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First Posted: July 15, 2012

Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe/Architect

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Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe

Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe (May 1, 1764-September 3, 1820) was a British-born American neoclassical architect best known for his design of the United States Capitol, along with his work on the Baltimore Basilica, the first Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United States. Latrobe was one of the first formally-trained, professional architects in the United States, drawing influences from his travels in Italy, as well as British and French Neoclassical architects such as Claude Nicolas Ledoux.

Latrobe came to the United States in 1796, initially settling in Virginia where he worked on the State Penitentiary in Richmond. Latrobe then relocated to Philadelphia where he established his practice. In 1803, he was hired as Surveyor of the Public Buildings of the United States, and spent much of the next fourteen years working on projects in Washington, D.C. Latrobe spent the later years of his life in New Orleans, working on a waterworks project, and died there in 1820 from yellow fever. He has been called the "Father of American Architecture".

Biography

Benjamin Henry Latrobe was born on May 1, 1764 at the Fulneck Moravian Settlement, near Pudsey in West Yorkshire, England, to Reverend Benjamin Latrobe and Anna Margaretta Antes. Antes was born in the American colony of Pennsylvania, but was sent to England by her father, a wealthy landowner, to attend a Moravian school at Fulneck. Latrobe's father, responsible for all Moravian schools and establishments in Britain, had an extensive circle of friends in the higher ranks of society. He stressed the importance of education, scholarship, and the value of social exchange, while Latrobe's mother instilled curiosity and interest in America. From a young age, Latrobe enjoyed drawing landscapes and buildings. He was a brother of Christian Ignatius Latrobe.

In 1776, at the age of 12, Latrobe was sent away to a Moravian School at Niesky in Silesia, near the border of Saxony and Prussia. At age 18, Latrobe spent several months traveling around Germany, and then joined the Prussian army, becoming close friends with a distinguished officer in the army of the United States. Latrobe may have served in the Austrian army, and suffered some injuries or illness. After recovering, he embarked on a continental Grand Tour, visiting eastern Saxony, Paris, Italy, and other places. Through his education and travels, Latrobe mastered German, French, Greek, and Latin, had advanced ability in Italian and Spanish, and knowledge of Hebrew.

When Latrobe returned to England in 1784, he entered apprenticeship under John Smeaton, an engineer known for designing Eddystone Lighthouse. Then in 1787 or 1788, he worked as an apprentice with neoclassical architect S.P. Cockerell, serving for a brief time before leaving to practice the profession. In 1790, Latrobe was hired as Surveyor of the Public Offices in London, and established his own private practice in 1791. Latrobe was commissioned in 1792 to design Hammerwood Park, near East Grinstead in Sussex, which was his first independent work, and he designed nearby Ashdown House in 1793. Latrobe was involved in construction of the Basingstoke Canal in Surrey, together with engineers John Smeaton and William Jessop. In spring 1793, Latrobe was hired to plan improvements to the River Blackwater from Maldon to Beeleigh, so that the port of Maldon could compete with the Chelmer and Blackwater Navigation, which bypassed the town. The project lasted until early 1795, when Parliament denied approval of his plan. Latrobe had problems getting payment for his work on the project, and faced bankruptcy.

In February 1790, Latrobe married Lydia Sellon, and they lived a busy social life in London. The couple had a daughter (Lydia Sellon Latrobe) and son (Henry Sellon Latrobe), before she died in November 1793 during childbirth of a third child. Lydia had inherited her father's wealth, which in turn was to be left to the children through a trust with the children's uncles, but never ended up going to the children. In 1795, after his wife's death, Latrobe suffered a severe nervous breakdown and decided to emigrate to America, departing on November 25 aboard the Eliza.

Later in America, Latrobe was known for his series of topological and landscape watercolours and the series started with a view of the White Cliffs of the south coast of England viewed from the Eliza. However, this was preceded by a watercolour of East Grinstead dated Sept 8th 1795.

