Latrobe’s America


The meal itself Latrobe found rather stiff: There was very little conversation. … A few jokes passed between the President and young Lafayette, whom he treats more as his child than as a guest. [Lafayette was seventeen at the time.] I felt a little embarrassed at the silent, reserved air that prevailed. As I drink no wine, and the President drank only three glasses, the party soon returned to the portico. … The President retired in about ¾ of an hour.

Again, not wishing to exhaust his welcome, Latrobe prepared to leave and had actually ordered his horse to the door when Washington came to him and asked whether he departed upon “any very pressing business.” Latrobe said no, but that he did not wish to intrude upon the President’s more important affairs.

“Sir,” said Washington, “you see I take my own way. If you can be content to take yours at my house, I shall be glad to see you here longer.”

So Latrobe stayed for the night. Coffee was served about six o’clock, and Washington then again engaged his guest in conversation on a wide scope of topicsmost of them, however, of an agricultural color. There is just a suspicion that Latrobe was a little bored: “He gave me a very minute account of the Hessian fly and its progress from Long Island, where it first appeared, through New York, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Delaware, part of Pennsylvania, & Maryland. It has not yet appeared in Virginia, but is daily dreaded.” The talk droned on while the summer darkness fell; and about 8 P.M. , the ladies having already vanished, Washington surprised Latrobe by bidding him good-night and going off, evidently to bed. The young architect, who by this time would have been gratified at the sight of food, was left to be conducted by a servant to his chamber. On what can only be presumed to have been a rather hollow note, he inscribed in his journal: “There was no hint of supper.”

Arising with the sun, possibly as a result of hunger, Latrobe went out and again walked the grounds of Mount Vernon. When he returned, “The President came to the company in the sitting room about ½ hour past seven, where all the latest newspapers were laid out. … Breakfast was served up in the usual Virginia style. Tea, coffee, and cold & broiled meat. It was very soon over, & for an hour afterwards, he stood upon the steps of the west door talking to the company who were collected around him. The subject was chiefly the establishment of the University at the Federal City [Washington, D.C.].”

The visit ended shortly after that. Latrobe noted later in his journal: “On the morning of my departure he treated me as if I had lived for years in his house, with ease and attention, but … I thought there was a slight air of moroseness about him, as if something had vexed him.”

Acquaintance with some of the leading figures of the day brought Latrobe professional work as well as numerous social engagements. Settling in Richmond, he was soon enormously busy—designing homes, attending parties, painting the water colors of which he was so fond, courting young ladies with impromptu poetry, even writing a comedy for a popular actress of the day who had caught his fancy. (He reports that he wrote the play in twenty-six hours—and it survived not much longer than that, for the theatre burned down after one performance—”a judgment on the house for the prostitution committed on the stage,” according to an unfriendly critic.)

This early period of Latrobe’s Americanization also saw the first of his public works in this country. It was a prison—not a likely project, one might think, for his benevolent temperament; but in fact the Richmond penitentiary showed in its design many features which were humane innovations in accord with the new views of crime and punishment advanced by Thomas Jefferson. Latrobe won the commission by competition, and his design was duly carried out, but he had trouble collecting his fee—an ominous foreshadowing of business frustrations which would plague him until his death.

A visit to Philadelphia in the spring of 1798 convinced Latrobe that this, the exciting and wealthy capital of the young country, was the best place for his activities. Dining one evening with the president of the Bank of Pennsylvania, he quickly sketched a plan for a new bank building which was so impressive that, a few months later, Latrobe was asked to come and work out a full design. By Christmas of 1798 he was happily settled as a Philadelphia resident, and hard at work.

Never a man to do just one thing at a time, Latrobe no sooner got started on the plans for the Bank of Pennsylvania than he dove into the middle of a controversy about Philadelphia’s water supply. The growing city still depended on shallow wells, and these were so contaminated by sewage that a drink of clean, good-tasting water was scarcely to be had anywhere in the central part of town. The obvious source of good water was the Schuylkill, but getting it out of the river was a problem. A group of Philadelphians had formed a company to bring it into the city by gravity, through a four-mile aqueduct leading from the falls north of the city. Upon this plan Latrobe cast the skeptical eye of a man well-trained in engineering as well as architecture. He found it full of technical faults, and he countered with a radical proposal: take the water from the Schuylkill just outside Philadelphia, and achieve the necessary pressure with steam pumps. Rapidly he drew up a detailed outline of his scheme and presented it to the city council.