Although he was to become one of Boston’s most famous architects, Richardson was born far from Boston on Priestley Plantation in St. James, Louisiana, in 1838. His original intention was to enter military service, but because of his stutter, his wealthy parents encouraged him to pursue another career—fortunately for American architecture. After graduating from Harvard and Tulane, Richardson headed for Paris. He was admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts in 1860 and remained there for seven years, studying European architecture and developing his skills as a designer. While he was in Paris, the American Civil War cut off his funds from home, forcing him to work as a draftsman by day and to study at night.
Richardson synthesized an awareness of history with responsiveness to a building's program and an interest in unifying visual forms. His buildings frequently called upon the round-headed arches of the Romanesque period, but used them with a new and modern framework directly derived from the building's function. His iconic approach became known as the "Richardsonian Romanesque." Richardson's landmark commission for Trinity Church in 1872 sent his career skyrocketing, and he completed a number of buildings across Boston and the metropolitan region in the years thereafter, including a series of public libraries, railroad stations, and civic buildings.
When Richardson died in 1886 at the age of 47, his associates Shepley, Rutan, and Coolidge took control of his office to complete the more than 20 projects that were underway. They later formed a firm that lives on today as Shepley Bulfinch.