Virginia

Latrobe arrived in Norfolk, Virginia in mid-March 1796 after a harrowing four month journey aboard the ship, which was plagued with food shortages and near starvation conditions. Latrobe initially spent time in Norfolk, where he designed the William Pennock House, then set out for Richmond, Virginia in April 1796. Soon after arriving in Virginia, Latrobe became friends with Bushrod Washington, nephew of President George Washington, along with Edmund Randolph and other notable figures. Through Bushrod Washington, Latrobe was able to pay a visit to Mount Vernon to meet with the President in the summer of 1796.

Latrobe's first major project in the United States was the State Penitentiary in Richmond, commissioned in 1797. The penitentiary included many innovative ideas in penal reform, espoused by Thomas Jefferson and other figures, including cells arranged in a semicircle, similar but not identical to Jeremy Bentham's panopticon, that allowed for easy surveillance, as well as improved living conditions for sanitation and ventilation. He also pioneered the use of solitary confinement in the Richmond penitentiary. While in Virginia, Latrobe worked on the Green Spring mansion near Williamsburg, which had been built by Governor Sir William Berkeley in the 17th century, but fell into disrepair after the American Revolutionary War. Latrobe created designs for Fort Nelson in Virginia in 1798. He also made drawings for a number of houses that were not built, including the Mill Hill plantation house near Richmond.

After spending a year in Virginia, the novelty of being in a new place wore off, and Latrobe was lonely and restless in Virginia. Giambattista Scandella, a friend, suggested Philadelphia as an ideal location for him. In April 1798, Latrobe visited Philadelphia for the first time, meeting with Bank of Pennsylvania president Samuel J. Fox, and presented a design for a new bank building. At the time, the political climate in Philadelphia was quite different than Virginia, with a strong division between the Federalists and Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans, along with anti-French sentiment, thus the city was not entirely welcoming for Latrobe. On his way to Philadelphia, Latrobe passed through Washington, D.C., where he met with William Thornton and viewed the United States Capitol for the first time. He stopped by Washington again on his way back to Richmond. Latrobe remained in Richmond, Virginia until November 1798 when his design was selected for the Bank of Pennsylvania. He moved to Philadelphia, so that he could supervise the construction, though he continued to do occasional projects for clients in Virginia.

Philadelphia

Upon arriving in Philadelphia, Latrobe's two friends, Scandella and Volney, had left due to concerns regarding the Alien and Sedition Acts, but Latrobe made friends with some of their acquaintances at the American Philosophical Society. Latrobe submitted several papers to the society, on his geology and natural history observations, and became a member of the society. With his charming personality, Latrobe quickly made other friends among the influential financial and business families in Philadelphia, and became close friends with Nicholas Roosevelt, a talented steam-engine builder who would help Latrobe in his waterworks projects.

Latrobe's first major project in Philadelphia was to design the Bank of Pennsylvania, which was the first example of Greek Revival architecture in the United States. The Bank of Pennsylvania building was since demolished in 1870. This commission is what convinced him to set up his practice in Philadelphia, where he developed his reputation. Latrobe was also hired to design the Fairmount Water Works in Philadelphia. The Pump House, located at Center Square, was designed by Latrobe in a Greek Revival style. Following his work on the Philadelphia water works project, Latrobe worked as an engineer of the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.

In addition to Greek Revival designs, Latrobe also used Gothic Revival designs in many of his works, including the 1799 design of Sedgeley, a country mansion in Philadelphia. The Gothic Revival style was also used in Latrobe's design of the Philadelphia Bank building, which was built in 1807 and demolished in 1836. As a young architect, Robert Mills worked as an assistant with Latrobe from 1803 until 1808 when he set up his own practice. While in Philadelphia, Latrobe married Mary Elizabeth Hazlehurst in 1800.

Washington, D.C.

In the United States, Latrobe quickly achieved eminence as the first professional architect working in the country. Latrobe was a friend of Thomas Jefferson, likely influencing Jefferson's design for the University of Virginia. Latrobe also knew James Monroe, as well as New Orleans architect and pirate, Barthelemy Lafon, was Aaron Burr's preferred architect, and he trained architect William Strickland.

