We seldom use the term anymore but a hundred years ago artists referred to it quite often. It's French meaning workshop, though the institution goes back to well before Renaissance times. The word is atelier. In France, it was the educational boot camp of the Academie des Beaux-arts and it came to this country in the late 1800s as American artists began returning from their studies in Paris and using it as a model in setting up their own studios. Painters, of course, have long since discarded the somewhat clubby atelier ambiance in favor of the circus atmosphere of the road show workshop, but even today, architectural firms, and strangely, big law firms still have an atelier air about them. It's a brotherhood of hard work and camaraderie they nineteenth century artists had come to know and love during their student days and nights in Europe. In returning to this country, they used the atelier as the organizational basis of the design firms involved in the creation of Victorian America. William Morris Hunt had one. So did Louis Comfort Tiffany, Frederick Law Olmsted, the painter John La Farge, and perhaps most prominently, the gargantuan nineteenth century architect (literally), H. H. Richardson. Stanford White came out of Richardson's atelier firm, so did his partner, Charles Follen McKim. McKim, Mead, and White was founded on the same model.
Henry Hobson Richardson was born on a southern Louisiana plantation in the year 1838. His maternal great grandfather had been Dr. Joseph Priestly, a mathematician, scientist, author of some 140 books, and the man credited with discovering oxygen. Richardson was no such scholar, but he was good at math and had a sharp mind. It's said he could play several games of chess simultaneously (blindfolded, no less). He graduated from Harvard with an agile mind capable of soaking up knowledge effortlessly, enough so that he was able to pass the entrance examination to the Ecole des Beaux-arts in 1860. Keep in mind the exam was a comprehensive, month-long ordeal, given in public, and of course in FRENCH. He was only the second American to pass it (after Richard Morris Hunt). After Paris, Richardson had fully intended to return to the South and set up a practice in New Orleans, but the Civil War not only wrecked the South but the family fortune as well. He settled in New York instead where his unsuccessful efforts to find commissions forced him to sell his all-important library and very nearly reduced him to his last dollar.
But his days at Harvard had made him lasting friends, and as these young men became successful themselves, or married wealth, they brought to him a few commissions--small at first, homes, then churches, and finally, in 1872, the winning design for Boston's Trinity Church. The massive, polychromatic, stone structure he built there on Copley Square still stands today as that city's most impressive structure. Thereafter came in quick succession the Capitol building in Albany, New York, more private homes, other churches, the Allegheny County Courthouse and jail complex in Pittsburgh, the Marshall Field warehouse in Chicago, a chamber of commerce building in Cincinnati, and important campus buildings at both Harvard and Yale Universities. With them came a massive girth, matching perfectly a massive style, solid as the rock he loved to build with, eclectic, ornate, colorful, imposing, and influential. Today there is hardly a major city east of the Mississippi without a Richardson building, or one designed by others under his powerful influence, or one recently torn down because by today's standards they appear ugly and ungainly. Richardson died in 1886 at the age of 47. His working career spanned barely twenty years, but through his vigorous atelier, no single architect of his century had a greater impact on his profession.