Section: BOOKS,  Page: J4

Date: Sunday, March 22, 1998

Readers of American Architect and Building News were surveyed in 1886 and asked to pick the 10 most influential buildings in America. Two of their top 10 were in Albany: the State Capitol and City Hall. Both bear the inimitable rough-hewn stonework and Romanesque design of architect Henry Hobson Richardson.

Some would argue that those two buildings, in their timeless grandeur and monolithic quietude, would make the list of a similar survey today.

Even in 1998, Richardson's ``genius for architecture'' -- as one of two ambitious new books re-examining the architect and his work described it -- can be seen and appreciated all across Albany.

In addition to Richardson's own brick-and-mortar legacy, his widespread influence on succeeding generations of Albany architects is obvious to anyone who has ever stopped to marvel at the ornate brownstone town houses along State and Willett streets on the edge of Washington Park.

``Richardson is the only architect of international stature who left his mark on Albany,'' said architect John Mesick. ``Albany had its own great architects in (Philip) Hooker, (Henry) Rector and (Marcus) Reynolds. But Richardson is in a class by himself.''

Mesick said the two new books will renew interest both in Richardson and in Albany architecture. ``Anyone with an eye for architectural splendor will see those books and get themselves to Albany at the first opportunity,'' he said.

Mesick, a partner in the Albany architectural firm Mesick Cohen Wilson & Baker, which specializes in historic restoration, is an expert on the subject. Mesick worked on the restoration of one of Richardson's most imposing interiors, the Senate chamber in the Capitol. And he wrote the foreword to ``Albany Architecture: A Guide To The City'' (Mount Ida Press, 1993).

Mesick offered an armchair tour of Richardson's interiors and buildings in Albany, with running commentary. Here are his off-the-cuff riffs:City Hall

The original Greek Revival structure designed by Hooker was destroyed by fire in 1880. Richardson was working just up the hill on the Capitol at the time and won the commission for a replacement City Hall. He finished his work in 1883. The initial budget doubled and it still wasn't adequate for Richardson. The exterior walls are random quarry-faced Milford granite from Rhode Island, with Longmeadow brownstone trim from Massachusetts used to define the stories and accentuate the lintels and arches. The corner tower is 202 feet tall and Venetian in style. Richardson's plan for a Bridge of Sighs to connect to a proposed jail behind City Hall was never built.

Mesick: ``There wasn't enough money for Richardson to do the job as thoroughly as he would have liked. He said in his writing that if there wasn't sufficient money, he'd rather do it right on the outside and leave it to a future generation to finish the interior. That's what he did with City Hall. It's a wonderful Romanesque building that shows Richardson at his best. The tower is particularly beautiful. Many architects consider that Richardson's best tower. The interior was finished by city architects a good 30 years after Richardson built it.''State Capitol

A textbook case of politics bollixing architecture. Thomas Fuller won the commission for the Capitol in 1865, but infighting among legislators scuttled some of Fuller's plans and caused delays. Samuel Tilden was elected governor in 1874, along with Richardson's friend, William Dorsheimer of Buffalo, as lieutenant governor. Dorsheimer recruited Richardson in 1875, along withnoted architects Leopold Eidlitz and Frederick Law Olmstead. Fuller was out. The triumvirate divvied up the interior work, ignoring a state law that required all work to continue in the Italian Renaissance style. Romanesque ruled instead. Richardson took on the assignments of the Senate Chamber, Governor's Office, Great Western Staircase and State Library. Richardson also re-worked the state Court of Appeals inside the Capitol because the justices didn't like Eidlitz's design and refused to use it. Richardson worked on the Capitol from 1876 to 1883, traveling from his home in Brookline, Mass., via New York City and up the Hudson River by day liner to meet in Albany for site inspections with Eidlitz and Olmsted. Isaac Perry was hired to complete the interior and he worked on the Capitol from 1883 to 1899.

Mesick: ``You see Richardson's influence starting on the second floor, throwing off Fuller's columns. The higher you go, the more Romanesque it gets, culminating in Richardson's gables. The best place to see Richardson in the Capitol is in the Senate chamber and the Executive chamber.

