typological approach to design, rather than symmetry, to discipline the production of his expressive spatial organizations. Breisch makes the point that Richardson’s library designs were so compelling that they became the models for American public libraries of the 1890s, even though few of these reproduced Richardson’s objectionable book naves.

Breisch counters the tendency to mythologize by externalizing the ideological content of Richardson’s library buildings. He shows how their architectural virtuosity was grounded in the conservative response of New England elites to the social displacements of industrialization, and in Richardson’s conservative perpetuation of a system of spatial organization that professional librarians wanted to supersede. He clarifies the buildings’ formal and intellectual construction by demonstrating how Richardson shaped buildings and spaces that exert profound emotional appeal. As have other Richardson scholars, notably James F. O’Gorman, Margaret Henderson Floyd, and Jeffrey Karl Ochsner, Breisch demonstrates that the modernity Henry-Russell Hitchcock and other mid-twentieth-century American architectural historians saw in Richardson may, from the perspective of the turn of the twenty-first century, be less a matter of style than of inventive (if not always progressive) response to conflict and change.

Stephen Fox
Anchorage Foundation of Texas