Richardson in Brick


Romanesque architecture has always been executed in masonry.  During the Romanesque period and through much of its century-long Revival, stone has been the typical material.  However, brick was sometimes the choice of architects, including H. H. Richardson, who launched the most important phase of the Revival (the final quarter of the nineteenth century).  [See The Other Romanesque Revival for non-Richardsonian brick structures.]


Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Pittsburgh  H H Richardson 1886

Five of Richardson’s Romanesque churches were built and the only one in brick is on Pittsburgh’s North Side:  Emmanuel Episcopal.  Richardson’s first proposal to the congregation was a stone lantern church – a design that prefigured Shadyside Presbyterian.  The cost estimate was several times larger than the vestry had budgeted.  Their request for a more affordable structure resulted in one of Richardson's most admired designs – notable for its use of elemental architectural shapes and simplicity of surface treatment.  This was a radical departure from the Victorian norm.   (It also helped proponents of the International School to identify Richardson – mistakenly - as a Modernist forerunner.)

 Emmanuel Episcopal Brick Patterning

While the selection of brick was doubtless for reasons of economy, the brickwork is one of the church’s most appealing features.  Unlike most of his buildings, Emmanuel Episcopal’s wall surfaces do not have a rough surface, moldings, belt courses or other projections to break up the planes or produce shadow lines.  (The bricks do project from the main wall surface just below the eave line.  This is accomplished in two steps of different dimension to give a pleasing string course effect.)  Stone is used only as sills for the windows, as springing for the three entrance arches and where the foundation is exposed.  

This plainness is relieved, in part, by patterning the brickwork.  Of particular note, the repetitive triangular pattern at the roofline is called “mousetooth.”  The brick patterning gives the impression of finely woven fabric.  The sharply incised windows and doors produce dramatic voids. The quiet surface treatment and use of elemental shapes and shadows is only seen in Richardson ’s work one other place:  the Lionberger residence in St. Louis, completed after his death.

Emmanuel Episcopal, leaning wall,   Richardson's Lionberger House, St. Louis 1886-88 (1)

One of the best known features of Emmanuel Episcopal Church is a mistake.  The lower section of the side wall is intended to slope inward as it rises (this is called battering).  The upper wall outward slope started to take place shortly after construction.  As Richardson had died by this time, the church engaged his former employees, Longfellow, Alden & Harlow, who were unsuccessful in pinpointing the cause.  However when that firm added the parish house to the far side of the church, the slope stopped increasing.

Point Breeze United Presbyterian, Pittsburgh - Lawrence Valk 1887 - Now St. Paul Baptist

Where brick was used in the Pittsburgh region as facing on other Richardsonian Romanesque Revival churches, this restraint of surface ornament was not followed.  (However, see the Emory United Methodist church in Medieval Forms.)  Point Breeze United Presbyterian Church used a wide variety of material and techniques to provide exterior detail.  Like Emmanuel Episcopal, brick patterning is used, but here it is minimal, mainly to emphasize the window openings.  However, carved brick, stone accenting of the window sills and buttresses, and terra cotta ornament all decorate the surface.  The shadow lines produced by these materials were an important feature of Victorian architecture.

In addition to ample surface ornament, architect Lawrence Valk of New York (who had a national practice including many churches), designed a building made up of a multitude of masses of varied shape and size.  This also contrasts with Emmanuel Episcopal.  This is not to say that the result was “un-Richardsonian.”  Richardson was known to employ a variety surface treatments on his brick structures, such as the Higginson residence in Boston. Point Breeze Presbyterian, now revitalized as St. Paul Baptist, is a very early Richardsonian building in Pittsburgh from 1887.

Point Breeze Presbyterian - Ornament Detail


Park United Presbyterian Church, Zelienople, PA 1895

North of Pittsburgh, a competent example of a Richardsonian brick church is found in Zelienople at Park United Presbyterian.  No brick patterning is used, but at the eaves the bricks are laid up to form corbelling and give a sense of depth.  Stone trim highlights door and window openings.  Unusual to Romanesque buildings, this church uses carved wood as ornament.  A dressed stone course forms a water table at the base of the main story.  Where the ground slopes away, a rough stone foundation story is revealed.  This feature anchors the church to the site, imparting a stable appearance to the compact structure.

Park Presbyterian - Wood, Stone & Brick Detail


Free Methodist Church, Ellwood City, PA  1895

Almost due west of Park Church, a smaller, fundamentalist congregation raised a brick Richardsonian building in Ellwood City.  The Free Methodist Church in this town was established in 1895, which appears to be the time frame of construction.  This was just a few years after the town was incorporated and is contemporary with the first production of seamless steel tubing, developed there.  Buff brick with slight color variation gives a pleasant mottled effect.  

Stone window sills, stone buttress caps and a quarry-faced ashlar foundation are features seen in earlier examples.  Rather than terra cotta, carved brick or wood, shadow lines are formed by projecting bricks.  A restrained use of brick patterning appears where a window opening might be expected.  Overall, the outcome is too busy to be elemental, too spare to seem quite finished.

Evangelical Lutheran Sunday School, Frederick, MD J A Dempwolf 1895

One of the finest examples of a brick Richardsonian church is not a church at all.  Except that its identity is chiseled in stone, one would easily assume that Evangelical Lutheran Sunday School is a church building.  The Frederick, Maryland church with which it is associated already had an architecturally significant Gothic Revival building when the Sunday School was built.  The picturesque massing is executed with scale and proportion worthy of Richardson, or at least his principal associates.  The architect, John Augustus Dempwolf, a native German, had an important practice in Maryland and Southeastern Pennsylvania with his brother and son.  (Thanks to Pastor David Oravec of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Frederick for identifying the designer.)

Ample & Varied Detail Evangelical Lutheran SS - now the Schaeffer Center

Of all the buildings here, this Sunday School (known today as the Schaeffer Center) most successfully expresses the late Victorian exuberance for detail and ornament.  This decoration is liberally used with carved brick at the eaves and window openings, dressed and quarry-faced brownstone at the sills, buttress caps, belts courses, and surrounds for the main arches.  However, it is proportion once again that results in interest rather than excess.

The building rests comfortably on a foundation of light colored local stone.  The stone is set in the same pinkish-red mortar as the brick.  The polychrome seen in the brick, brownstone and foundation is extended by the slate roof capped by copper with an appealing patina.  The high relief of projecting brick and deep recesses cast dark accent shadows.

The spare elegance of Emmanuel Episcopal Church does not seem to have served as precedent for other Richardsonian churches.  We have seen here that there are many ways to execute a Romanesque church in brick.  On buildings where the usual picturesque massing is complemented by extensive detail and ornament, the prowess of the architect and skill of the craftsmen can produce a pleasant if not radical result.

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(1) Ochsner, Jeffrey Karl, H. H. Richardson Complete Architectural Works, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 1982