It’s conventional—maybe unavoidable—probably preferable—for historians to think about their subjects as real flesh and bones people who lived a lot of average daily life during which they did the few (or perhaps numerous) extraordinary things that have made them worth the attention of later generations. Maybe it’s less common for a historian to spend her mental free time (such as it is) imagining what it would be like to join them for those small events of daily life: say, a birthday dinner, which is where my thoughts turn today, September 29, 171 years after H. H. Richardson was born.
Richardson is one of my heroes. He is one of the rare architects who managed to develop a new idiom that was well received by the architectural profession and the public (so much so by the former that he got a whole style, the Richardsonian Romanesque, named after him). His followers rarely hit the mark so squarely as he did, with his solid but graceful handling of massive masonry highlighted with delicate ornament and carefully-considered details—right down to the mortar beds (look forward to a whole post on Richardson’s mortar in the future; really, they’re fabulous). He was an avid traveler and collected thousands of photographs of architecture throughout Europe, especially in Italy, France (where he studied) and Spain (where he sought influence for some of his most famous buildings). He was described by his friends and clients as warm, affable and interesting. He loved a glass of wine; he loved to eat. And he died very young: at 48, when most architects are just getting warmed up.
Richardson’s biographers (among them, you cannot go wrong with anything written by Jim O’Gorman) report that he died from kidney disease, and no doubt his diet contributed to his demise. This is not a huge surprise after a scan of menu offerings in the 1860s and ‘70s, and knowing that Richardson was a true gourmand—a happy eater, which makes him a great candidate for a dinner date (if one is also a gourmand, likes architecture, and has a time machine and/or vivid imagination). Joining Richardson at, perhaps, the Union Oyster House (one of the country’s oldest restaurants, and which still stands in Boston where Richardson located his practice) for his birthday dinner, what would I share with Henry? Most likely, a whole bunch of animal protein: multiple courses from the menu that featured boiled corned beef, roast turkey, lobster salad, broiled salt mackerel, broiled mutton chops, baked codfish and smoked tongue. Perhaps we would order a side of oyster patties, macaroni au gratin, or boiled tripe (yes, I said tripe); our vegetable choices would include potatoes Lyonnais, radishes, string beans, pickled beets and cabbage, stewed tomatoes, boiled hominy, turnips and boiled onions. Fancy a relish with that, Henry? How about some gooseberry sauce, currant jelly or tomato-walnut ketchup? For “pastry” we could have the ever-popular gooseberries in a pie or molasses pound cake. “Dessert” would follow with lemon or vanilla ice cream, servings of apples, pineapple or watermelon and dishes of figs, almonds, walnuts and raisins. Tea, coffee and/or hot chocolate would round out the meal that would also be drenched with copious selections from the wine list, which for many of these restaurants runs to a length just shy of the Magna Carta, and includes varieties of champagne, sherry, Madeira, sauterne, claret, burgundy and port.
As much as I love staging and participating in nineteenth-century experiences, and as much as I would thrill at the opportunity of sitting at table with Richardson, I admit I would have a fair amount of difficultly swallowing that menu, especially knowing how the food is helping to kill my companion. I wonder if Richardson would have been better off to stay in France, even after his family ran out of money to support his Parisian education: perhaps poached salmon, ratatouille and maybe even the occasional coq au vin would have extended his life and career a bit longer—if he could lay off the buttery omelettes and excessive trips to the fromagerie. But as long as I am directing the time-travels of my favorite Louisiana-born, French-trained nineteenth-century architect, I am going to take Henry to his beloved Spain, where we will have a veggie-rich gazpacho followed by an excellent seafood paella and, since it is his birthday and all, splurge on a slice of tarta di Santiago, which has some eggs, but rather scant butter and flour, but a ton of almonds. Henry, you know it’s much better for you than the churros and chocolate hecho that I know you have your eye on. See, Henry: I know you lived richly, in so many ways, but I wish you had lived longer. How many great buildings died with you?