Emerging Revolutionary War welcomes guest historian Darien Ashley. A short bio follows this post.
The best architecture is that which reflects clearly the ideals and activities of the people which inhabit it. This is true for both private dwellings and public buildings. The objects of architecture serve as a lasting testament to identity. These objects, once created, continue to shape minds long after the architect is gone. A nation’s capital city is a site where man can establish glorious structures which convey a sense of who the people are, where they came from, and where they intend to go. The United States Capitol building is a prime example of a structure that continues to inform American identity long after its architects have passed. This article serves as an investigation of the life of one of the most important architects of not only the Capitol, but of the nation itself, Benjamin Henry Latrobe.
Guests to the United States Capitol building often get a shock from the fact that one of its primary architects, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, was an Englishman. Indeed, the man who designed the hallowed, old halls of Congress hailed from a Moravian religious settlement located on the outskirts of Leeds, England. However, Latrobe himself would have objected to the label “Englishman”. Indeed, throughout his life, Latrobe referred to the United States as “his” country and was quick to point out that his mother, Anna Margaretta Antes, was born and raised in Pennsylvania. Latrobe’s father, Benjamin Henry Latrobe Sr., met Anna after she had been sent to London to finish her education. Both of Latrobe’s parents held prominent positions within the Moravian ministry and raised their children to follow in their example.
The Moravian community of Fulneck, where Latrobe grew up, maintained a strict schooling system that meticulously monitored its children’s intellectual and spiritual development. At the age of five Moravian children were moved into dormitories supervised by elders of the church. The supervisors were learned men, many of which were of aristocratic backgrounds and graduated from the most prestigious universities of Europe. These men were responsible for managing Latrobe’s development for twelve years of his life, in order to prepare him for a career in the ministry. From an early age Latrobe proved to be a bright pupil, but the elders began to worry about the dissenting beliefs expressed by the mercurial boy.i Latrobe reveals in his journal a deistic philosophy, suggesting an indifference to any creed and a wish to manifest “a temple in my own heart unprofaned by external dictation”.ii In 1783, due to the persistent expression of such beliefs, Latrobe was asked by the Moravian elders to leave the community.
At 19 years of age, no longer destined for the ministry, Latrobe moved to London where his father had secured him employment with the stamp office. The precocious young man initially flourished in the new cosmopolitan setting, ingratiating himself within the intellectual salon culture of the city. The city allowed Latrobe to display his genius, eventually bringing him under the influence of two important mentors. Latrobe’s talents were first noticed by the engineer John Smeaton, in whose office Latrobe interned for many years. Later, in 1789, Latrobe was hired by Samuel Pepys Cockerell, who managed “one of London’s most active architectural practices,” allowing him an intimate acquaintance with architectural drafting.iii
After a busy year and a half with Cockerell and feeling confident in his abilities, Latrobe began his own practice. The practice received its first commission from John Sperling, a wealthy young man born of a prominent family. Like Latrobe, Sperling passed most of his time in London. However, due to the city’s rapid industrialization, he sought to construct a country villa as an escape from the grime of city life. The graceful, neo-classical mansion that resulted, Hammerwood Lodge, would bring an influx of work requests for the youthful upstart, Latrobe.
Looking back upon this early period of his life, Latrobe reflected in his journal, “I applied myself very industriously to my profession in which I succeeded with uncommon rapidity”.iv
Despite his early success, Latrobe soon ran into financial distress, a problem that plagued Latrobe throughout his life. Latrobe had difficulties negotiating proper payment for his services and often spent far more time and money on projects than was originally stipulated in his contracts. To make matters worse, by 1794 the English economy had entered a recession, drying up Latrobe’s commissions. As a result, in December of 1795 Latrobe declared bankruptcy. Moreover, Latrobe was struck with an even greater tragedy. His first wife, Lydia Sellon, met an untimely death due to complications in childbirth in November of 1793.
Falling into a grave depression due to the loss of his wife and his financial troubles, Latrobe determined in 1795 to leave England, the “country where everything reminded [him] how happy [he] had been and how miserable [he] was,” for a new beginning in America.v After a miserable three and a half months at sea, Latrobe made landfall at Norfolk, Virginia in March of 1796. There, he spent the next three and half years traveling throughout Virginia marveling at its natural beauty and meeting its leading families. Lucky for Virginians of the modern day, Latrobe’s unique perspective on the Old Dominion has been preserved in his meticulously maintained journal.
