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Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works
By Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer
Dover Publications, Inc.Copyright © 1969 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ANCESTRY AND EARLY LIFE.
HENRY HOBSON RICHARDSON was born at the Priestley Plantation in the Parish of St. James, Louisiana, on the 29th of September, 1838. His father was Henry Dickenson Richardson, a native of St. George's, Bermuda, and his mother was Catherine Caroline Priestley, a grand-daughter of that Dr. Priestley who was famous in his day for many things, but is now chiefly remembered as the discoverer of oxygen.
The first paternal ancestor of whom any record is preserved is James Richardson, who was born in London in 1695 and early in life emigrated to Bermuda. In 1722 he married Mary, daughter of Francis Dickenson of Port Royal, Bermuda, and his son Robert was born four years later. Robert married Mary Burchell, and their son, a second Robert, born in 1752, married for his third wife Honora Burrows. These were the parents of Henry Dickenson Richardson. His mother died at the moment of his birth, and his father while he was still a lad. When about sixteen years of age he removed to New Orleans, and entered into business as a cotton-merchant with the firm of Hobson & Company:
The maternal pedigree also begins in the seventeenth century, with Joseph Priestley, a "maker and dresser of woolen cloth" in Yorkshire. His son Jonas married the daughter of Joseph Swift, a farmer, and their son, Joseph Priestley, afterwards the famous doctor, was born in 1733 at Fieldhead about six miles from Leeds. The story of his life is very interesting, but concerns us here only in so far as it explains the causes which brought him to America.
He was bred a Dissenter and entered the ministry. But even while studying at the theological academy he had shown that tendency toward independent thought which afterwards bore such conspicuous fruit. Even then, he tells us, he "saw reason to embrace what is generally called the heterodox side of things." As years went on he developed into a pronounced Socinian and an upholder of Necessitarian doctrines in philosophy; and as he always expressed each phase of his opinions with entire frankness — not to say impetuosity — of both speech and pen, he was constantly embroiled in theological battles which yearly grew more hot and bitter. His scientific investigations brought him a less thorny crown of fame. But as he also interested himself in social questions, and here too took his stand among the boldest Radicals of that excited day, political as well as religious hatred long raged against him, not only in the neighborhoods where he dwelt but throughout the length and breadth of England; and when in 1791 he boldly expressed his sympathy with the revolutionists of France, conservative passion could no longer contain itself. His house and laboratory in Birmingham were burned by a frantic mob, he was obliged to flee for his life, and even in London was compelled to hide for a time from his enemies.
A curious old aquatint, a copy of which is still in the possession of the Richardson family, shows the ruin to which his home had been reduced. One imagines that some sympathetic feeling must have prompted its publication, for a group of short-waisted ladies and long-coated gentlemen stand in the foreground and lift their hands as though in lamentation. But so little sympathy was shown by his countrymen at large that he soon shook English dust from his feet and in 1794 set sail for America, whither his three sons had preceded him.
We may be proud that the young republic was so much less bigoted and fearful than the mother-country that she gave him honorable reception. He was welcomed by addresses and deputations when he landed in New York, and might at once have established himself as Unitarian preacher and philosophic lecturer in either New York or Philadelphia. But before deciding what his new life should be, he went to Northumberland (a little town at the confluence of two branches of the Susquehanna River, about one hundred and thirty miles northeast of Philadelphia) to inspect a district where his eldest son and some other Englishmen were planning to establish an agricultural colony. He himself was never concerned in this land-scheme, which, indeed, was soon abandoned. But he was charmed by the beauty and apparent healthfulness of Northumberland, was more attracted by its promise of leisure and retirement than by the offers of public usefulness which the large cities held out to him, and soon decided to make it his permanent home. Hither he brought his books and his scientific instruments, and here, in a comfortable house to which was attached a good laboratory, he dwelt for the rest of his years, going, however, from time to time to Philadelphia to deliver courses of lectures on various philosophical themes. He studied, experimented, and wrote as diligently as he had done at home, and still argued with zeal on many matters of public interest. Not a few heated paper battles were the result, but they showed scarce a sign of that bitterness of personal invective which had characterized the opposition to his views in England. The nearest approach to persecution that he experienced in America was when certain political writings, in which he had criticised the course of the Federalist party, drew from John Adams the advice to speak no more on such topics "lest he get himself into trouble."
