Trinity Church

Trinity Church

Henry Hobson Richardson, 1872–1877

Portico and front towers, 1890s

Undercroft renovation and addition: Goody Clancy, 2005

National Historic Landmark

Preservation Achievement Award, 2006

With Trinity Church, H. H. Richardson reached the peak of his career and created one of the great monuments of American architecture. Richardson was one of six invited competitors for this project, partly because of the impressive tower of his First Baptist Church (then Brattle Church), nearly completed on nearby Clarendon Street. He was living in New York City at the time, but several members of the building committee had been Harvard classmates or clubmates at the Porcellian, a definite asset to him. The other competitors were Sturgis and Brigham, Richard Morris Hunt, Ware and Van Brunt, and Peabody and Stearns, all of Boston, and William A. Potter of New York City.

Richardson was awarded the commission in 1872 for a Romanesque design that was a sharp contrast to the prevailing Victorian Gothic style favored by other competitors. He moved his practice to Brookline, where he surrounded himself with his work, his library, his family, and many apprentices to whom he was a great teacher and friend.

Richardson’s design solved many problems of a site that was small, triangular, isolated by streets, and a visual focus for the surrounding area. Instead of a long Gothic nave with front or side tower, he felt a more compact Greek cross plan with a large central tower was better suited to the site and would give the tower prominence from the surrounding streets. The “lowness” of the Trinity service gave him design freedom he would not have had with a “higher” church. Trinity’s rector, Phillips Brooks, preferred the Romanesque style to the Gothic, because the Gothic was associated with late medieval Catholicism.

In the course of construction, Richardson improved and simplified his original design by replacing the tall, octagonal, rather slender lantern with a massive square tower inspired by that of the Cathedral of Salamanca. Stanford White, later of McKim, Mead, and White, apprenticed under Richardson, and the more detailed, intricate design of the tower is thought to reflect his influence; the lower part of the church is more simple and massive in the Richardson tradition.

The redesign was also driven by the desire of the engineer and building committee to reduce the weight of the tower, since the church was to be built on the wet filled land of Back Bay. The final tower weighs 90 million pounds and rests on 2,000 wooden piles arranged in a 90-foot square. Because the pilings are of wood, they must be kept submerged in water. The level of the water table beneath the church is constantly monitored.

Granite was chosen for the major building material because of its strength, and was quarried at sites from Rhode Island to Maine. Color was an important, both inside and outside. Richardson chose red Longmeadow sandstone for the trim; for the roof and louver boards he used semi-glazed red tiles made in Akron, Ohio; the rolls and crockets—the knobby projections on the tower ridges—were made in Chicago. When the exterior was cleaned recently, Bostonians were shocked to see its original lively colors.

Richardson persuaded the painter John La Farge, assisted by the young Augustus Saint-Gaudens, to execute the rich and colorful interiors he envisioned. The color of the granite was too cold and harsh for Richardson’s concept. Plastered walls were painted and stenciled in dull terra-cotta, gold, and blue-green. Furring and plaster-encased granite piers appear to be clusters of delicate columns. Stained-glass windows were crafted by La Farge, Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris, and others. Black walnut woodwork was used in the church and chapel, ash and oak in the vestibule. Wooden truss-like members at the arches of the crossing are actually decorative casings for iron tie rods that were installed as a precaution, not a necessity.

When the church was finished in 1877, the façade did not appear as it does today. Instead of the projecting sculpted portico, it had an imposing tall flat façade. The two front towers were also much simpler—and much disliked by Richardson, who urged the church to have them rebuilt. The porch and front towers were finished after Richardson’s death by his successor, Hugh Shepley, between 1894 and 1897 and are probably more elaborate than Richardson intended.

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, the La Farge–painted decoration was “brightened” to “saturated Pompeian red” and geothermal wells were drilled to provide sustainable heating and cooling. Digging a deeper basement created an informal assembly room below the church. Etched-glass partitions by Alexander Beleschenko diffuse the gloom. More work is planned, and fundraising is underway to preserve this architectural landmark.

The Church hosts guided tours of the interior on most days. Learn more: