More New Orleans than New England, a 204-year-old house with a two-story veranda stands out in suburban Boston. The house at 25 Cottage Street in Brookline, Mass., is not one that a casual observer might link with the work of Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886), one of America's most important 19th-century architects. It was in this Federal-style house that Richardson spent the most productive years of his career, from 1874 to his death in 1886, designing masterpieces such as Boston's Trinity Church, which he could see from the house.
After being on the market for seven years, the house found a new owner last month. "I don't like to think what damage the house would incur if it were left unprotected another year," says Allan Galper, chair of the three-year-old Committee to Save the H.H. Richardson House. "We're glad a buyer has been found."
On Dec. 5, the H. H. Richardson Trust bought the property for $2.2 million. "It is an honor to have this opportunity to restore a precious piece of American history," said Michael Minkoff, a spokesman for that trust and owner of Washington, D.C.-based National Development Corp., in a statement. Minkoff has restored historic buildings in New York, Boston, and Washington, D.C., according to the Jan. 10 statement.
Eight years ago, neighbors Fred and Caroline Hoppin and Mordechai Levin bought the house from Richardson's descendants for $1.2 million, hoping to save it from becoming another McMansion. Last year, with no offers, the Hoppins bought Levin's share and hinted that they would consider selling the house without protective easements. However, the Hoppins had, all along, offered the property for sale with restrictions to protect the most significant Richardson features. The recent sale includes a deed restriction protecting a portion of the exterior facade of the house, the bedroom that Richardson designed for himself, and the staircase that he designed outside his bedroom.
The sale comes on the heels of the National Trust for Historic Preservation's announcement in June that the H. H. Richardson House is one of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. While structurally sound, the house sustained significant damage during its unoccupied period.
In light of the building's new owner, preservationists are "cautiously optimistic," says Rebecca Williams, field representative for the National Trust's Northeast Office in Boston.
"The acquisition of the H.H. Richardson house by a preservation-minded buyer has long been a goal of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the Committee to Save the H.H. Richardson house, and others," says National Trust President Richard Moe, "and the emergence of such a buyer is wonderful news. We named the H.H. Richardson house to our list of America's 11 Most Endangered Historic Places last year because it is the birthplace of Richardson's unique architectural style and offers insight into Richardson's professional development, as well as a glimpse into his home life. We look forward to working with this new owner to ensure the long-term preservation of this property."
Minkoff says that, in addition to restoring the facade and the Richardson bedroom, he will restore the three main rooms on the first floor of the house and stained-glass windows designed by John LaFarge, who also created Trinity Church's windows, according to his statement. Minkoff also plans to construct a new addition in the rear of the house. Emily H. Eig, the founder and principal of EHT Traceries, Inc., a research and consulting firm specializing in historic preservation, called news of the finalization of the sale "a wonderful holiday present." The firm will be providing guidance for the restoration project. Robert Gray, the lead architect, worked on the restoration of the Stephen Decatur House and Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C.
"He Loved His House Above All Earthly Things"
Richardson is best known for influencing the Shingle Style of architecture and for the massively scaled masonry work now known as Richardsonian Romanesque. Architects' homes tend to be showplaces for their technique and style, but Richardson's house does not immediately announce the aesthetic of its famous owner. Constructed c. 1803 as the country home for the wealthy Bostonian Samuel Gardner Perkins, the house has a square-pillared, two-story veranda that may reflect Perkins' familiarity with the architecture of the West Indies. Inside, a cook stove on which Richardson's meals were prepared remains in the kitchen, and the low-ceilinged dining room where Richardson entertained friends and fellow architects and clients such as Isabella Stewart Gardener and Frederick Law Olmsted retains Richardson-era woodwork. Olmsted's own house nearby is now a National Historic Landmark and museum that is open to the public.
Richardson left his mark on many interior details, including the central staircase and the architectural embellishments of the master bedroom, where he often received clients. The latter room boasts the highly ornamental woodwork for which Richardson was renowned and cork-lined walls where he pinned plans and drawings for review sessions. The high quality and inventiveness of these changes testify to Richardson's genuine fondness for a building that could well have been replaced by a wholly original design as the architect's fortune grew. In an 1886 commemorative article, architect Peter B. Wight wrote, "[Richardson was] a thoroughly domestic man. He loved his house above all early things."
For years, the house endured Boston's punishing winters with only basic maintenance, its owner unable to shoulder the financial burden of completely securing it. Concerned citizens and the National Trust's Northeast Office attempted to publicize the building's sale the best they could, hoping that a school or other institution might take it on.
Williams hopes that the new owner will recognize the unique character of the house and seek to preserve as much of it as possible inside and out.
"With a full understanding and appreciation of the house, its evolution and particular significance, our hope is that the new buyer will not find it difficult to do the right thing," Williams says. "For generations, the H.H. Richardson House has been an inviting family home. With some careful rehabilitation and some thoughtful modifications, it will continue to be a splendid place to live."
David V. Griffin is a freelance writer based New York City.