Henry Hobson Richardson and the Small Public Library in America
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Henry Hobson Richardson and the Small Public Library in America

A Study in Typology

By Kenneth Breisch





One natural outcome of the educational reform movement of the 1840s was the growth of the American public library. Though the first public libraries were housed in post offices and town halls, even in local drug stores, growing book collections soon forced cities and towns to recognize the need for larger, more appropriate buildings. Some 450 public libraries were built in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The most important and influential architect of the era who built librairies was Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-1886), perhaps best known for his design of Boston's Trinity Church.The primary focus of Kenneth Breisch's Henry Hobson Richardson and the Small Public Library in America is on Richardson's designs for public libraries in Woburn, North Easton, Quincy, and Malden, Massachusetts, as well as an unbuilt proposal for the Hoyt Library in East Saginaw, Michigan. In addition to placing them within the broader history of American library design, Breisch offers a close examination of these buildings as participants in the cultural, political, and economic developments of the period. Since more than 80 percent of the public libraries built in the latter half of the nineteenth century were privately endowed—as were all of Richardson's library commissions—his discussion of the role of philanthropy, in particular, illuminates the perceived meaning and function of public libraries to the monied classes, as well as their function as memorials to deceased family members. Breisch also examines the role played by the library profession in the development of modern library planning theory during this period, a role that often clashed with the goals of the architects commissioned to design the library buildings. Although this conflict eventually led the American Library Association to condemn Richardson's buildings as unsuitable for library work, his designs still had enormous influence on the architectural vocabulary of the institution. The fact remains that Richardson invented and refined a significant prototype for the smaller American public library building.


Out of Print ISBN: 9780262024167 366 pp. | 10 in x 9 in 152 illus.


$32.95 T ISBN: 9780262523462 366 pp. | 10 in x 9 in 152 illus.


  • One of the most substantive new interpretations of Richardson's work to appear in years.

    American Studies International


  • Kenneth Breish's eagerly-awaited study of H. H. Richardson's libraries provides a broad analysis of the emergence of a important and distinctly American building type—the suburban mall or small-town public library—and deep reading of the contests between the architect, the patrons and professional librarians in the design of five Richardson buildings. The book should be required reading for both architectural historians and students of American cultural history.

    Keith N. Morgan

    Professor of Art History, Boston University

  • Henry Hobson Richardson and the Small Public Library in Amerrica is architectural history at its best. shedding new light on some of the best known buildings on the history of American architecture. Kenneth Breisch has succeeded in reconnecting Richardson's libraries with the complex cultural milieu that helped shape them. He is particularlyy skilled at articulating the attitudes of New England cultural elite that commissioned these buildings, and at elucidatign the importance of those attitudes in the library design debate that pitted librarians againts architects in the last quater of the 19th century. His close reading of the buildings themselves is an especially welcomed demonstration of the powerfuk tool that formal analysis offers to a social hisotry of architecture.

    Abigail A. Van Slyck

    Associate Professor of Architecture, University of Arizona

  • This study skillfully integrates analysis of programmatic agenda, cultural currents, and concerns of artistics expression to provide fresh, insightful perspectives on an important, but little studied, building type as well as one of the nation's most distinguished architects.

    Richard Longstreth

    Professor of American Civilizations, George Washington University

  • Richardon's role is giving form to the emergent building types of the late nineteenth century such as the library has been widely recognized, but Kenneth Breich's Henry Hobson Richardson and the Small Public Library in America is the first in-depth exploration focused exclusively Richardson's five public library commisons. By focussing only on this small group of buildings Breisch is able to address the roles played by donors, clients, and architects, and to demonstrate how each building was created within a web of intersecting goals, influences, ambitions and ideas. Breisch sets the stage by tracing the history of the American library prior to Richardson, and closes with a discussion of the critiques these buildings recieved from newly professionalized librarians. The work is exeplary, as Breisch places these libraries not only within the architectural evolution of Richardson's career, but also in their broad functional, social and cultural contexts.

    Jeffrey Karl Ochsner

    FAIA,Chair, Department of Architecture, University of Washington

  • Professor Breisch illuminates the innovative role of H. H. Richardson at a critical moment in the history of library design, in the most skillfully written and definitive study of the subject so far. By integrating a wealth of information from nineteenth-century architectural history with cultural and social imperatives for the first time, this book should become a standard reference.

    Margaret Henderson Floyd

    Professor of Architectural History and American Art, Tufts University

  • Kenneth Breisch has filled in an important missing chapter in the evolution of H. H. Richardson's architectural work. More than an architectural history, he has successfully placed the development of Richardson's libraries into a wider context, including detailed analyses of client patronage, the development of the American library system, and the complex cultural milieu of the late 19th century. It is a very convincing work of architectural and cultural history.

    Thomas C. Hubka

    Professor of Architecture, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

  • The suburban libraries of H. H. Richardson, like the country banks of Louis Sullivan, are small gems in the crown of American architecture. They represent the mid-nineteenth-century flowering of popular literacy and middle-class philanthropy. In this richly-textured monograph Kenneth Breisch details the evolution of this building type in Richardson's work and those of his contemporaries. This is a sophisticated addition to the history of architecture.

    James F. O'Gorman

    Grace Slack McNeil Professor of the History of American Art Wellesley College