In 1803, Jefferson hired Latrobe as surveyor of the Public Buildings of the United States, and to work on as superintendent of construction of the United States Capitol. As construction of the Capitol was already underway, Latrobe was tasked to work with William Thornton's plans which Latrobe criticized. In an 1803 letter to Vice President Aaron Burr, he characterized the plans and work done as "faulty construction". Nonetheless, President Thomas Jefferson insisted that Latrobe follow Thornton's design for the Capitol.


Latrobe Gate at the Washington Navy Yard

Although Latrobe's major work was overseeing construction of the United States Capitol, he also was responsible for numerous other projects in Washington. In 1804, became chief engineer in the United States Navy. As chief surveyor, Latrobe was responsible for the Washington Canal. Latrobe faced bureaucratic hurdles in moving forward with the canal, with the Directors of the Company rejecting his request for stone locks. Instead, the canal was built with wooden locks which were subsequently destroyed in a heavy storm in 1811. Latrobe also designed the main gate of the Washington Navy Yard. Latrobe worked on other transportation projects in Washington, D.C., including the Washington & Alexandria Turnpike which connected Washington with Alexandria, as well as a road connecting with Frederick, Maryland, and a third road, the Columbia Turnpike going through Bladensburg to Baltimore. Latrobe also provided consulting on the construction of the Washington Bridge across the Potomac River in a way that would not impede navigation and commerce to Georgetown.

Benjamin Latrobe was responsible for several other projects located around Lafayette Square, including St. John's Episcopal Church, Decatur House, and the White House porticos. Private homes designed by Latrobe include commissions by John P. Van Ness and Peter Casanove.

In June 1812, construction of the Capitol came to a halt with the outbreak of the War of 1812 and the failure of the First Bank of the United States. During the war, Latrobe relocated to Pittsburgh, and returned to Washington in 1815, as Architect of the Capitol, charged with responsibility of rebuilding the Capitol after it was destroyed in the war. Latrobe was given more freedom in rebuilding the Capitol, to apply his own design elements for the interior. Through much of Latrobe's time in Washington, he remained involved to some extent with his private practice and other projects in Philadelphia and elsewhere. His clerk of works, John Lenthal, often urged Latrobe to spend more time in Washington.

By 1817, Latrobe had provided President James Monroe with complete drawings for the entire building. He resigned as Architect of the Capitol on November 20, 1817, and without this major commission, Latrobe faced difficulties and was forced into bankruptcy. Latrobe left Washington, for Baltimore in January 1818.

Latrobe left Washington with pessimism, with the city's design contradicting many of his ideals. Latrobe disliked the Baroque-style plan for the city, and other aspects of L'Enfant's plan, and resented having to conform to Thornton's plans for the Capitol Building. One of the greatest problems with the overall city plan, in the view of Latrobe, was its vast interior distances, and Latrobe considered the Washington Canal as a key factor that, if successful, could help alleviate this issue. Latrobe also had concerns about the city's economic potential, and argued for constructing a road connecting Washington with Frederick to the northwest to enhance economic commerce through Washington.

Baltimore

Latrobe also worked on projects in Baltimore, including the Baltimore Basilica, the first Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United States of America commissioned by John Carroll. Construction of the Baltimore Basilica commenced in 1806, and was completed in 1821, after financial setbacks interrupted construction for a number of years. Latrobe also worked on the Baltimore Exchange project, with hopes of generating more financial capital to use for the waterworks project, completing the project in 1818. He left for New Orleans in December 1818, arriving on January 10, 1819.

New Orleans

Latrobe saw great potential for growth in New Orleans, situated at the mouth of the Mississippi River, with the advent of the steamboat and great interest in steamboat technology. Latrobe's first project in New Orleans was the New Orleans Custom House, built in 1807.

