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Massive Masterpiece

Henry Richardson's Cheney Building Considered One of His Best

September 25, 2005

As Connecticut grew in industrial might during the mid- to late 19th century, factory owners made wealthy by their businesses turned to investments to add to their income. Real estate projects were one means, and commercial buildings formed an important part of many 19th-century architectural practices.

In an age of architectural eclecticism, these buildings could be constructed in a variety of styles, depending on their purpose and on the desires of the client. Hartford is lucky to have a superb example of the Romanesque Revival style designed by world-renowned architect Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86), the R. and F. Cheney Building.

Romanesque Revival looks to medieval European architecture, primarily of the 10th and 11th centuries, for its inspiration and motifs. The style is characterized by heavy-walled masonry construction, often of roughly cut stone. Round arches are a defining feature, and stone decorative motifs, such as leafy capitals, are common.

Richardson designed the Cheney Building (1875-76) for members of the Cheney silk manufacturing family in Manchester. The building was a multipurpose structure: it housed commercial premises on the lower floors, with offices and apartments above. Richardson was not the first to look to the Romanesque for his inspiration, but in his hands the medieval forms were combined with rational planning and composition to create something entirely new. The work of Richardson, the first internationally renowned American architect, would influence architecture throughout the United States: Almost every town once had its "Richardsonian Romanesque" library, church or commercial building.

The Cheney Building is a powerful composition constructed of granite and brownstone, its roughly cut stone calling attention to the building's massive qualities. The lower story is defined by a series of huge round arches, a motif repeated in the stories above, but at an increasingly smaller scale. Each ground floor arch is topped by two arches, which are in turn topped by multiple arches in the upper stories. This is intentional: The lower floors appear to be a single massive story that anchors the building, while the top of the building looks lighter due to the numerous small arches.

The alternating grey granite and reddish brownstone blocks, called voussoirs, that form the arches demonstrate "constructional polychromy." In other words, the colors illustrate the structure of each arch. The careful viewer will note the leafy stringcourses that separate each horizontal layer of the building, and the leafy capitals atop the pilasters and columns. Both act as counterpoints to the massive quality of the architecture.

The corner tower once was once topped by a pyramidal roof, which gave a little additional height to counterbalance the building's horizontal emphasis. Rich in color and texture, massive and carefully composed, the Cheney Building was called by noted Richardson scholar Margaret Henderson Floyd "one of Richardson's finest," and one of which Hartford can be proud.

In keeping with its mixed-use tradition, the Richardson Building, as it is now called, is home to a residence hotel, offices, stores, restaurants and rehearsal space for The Hartford Stage Company.


Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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