Being the artist that he was, Latrobe accompanied his observations with crude sketches and lively watercolors which offer us a window into life in the early republic.
Latrobe first’s major public commission in his new homeland was the Virginia State Penitentiary. The design Latrobe provided included both solitary and communal confinement spaces, a reflection on the liberal era’s emphasis on rehabilitation. Upon the cornerstone of the building Latrobe included a laconic description of the building along with its purpose, “a Monument of that wisdom which would reform while it punishes the criminal”.vi
In July of 1798 Latrobe won a competition held for the design of a new structure for the Bank of Pennsylvania. This led to his removal to Philadelphia to oversee its construction. According to the later testimony of his son, the bank “permanently established the professional reputation” of his father and gained “universal praise” for its “simplicity of construction, classic elegance of proportions and details, and its adaptation to the purpose to which it is intended”.vii Through the use of a novel steam-powered waterworks, Latrobe revealed his mechanical genius while in Philadelphia by supplying the city with clean water. The waterworks pumped water from the Schuylkill River into an elevated reservoir which gravity fed the water to pipes throughout the city. Ever aware of the importance of aesthetics, Latrobe hid the waterworks behind a Neo-classical marble facade.viii A decade later Latrobe was approached by the Governor of the Louisiana territory to replicate his waterworks for the newly acquired city of New Orleans. Work on the project was delayed many years due to the outbreak of the war of 1812.
In 1803 Latrobe was appointed Surveyor of Public Buildings by then president Thomas Jefferson. Latrobe’s attention was thereafter turned to the completion of both the Capitol building and the President’s house. Work on the Capitol began in 1793, with George Washington’s ceremonial laying of the building’s cornerstone. However, progress on the structure was slowed due to several complications including: the building’s design, labor shortages, and lack of funds. In fact, upon Latrobe’s arrival to the city, only the Senate wing had been completed. Latrobe immediately set to
construction of the house wing, completely reworking the interior design to provide space for committee rooms, storage, and office space. Next, Latrobe reworked the interior design of the senate wing. In addition to providing a chamber for the senate body, the wing included a chamber for the Supreme Court as it was without its own building at the time.
Latrobe’s genius was instrumental in sourcing proper materials for construction of the Capitol. Materials that would be capable of retaining their beauty over the passing of centuries. Such materials were expensive to quarry, sculpt and transport,
which often led to conflicts between the aesthetically conscious architect and a pecuniary minded congress. A perfect example of the material beauty born out of Latrobe’s supervision over the construction are the columns that fill both chambers of congress. Along the banks of the Potomac river,
Latrobe had discovered an extraordinary stone called breccia or puddling stone, which as he described, was comprised of “pebbles [of lovely green and beautiful red] rounded and mingled by attrition for ages…and cemented into a solid mass”.ix Thanks to the enduring materials which Latrobe used in constructing the Capitol, much of his work remained after the building was burned by invading British forces in 1814. The pictures included alongside this article show the chambers of congress as they looked after Latrobe refurbished them at the close of the war.
While not an exhaustive article, the information here presented serves to elucidate the life and works of an important contributor to the American identity, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, whose structures continue to inspire and shape American minds. It is the hope of the writer of this article that the reader now may hold a greater admiration for one of America’s greatest artists. Latrobe lost his life to yellow fever only a few years after completing his work on the Capitol, on September 3, 1820, while working to complete the New Orleans Waterworks .
Darien Ashley is employed in the historic preservation field in the Washington metropolitan area, having worked for the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, the Architect of the Capitol, and the Prince William Historic Preservation Department. Darien graduated with a Bachelors of Arts in History from the University of Virginia in 2018.
i. Jean H. Baker, Building America: The Life of Benjamin Henry Latrobe (New York, N.Y.: Oxford University Press), 18.
ii. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Journals, 3: 226-7.
iii. Jean H. Baker, Building America: The Life of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 34.
iv. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Journals, 1: 204.
v. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Papers, 1: 83.
vi. Jean H. Baker, Building America: The Life of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 51.
vii. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, The Journal of Latrobe: Being the Notes and Sketches of an Architect, Naturalist and Traveler in the United States from 1796 until 1820, (New York, D. Appelton and Company) xviii.
viii. Jean H. Baker, Building America: The Life of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 70.
ix. Jean H. Baker, Building America: The Life of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 208.