During his later years Dr. Priestley suffered much from disease and weakness, and he died at Northumberland in 1804 at the age of sixty-one. He had married in early life Mary, the daughter of Isaac Wilkinson, an iron-master living near Wrexham in Wales. She died in 1796, at the age of fifty-five, and lies buried beside her husband.
Their second son, William, from whom Richardson was descended, was born in Leeds. He was with his father at the time of the Birmingham outrage, fled to France to escape the after-claps of the popular storm, and became naturalized as a citizen of the new republic. But French air was likewise filled with storms, and what with Conservative intolerance on one side of the Channel and Radical excesses on the other, the Old World seemed to have no place where a quiet man might gain his livelihood by trade. An elder and a younger brother were already in America, and hither William Richardson came, too, a short time before his father's immigration. After his arrival he married Margaret Foulke, who was also of English birth, — a native of Northumberlandshire and probably of Birmingham. Her father, Joseph Foulke, was a gentleman of Scotch descent, and her mother belonged to that Chambers family which founded Chambersburg in Pennsylvania.
William Priestley remained but a short time with his father in Pennsylvania. About the year 1801 he removed to Louisiana, in the belief that the cultivation of sugar-cane would prove a profitable employment. Nor was he mistaken, for he soon owned large and flourishing plantations and amassed a fortune — very considerable in those days — of several hundred thousand dollars. His daughter, Catherine Caroline Priestley, was born at the Priestley Plantation, and, as has been told, married Henry Dickenson Richardson and became the mother of the architect. He was the eldest of a family of four, — the others being one brother, Mr. William Priestley Richardson who served with distinction in the Civil War as an officer of the Confederate army and who now lives in New Orleans, and two sisters who are married to Mr. John W. Labouisse and Mr. Henry Leverich of the same city. His father died at Philadelphia in 1854, and his mother subsequently married Mr. John D. Bein who had been the business partner of her late brother, Mr. William Priestley. Both Mr. and Mrs. Bein died some years ago.
The mothers of great men, even unto the third and fourth generation, have a proverbial interest for the biographer. Dr. Priestley's wife, according to his own testimony, was the faithful, intelligent, and courageous sharer of his troubled life, — "a woman of excellent understanding, much improved by reading, of great fortitude and strength of character, and of a temper in the highest degree affectionate and generous; feeling strongly for others and little for herself. Also, greatly excelling in everything relating to household affairs, she entirely relieved me of all concern of that kind, which allowed me to give all my time to the prosecution of my studies and the other duties of my station." Of Margaret Foulke, William Priestley's wife, Mr. William Priestley Richardson writes: "My grandmother died in New Orleans, at the age, I believe, of eighty-five. I well remember her, and have often heard her spoken of as most accomplished in all that pertains to womanly virtue, and as having a constitution of mind, remarkable in her time, which enabled her to give personal attention, after the death of her husband, to all the important details of her business, — the management of large plantation interests, — and after the death of her son William to share in the control of the large hardware firm of Priestley & Bein to which he had belonged." And her daughter, Mrs. Richardson, by the same evidence, "inherited in the highest degree all her gentler qualities of heart and mind, and was truly a most devoted friend and mother."
Richardson's early life was passed chiefly in New Orleans, though the summer months and the winter vacations were spent at the plantation where he and his mother had been born. When not more than seven years of age he was sent to the public school then held in the basement of the Presbyterian Church on Lafayette Square. But he remained there only a few months. His systematic education began in a private school kept by Mr. George Blackman, and was there carried on until the autumn following his father's death. It had been intended that he should enter the army, and through Mr. Judah P. Benjamin, an intimate friend of his father's, the chance of a cadetship at West Point was secured. But an impediment in his speech rendered him unfit for military service, and after a year at the University of Louisiana he went to Cambridge, Mass., to prepare for Harvard with a private tutor.
