The architect, engineer, and humanist Bejamin Henry Latrobe is widely considered the first professional architect in America, a controversial title among partisans of various master builder/architects such as Robert Smith and Samuel McIntire or gentlemen amateurs such as Thomas Jefferson and William Thornton. The son of Benjamin and Anna (Antes) Latrobe, the future architect was born in Fulneck, near Leeds, and spent his boyhood in England and his youth in Germany. Returning to England in 1784, Latrobe worked in the offices of John Smeaton and Samuel Pepys Cockerell. In private practice between 1791 and 1796, Latrobe migrated to the United States, arriving at Norfolk, VA, in March of 1796. Two years later he moved to Philadelphia, a surprisingly long delay in reaching the cultural and architectural capital of the new nation. A few years later, in fact, Latrobe would remark of Philadelphia, "although the course of my business has for some years separated me from you for the greater part of every year, I feel that my home is here."
It was Latrobe's appointment as architect of the Bank of Pennsylvania (1798-1801; demolished c.1870) that eventually brought him to Philadelphia. The resulting structure is generally credited as the first major, American example in the Greek Revival style and would remain in his own mind Latrobe's finest work. The Bank of Pennsylvania was only the earliest of several "firsts" for America from this talented hand. In 1799 Latrobe designed the first American country house in the Gothic Revival style ("Sedgeley" on the banks of the Schuylkill River, demolished, 1857), and the same year began the Philadelphia Waterworks (1799-1801) that proved to be the model for other American cities. In addition to great civic projects, Latrobe provided designs for speculative row houses (700 block of Walnut St.) and for outstanding individual town properties such as Edward Shippen Burd's house on Chestnut Street and the William Waln Mansion. Latrobe later remarked, "I have changed the taste of a whole city;" and although he found both the Carpenters' Company and amateur architects such as John Dorsey irritating, he could write, "Here I am the only successful architect and engineer. I have had to break the ice for my successors." In 1800, Latrobe married Philadelphian Mary Elizabeth Hazlehurst (1771-1841). His circle of friends in this city was large, and he was elected to the American Philosophical Society and the Society of Artists.
Constantly plagued by financial difficulties brought on in no small part by a trusting and overly generous nature, Latrobe accepted President Jefferson's appointment as surveyor of public buildings (1803) with his chief responsibility being the completion of the Capitol in Washington. For most of the balance of his life the Capitol and the Baltimore Roman Catholic Cathedral (1804-1820) would be Latrobe's overriding concerns, although he continued to design buildings for clients in several parts of the nation, including Philadelphia where his erstwhile assistants Robert Mills and William Strickland were establishing successful careers. Latrobe's influence on American architecture and the profession of architect in this country would be difficult to overestimate. While the United States Capitol and the Baltimore Cathedral remain his chief and most readily identified monuments, other of his works--most notably those in Philadelphia--and the careers of native architects that he helped to set into motion, profoundly altered the look of American in the first decades of the nineteenth century.
Roger W. Moss.
Clubs and Membership Organizations
- American Philosophical Society
- Society of Artists
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