Let’s start with the arches. There are five of them — and they make the little railroad station in the village of North Easton, Massachusetts, designed by H. H. Richardson and completed in 1884, one of the most powerful works of architecture in New England. Four big arches puncture the thick granite walls of the building, flooding light into the waiting rooms. The fifth arch stands by itself in front of the station, legs spread, tautly balanced, bearing lightly the high-shouldered roof of the porte cochere.
After the arches, what you remember best is the roof. Richardson loved roofs almost as much as he loved arches. The gray slate roof of the North Easton station folds and refolds itself over the volumes of the building. The slates wrap themselves over long dormer windows; they extend out as wide sheltering eaves, held up by spiky diagonal wood struts. Richardson’s buildings always feel alive in this way, pulsing with energy. The station’s walls of pinkish granite are roughly textured and laid in a crazy quilt of large and small rectangular blocks, drawing the eye to trace ever-changing variations of pattern, color, shadow, and light. Underneath the big arched windows, the stone bulges out into broad benches, equally pleasing to look at and to sit on. Some details are ferociously archaic: the ends of beams carved into snarling wolves’ heads. Other details are precociously modern: the ticket taker’s window, a doubly curving grid of glass panes that evokes the surging movements of the trains.
Richardson’s arches at North Easton are symbolic; the railroad station provides a passage between different worlds. When you stand under the porte cochere, you see a bucolic New England landscape: a meadow and a pond, with thick woods beyond. You are looking at the private estates of Richardson’s clients, the Ameses, a family of innovative and successful industrialists. Walk around the station and you’ll see, right across the tracks, the source of their money: a complex of granite factory buildings. This is the Ames Shovel Works, where, at the time of the Civil War, 60 percent of the world’s shovels were made. Shovels led to trains; the Ameses went on to play a central role in the creation of the transcontinental railroad. In this little building, Richardson aligned his architectural skills with the primal energies of modern society.
Great architecture requires inspired clients. The train station is one of five buildings in North Easton designed by Richardson; they are accompanied by landscapes by Frederick Law Olmsted, sculptures by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and stained glass by John La Farge. The Ameses’ continuing stewardship has helped preserve this remarkable ensemble. When the trains stopped running in the 1960s, a family member bought the disused station and donated it to the local historical society; the society has preserved the building, using it to display paintings, photographs, maps, and other artifacts. In 2008, when there was a threat to demolish the Shovel Works, the entire community, including several Ameses, united around a successful plan to redevelop the complex as mixed-income housing.
The power of the North Easton railroad station goes beyond the quality of its design. The building, and the village around it, are a living reminder of how great architecture gets made, how it can be preserved, and how it can adapt itself to new uses for the future.