Early in his school life he showed signs in which we can now read the budding talent of the architect. When about ten years old his love for drawing induced his father to place him, with pupils of much greater age, under the best master in New Orleans; and in mathematics he was exceptionally proficient from the very first. Both Mr. Blackman and Professor Sears, the head of the University of Louisiana, were accomplished mathematicians, and both delighted in his rapid progress and saw therein the prophecy of a distinguished future. When he first went to Cambridge he might easily have passed in mathematics into the Sophomore, or probably even into the Junior class. Backwardness in the classics, however, compelled further preparation, and he matriculated with the class of '59. At this time he was already a good French scholar; for though no French blood ran in his veins, he had been taught the language at home as well as in his school classes.
His childhood seems to have been of the happiest, and the memory of his companions shows him to us in a most attractive light. He was an eager, active, affectionate, generous, and merry boy, working well at school, and, whenever ambition prompted, easily excelling his fellows in all out-door sports and athletic exercises. Later he became a good horseman, and, as his father had been before him, an expert with the foils. From his father too, as well as from all the Priestleys, he inherited a great fondness for chess, and it is said that even blindfold he could successfully play several games at once. He loved music, and learned to play well on the flute; and, to quote his brother's words, "he was fond of ladies' society, and consequently always scrupulously neat and tasteful in his dress. This love of dress grew with him. His 'mock part' in college was 'Nothing to Wear,' from the fact that he had better clothes and more of them than any one man needed."
His college life was uneventful. He took and kept a fair standing in his class, but does not seem to have been an especially diligent student, or to have shown marked ability in any branch save mathematics. His proficiency in this branch all his classmates recollect; and all remember his social disposition and his great personal charm. "It is pleasant," says one who was a fellow-student, though not a classmate, "to go back and recall the slender, companionable Southern lad, full of creole life and animation.... In recent years he was a good portly man and a corpulent, of a cheerful look, a pleasing eye, and a most noble carriage;' but in those early days ... he was, like Falstaff at the same period of life, 'not an eagle's talon in the waist.' "He was then, indeed, a very handsome youth, above the medium height, slightly and gracefully built, with thick, curly dark hair, a warm complexion, very dark and brilliant hazel eyes, a rather thin long face, and finely-moulded features — the firmly compressed yet mobile and humorous mouth speaking both the energy and the gayety of his disposition. Handsome and distinguished in appearance, vivacious and sympathetic in manner, forcible and amusing in conversation, clever, ardent, and impressionable, — rich too, and, we are told, "generous to a fault," — it is no wonder that his college days should have been pleasant, or that they should have brought him many friends. It is a better proof that he had the power of winning true affection and of bestowing it in return, to find that the friends then made remained the friends of a life-time. Their love for "Fez," as they affectionately called him, and the interest they felt in his career, were never interrupted for a day, despite his long absence from America and the strain of that terrible conflict which severed so many of the ties that had bound together Americans of northern and of southern birth. They made him many generous offers of assistance during his time of poverty and struggle in Paris; their welcome after six years of separation was as heartfelt as their god-speed had been; and those who were his closest friends at college were still among his closest when he died.
His Alma Mater had no more loyal or grateful son than this one, born in a far-off State, whom the chances of later life brought back to dwell almost at her doors. He often spoke of all she had done for him, especially in the way of widening his life and enriching it with friends. No commission to work pleased him so much as a commission to work for her; and if one chanced to cite Sever Hall as perhaps the most perfect of his structures, he was ready for her sake to delight in the verdict. And I think no social distinction which could have come to him in later life could have given him so much satisfaction as his membership in that very ancient and "exclusive" college club — The Porcellian — which admits only fifteen undergraduates at a time but keeps all whom it admits in close brotherhood ever after.
Richardson's intention on leaving the South had been to make civil engineering his profession. Neither his family nor his classmates remember just when he changed his mind, or just what led him to think of the architectural profession instead. Nor have I been able to discover any evidence in his own handwriting — all the letters he wrote home from Cambridge having been destroyed when his family left New Orleans before the arrival of the Union troops. A short time before his graduation he heard with pleasure that his stepfather had resolved to send him to Europe to prosecute his architectural studies; and as soon as his examinations were over he set sail with two of his classmates, spent the summer traveling in England, Scotland, and Ireland, and then settled down to his work in Paris.
While still at college he had engaged himself to Miss Julia Gorham Hayden, daughter of Dr. John Cole Hayden of Boston.
Excerpted from Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works by Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer. Copyright © 1969 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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