In 1810, Latrobe sent his son, Henry Sellon Boneval Latrobe, to New Orleans to present a plan for a waterworks system before the New Orleans City Council. Latrobe's plan for the New Orleans waterworks system was based on that of Philadelphia, which he earlier designed. The system in Philadelphia was created as a response to yellow fever epidemics affecting the city. Latrobe's system utilized steam pumps to move water from the Schuylkill River to a reservoir, located upstream, so that gravity could be used to transmit the water from there to residents in the city. The New Orleans waterworks project was also designed to desalt water, using steam-powered pumps. While in New Orleans, Latrobe's son participated in battles during the War of 1812, and took on projects including building a lighthouse, New Orleans' Charity Hospital, and the French Opera House.

New Orleans agreed to commission the waterworks project in 1811, though Latrobe was not ready to take on the project immediately, and faced financial problems in securing enough investors for the project. Latrobe's work on the United States Capitol was completed shortly before the War of 1812 started, ending his source of steady income. During the war, Latrobe unsuccessfully tried several wartime schemes to make money, including some steamboat projects. In 1814, Latrobe partnered with Robert Fulton in a steamship venture based at Pittsburgh. While in Pittsburgh, Latrobe designed and built a theater for the Circus of Pepin and Breschard. After the United States Capitol and White House were burned during the war, Latrobe remained in Washington, D.C. to help with rebuilding, and Latrobe's son took on much of the work for waterworks project.

Latrobe faced further delays with the New Orleans waterworks project, trying to get an engine built for the project, which he finally achieved in 1819. The process of designing and constructing the waterworks system in New Orleans spanned eleven years. In addition to the waterworks project, Latrobe designed the central tower of the St. Louis Cathedral, which was his last architectural project. Latrobe died September 30, 1820 from yellow fever, while working in New Orleans on the waterworks project. He was buried in Saint Louis Cemetery in New Orleans, where his son, Henry, was buried three years earlier after also dying from yellow fever.

Architecture

Influences

Image: Wikipedia Commons/Walterr446
For his architectural accomplishments, Benjamin Latrobe is honored, together with Thomas U. Walter, in a ceiling mosaic in the East Mosaic Corridor at the entrance to the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress.

While studying in Germany, Latrobe was mentored by a Baron Karl von Schachmann, a classical scholar interested in art and collecting. Around 1783, Latrobe made the decision to become an architect, a decision influenced by the baron. While Latrobe was in Germany, a new architectural movement, led by Carl Gotthard Langhans and others, was emerging with return to more Classical or Vitruvian designs.

In 1784, Latrobe set off on a Grand Tour around Europe, visiting Paris where the Panthéon, a church dedicated to St. Genevieve, was nearing completion. The Panthéon in Paris, designed by Jacques Germain Soufflot and Jean Rondelet, represented an early example of Neoclassicism. At that time, Claude Nicolas Ledoux was designing numerous houses in France, in Neoclassical style. Latrobe also visited Rome, where he was impressed by the Roman Pantheon and other ancient structures with Greek influence. Influential architects in Britain, at the time when Latrobe returned in 1784, adhered to a number of different styles. Sir William Chambers was at the forefront, designing in Palladianism style, while Chambers' rival, Robert Adam's designs had Roman influence, in a style known as Adam style. Latrobe was interested in neither the Palladian nor Adam style, but Neoclassicalism was also being introduced to Great Britain at the time by George Dance the Younger. Other British architects, including John Soane and Henry Holland, also designed in the Neoclassical style while Latrobe was in London.

During his European tour, Latrobe also gathered ideas on how American cities should be designed. He suggested city blocks be laid out as thin rectangles, with the long side of the blocks oriented east-west so that as many houses as possible could be facing in the southerly direction. For a city to succeed, he thought it needed to be established only in places with good prospects for commerce and industrial growth, and with a good water supply. Public health was another key consideration of Latrobe, who believed that the eastern shores of rivers were unhealthy, due to prevailing direction of the wind, and recommended cities be built on the western shores of rivers.

