Latrobe’s America

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Thomas Jefferson was impatient. Work on the United States Capitol had been progressing only fitfully since George Washington had approved the architectural plans in 1793; and now, in the fall of 1803, things seemed to be moving at a glacial pace. The north wing, to be sure, had been finished for several years and was in use by the Senate—in fact, the floor beams were already beginning to rot and the roof leaked badly. Meanwhile the south wing, intended for the House of Representatives, existed only as a crude temporary structure built on a more or less permanent base; and the middle section was just a confused network of uncompleted foundations. In March, 1803, President Jefferson had appointed a new architect to push the work along; yet here it was November and nothing palpable had been accomplished.

In this irritating situation, and with Congress grumbling bitterly about the delays, Jefferson—himself an amateur architect—made what he thought was a constructive suggestion. Why not, he said, build the great columns for the House of Representatives out of wood? It would be cheaper, and above all it would be quicker than waiting for the stonecutters to hew the massive stone segments which the architect had called for.

The Maryland Historical Society has recently acquired an extraordinary historical treasure: 8,800 letters, 325 paintings and drawings, and 14 diaries, all from the hand of Benjamin Henry Latrobe. James W. Foster, director of the Society from 1942 until his unexpected death last spring, devoted much time to securing the collection, which he described as “without parallel in this country.” This article is based in part on a study of the Maryland Latrobe collection; and most of the color portfolio beginning on page 41 is drawn from it by special arrangement with the Society.

But Jefferson had figured without fully knowing the temper of the man he had recently employed. “The wooden column idea,” the architect declared in a hasty message to his chief assistant, “is one with which I never will have anything to do. On that you may rely. I will give up my office sooner than build a temple of disgrace to myself and Mr. Jefferson.”

The man whose stubborn integrity envisioned a United States Capitol as enduring as the Constitution that it symbolized was Benjamin Henry Latrobe. An American only since 1796, when he had voyaged to Virginia from England, he had wholeheartedly adopted the new nation as his own, and was on the way to becoming the most influential architect and engineer of its adolescent years.

Yet Latrobe’s contribution to United States culture did not end with the many structures, public and private, that he designed and built. A man of quick sensibility and intense curiosity, he has left us, besides, a uniquely evocative panorama of early America as he saw and recorded it in hundreds of sketches, water colors, letters, and painstakingly kept journals.

Adversity brought Benjamin Latrobe to America, as it brought thousands of others before and after. At twenty-eight he was one of London’s most promising young architects, with a lovely wife and two children; the future looked good. At twenty-nine he was unemployed, a widower, and in political disfavor. Architectural commissions had dwindled disastrously with the outbreak of war between England and France in 1793, and Latrobe’s French name and known approval of the French Revolution did not help matters. Then, in the fall of 1793, his young wife died in childbirth.

Latrobe tried for two years to recoup his fortune, but with little luck. Morose over the loss of his wife, he fell into gloomy ways which decreased the already scant demand for his skills. Finally he decided on a fresh start: he would try America. His mother was an American who had come from Pennsylvania to study in an English Moravian school and remained to marry a Moravian minister; her son Benjamin was born on May i, 1764. She not only had taught him much about the colonies, but had left him some American real estate. With an excellent continental education and several years’ professional experience behind him, Latrobe had every reason to expect that his architectural talents would be valuable in the new republic across the Atlantic. He left his infant children in the care of relatives and took passage near the close of 1795.

Landing in Norfolk in mid-March, 1796, Latrobe plunged into an effort to become acquainted with the country. It was an era when men of culture and intellect easily met others of their kind if they could surmount practical obstacles. By dint of cheerful travel, mostly on horseback over muddy roads, Latrobe met and conversed with scores of eminent Virginians before he had been in America six months. The Pennocks, the Skipwiths, the Blackburns, the Randolphs, the Bushrod Washingtons—all were his hosts, and all found him charming and extraordinarily gifted. He sketched and painted, he wrote poetry, he displayed his various musical and linguistic abilities; and he designed an elegant house—his first in America —for Captain Pennock, of Norfolk. At the same time he kept up his journal, filling it with penetrating observations on the look of the countryside, the character of the great houses (he found them shabby by European standards), and the demeanor of American women (he found them lovely and unaffected).