``I came to appreciate Richardson's work profoundly when we did the restoration of the Senate chamber (1978-1983). He produced a room with wonderfully lavish materials and massive proportions, but it has a great sense of calm. Despite its monumental size, sitting in that chamber gives you a sense of stillness and quiet. I have a letter from Richardson to Olmsted talking about the progress on the Senate chamber and discussing Richardson's young assistant, Stanford White. It said, `Young Stanny White had been up, but I managed to quiet down his ideas.'

``The geometry, design and layout of the Great Western Staircase is Richardson's, but Perry came in, assembled a wonderful group of stonecarvers and turned them loose. The elaborate carvings were not in Richardson's drawings. He would not have produced so much froth in stone. It's wonderful in its own way, but it's not consistent with Richardson's restraint."Grange Sard House, 397 State St., Albany

Across from Washington Park, near the corner of Henry Johnson Boulevard. Constructed from 1882-1885, it was Richardson's final project in Albany and his only residential work in the city. Sard was a prominent stover maker. The house became the talk of the town with its rounded central porch balcony nicknamed "Sard's bathtub," its rustic brownstone facade, Romanesque arches and sweeping bay windows. Richardson called in some of the Capitol stonecarvers to add flourishes such as two carved heads in the likeness of the Sards, a coiled snake and griffins. Other wealthy Albanians, tired of the city's dominant Italianate design, had their architects plagiarize Richardson's style and his influence spread over the city.

Mesick: ``It's a good example of Richardson's residential work. I've never seen original photos of the interior, but I understand the golden oak staircase was magnificent and it had a wonderfully decorated drawing room until a fire caused major damage.

A post-script: The Sard House, adjoined by a 13-story tower built later, was foreclosed on in 1994 and shuttered. Tenants were forced to move out of the apartment after more than 250 building code violations were found and police reported the complex had been plagued by drug dealing and violence. The complex, re-named State Street Towers, reopened in 1997 after a $2 million renovation. The 60 rental units, ranging from $600 for a one-bedroom to $900 for a two-bedroom, are fully occupied currently and there is a waiting list, said manager Steve Brazner. He said there have not been any problems such as those associated with the building in the past. Tenants are students, teachers, Albany Medical Center employees and state workers.NYS Court of Appeals

Designed by Henry Rector, built between 1832 and 1842 and renovated by Lewis Pilcher in 1916. Richardson's carved-oak room where the justices hear arguments was on the third floor of the Capitol, southeast corner, where the Senate Minority conference room is located today. Richardson's interior was dismantled, moved and reassembled in the Court of Appeals at Eagle and Pine Streets.

Mesick: ``It is wonderful for its use of carved golden oak and the carving is absolutely superb. Many consider it one of the finest 19th-century governmental chambers in the country. Richardson also designed the judge's bench, the chairs and tables. The justices so loved their room and furniture, they took it with them when they left the Capitol. That says it all.''

Richardson also designed an Albany house for Erastus Corning Jr., son of the founder of the New York Central Railroad, but it was never built. Corning was a driving force behind the construction of Richardson's replacement City Hall and the Cathedral of All Saints in Albany, but Episcopal Bishop William C. Doane chose the little-known Robert W. Gibson instead.

Mesick: ``Richardson did a complete set of drawings and it was the best ecclesiastical design Richardson ever did. It would have been extraordinary. But when Richardson gave his budget, Bishop Doane wouldn't swallow the cost. So he went with the lower budget submitted by Gibson.''

Mesick offered this anecdote, which has not yet found its way into a Richardson biography. He felt it captures the style of Richardson, a moutainous bon vivant who approached 400 pounds and was nicknamed ``The Great Mogul'' by Stanford White.

Mesick heard this story from Richardson's two grandsons, who attended a dedication of the Senate chamber restoration in 1983.

``Richardson had come up the Hudson on a day liner to meet with Eidlitz and Olmsted at the Capitol,'' Mesick said. ``In true Richardson style, he had a champagne supper by candlelight in the Senate chamber lobby. A telegram arrived for Richardson. He read it, picked up his champagne glass and said, `Gentlemen, I'd like to propose a toast. My wife has just given birth to a son. I'll name him Frederick Leopold Richardson.' ''

And with that christening to honor his architectural colleagues, the triumvirate of Richardson-Olmsted-Eidlitz lived on. At least in name.

Paul Grondahl is a Times Union staff writer.