Greek Revival in America

Latrobe brought from England influences of British Neoclassicism, and was able to combine it with styles introduced by Thomas Jefferson, to devise an American Greek Revival style. John Summerson described the Bank of Pennsylvania, as an example of how Latrobe "married English Neo-Classicism to Jeffersonian Neo-Classicism [and] ... from that moment, the classical revival in America took on a national form". The American form of Greek Revival architecture that Latrobe developed became associated with political ideals of democracy-meaning that was less apparent in Britain. The direct link between the Greek Revival and American democracy has been disputed by recent scholars such as W. Barksdale Maynard, who sees the Greek Revival as an international phenomenon.

Selected Works

Houses

When Latrobe began private practice in England, his first projects were alterations to existing houses, along with designing Hammerwood Park and also Ashdown House, East Sussex. Alterations done early in his career may have included Tanton Hall, Sheffield Park, Frimley, and Teston Hall, though these homes have since been altered and it is difficult now to isolate Latrobe's work in the current designs. His designs were simpler, than was typical at the time, and had influences of Robert Adam. Features in his designs often included Greek ionic, as used in Ashdown House, or doric columns, seen in Hammerwood Park, as part of the front porticos.

Latrobe continued to design houses after he emigrated to the United States, mostly using Greek Revival designs. Three House still stand that Latrobe designed. The Decatur House in Washington DC, Adena in Chillicothe, Ohio and the Pope Villa in Lexington, Kentucky. The Pope Villa in Lexington, Kentucky is one of only three extant Latrobe residences in the United States. As one of Latrobe's most avant-garde designs, the Pope Villa has national significance for its unique design. He also introduced Gothic Revival architecture to the United States, in designing the Sedgeley mansion. A theme seen in many of Latrobe's designs are plans with squarish-dimensions and a central, multi-story hall with a cupola to provide lighting, which was contrary to the popular trend of the time of building houses with long narrow plans.


The following is taken directly from: , researcher Pamela Scott, Library of Congress.

Image: Library of Congress/Pubic Domain
B. Henry Latrobe, architect. Entrance Hall, Commodore Stephen Decatur House, 748 Jackson Place, N.W., Washington, D.C. Plan, elevations, and section. Graphite, ink, wash, and watercolor on paper. 1818.

Image: Wiki Commons/AgnosticPreachersKid
The Decatur House, a National Historic Landmark, on Jackson Place in Lafayette Park, Washington, D.C.

"Latrobe's drawings of his residential works, both executed and proposed, form the basis for their in-depth study, as only four of his American houses survive. The best known of these is the cubic house he designed for Stephen Decatur (1817-8) facing Lafayette Square (ADE - UNIT 2558). The relationship between Latrobe's drawings and buildings is succinctly demonstrated by his drawing for the Decatur House vestibule: his ability to convey the three-dimensional spatial quality of architecture simultaneously with the physicality of architectural form. The excitement of Latrobe's drawings is that they record with immediacy and beauty the process of his architectural thought, the transference of ideas to paper complete with information for the next step in the process, the means both visual and written to accomplish construction by artisans.

No other American architect of Latrobe's generation left such a rich graphic legacy of domestic architecture of the federal period, albeit drawings for some of his Washington houses, such as that for John P. Van Ness, formerly located at the northwest corner of Constitution and 17th Streets, are unfortunately lost, while those for some of his unexecuted designs survive (John Tayloe House, ADE - UNIT 2886). Latrobe's sophisticated command of small-scale architectural forms and imaginative domestic arrangements were unsurpassed in his day, and arguably stand near the acme of American residential design. Latrobe's considerable influence on contemporary builders and architects was particularly strong in Georgetown and Washington, where even details as simple as his sunken circular molding to terminate lintels that extend beyond the window or door openings (bull's-eye lintels) were widely copied (HABS DC-16, sheet 5 of 5 and HABS - DC, WASH, 28-24)."

For More Information:

List of works by Benjamin Henry Latrobe

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