At his best, Richardson was able to peel away the chaos that characterized much of Victorian-era design practiced all around him and create buildings that visually represented their function; with parts well-proportioned and clearly defined; with detail that was subtle and not overly derivative; and showed a vigorous, naturalistic style that owed less to tradition than most work of the 1870s and 1880s. Very important to that style was the freedom to design without limits on the arrangement of parts. Exemplifying some of these characteristics are the Glessner House (1885-7) and the Ames Gate Lodge.
The characteristic polychromatic, rough-faced, random ashlar for which Richardson has become particularly known was used on such buildings as libraries, city halls and train stations. The designs of these projects so suited to the monumentality of Richardson's stonework were fairly consistent, but this was not the case with Richardson's houses. Before 1880 they reflected not so much the vigorous new ideas of his other buildings but the popular styles of the time, through the Stick style, the Neo-grec and the Queen Anne. According to Mariana Van Rensselaer, Richardson in the early years of his profession said that "house-building is not architecture in the noble sense of the word."(7) If domestic designs were, in fact, among the least popular with the architect, the lack of progression in their development might be ascribed to this half-hearted attitude.
As in other large architectural firms, Richardson delegated increasing amounts of design work to staff architects as he grew in popularity. As a design problem, the Sard commission was affected in part by this shift in Richardson's practice. When the Sard design was developed in 1882-3, such a relatively small domestic project with the significant mass limitations of a rowhouse would seemingly have held the least interest for the architect of all his concurrent commissions. He likely delegated most of the project to one or more among his staff.(8) They were then faced with a set of circumstances that tested the breadth of their skills in designing according to the ideals Richardson impressed upon them.
The site chosen by Grange Sard, Jr., posed a variety of limitations which presumably led to design puzzles in Richardson's office. Washington Park, which the Sard house faces, was designed by associates and devotees of Frederick Law Olmstead and constructed primarily between 1870 and 1890. The park was a magnet for residential construction by 1882 and evidently led Grange Sard, Jr., to purchase a 56' wide lot there in March of that year.(9) The lot was adjoined at the sides by a small, wooden rowhouse and a vacant lot. Although no rules applied, everyone building houses facing the northeast corner of the park planned them to be attached on both sides. A precedent was established by ample Italianate, High Victorian Gothic and Queen Anne style townhouses near the Sard lot. Through the late nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries the streetscape became a solid wall of variously-styled facades. With Sard's request for an attached house, the office, perhaps with Richardson's help, had to struggle to adapt the senior architect's freedom-loving design approach to this restrictive urban setting and choose a design that would not be jarringly out of place with its immediate neighbors.
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7. Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer, Henry Hobson Richardson and His Works, (New York: Houghton, Mifflin & Company, 1888) p. 102.
8. see Margaret H. Floyd, Architecture After Richardson (), which discusses the Albany-related activities of architects Longfellow, Alden & Harlow when they were in Richarson's office.
9. Albany County deeds, vol. , pg. .