Latrobe’s America

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Despite violent verbal assaults from the aqueduct company—accusing Latrobe of greed, incompetence, alcoholism, and a highly suspicious foreign background—the city fathers saw the functional beauty of his plan, and he was appointed city engineer to carry it out. Months of difficulty followed, yet by January, 1801, the system was ready for operation. One night near the end of that month Latrobe and a few friends built fires under the boilers of the steam pumps, and the next morning the citizens of Philadelphia were delighted to find pure water gushing out of the new hydrants. Not only did Latrobe’s scheme work admirably, but the pumphouse he designed for Centre Square, the heart of the system, possessed a grace far transcending its mundane function; a domed structure of classic proportions, it immensely pleased the citizenry and was a beloved landmark for many years.

Meanwhile other facets of Latrobe’s career were developing just as favorably. Construction of the Bank of Pennsylvania went steadily ahead, and by widespread agreement it took shape as the most beautiful large building in Philadelphia—if not in the entire country. It was the first full embodiment of the Greek Revival in America, and the noble simplicity of its lofty Ionic marble columns and superbly vaulted ceilings set an example which had a profound effect on the future of American architecture.

Swiftly becoming known and admired as the man responsible for the new waterworks and the new bank, Latrobe also found in Philadelphia a human relationship which he had been deprived of since his days in England. Mary Elizabeth Hazlehurst, daughter of a prominent merchant, struck him as combining the attributes of beauty, good breeding, wit, and personal warmth that would make him happy; and since the lady was more than willing, they were married in May of 1800. The architect’s two young children, whom he had sorely missed since leaving them in England five years before, now arrived, and Latrobe’s happiness was complete.

Yet there were irksome problems. As a professional man he depended for his livelihood on fees that came in much less regularly than those of a doctor or lawyer; and there was fiercer competition. In 1802 he submitted an interesting design for the New York City Hall. An influential New York friend, Aaron Burr, predicted an easy win, but the award went to someone else. Latrobe’s plans for a stone bridge from Manhattan to Long Island were also rejected: his estimated cost of $950,000 was considered impossibly high. He rebuilt the interior of Nassau Hall, Princeton, after a fire, and designed a handsome building for Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, which serves to this day; but for both of these educational efforts Latrobe highmindedly refused any commission. A much bigger assignment, again without pay, was the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Baltimore, which was to keep him busy intermittently for more than a decade. There were other jobs, such as private houses; but the going was so rough that when, in 1802, President Jefferson called him to Washington for consultation on various federal projects, Latrobe felt relieved as well as flattered.

The first assignment Jefferson had in mind for Latrobe was the President’s own invention, and one of which he was very fond. Concerned about maintaining the United States Navy ready for action even in peaceful times, he had conceived of an enormous dry dock capable of preserving a dozen frigates under one roof. The grand sweep of the scheme excited Latrobe. He produced, in record time, a preliminary design that even inflated Jefferson’s dream: the covered dry dock was to be 165 feet wide and 800 feet long—about the size of a modern dirigible hangar. Expense was estimated at $417,276. The President was greatly pleased, but this was thinking too big for the Congress of 1802. They voted the project down after sarcastic speeches denouncing its Brobdingnagian dimensions and astronomical cost.

The dry-dock scheme at any rate drew Latrobe and Jefferson closely together, and despite inevitable frictions between two men equally strong-minded, they remained good friends. Jefferson was most anxious to get on with the construction of the federal buildings, especially the Capitol, and in the spring of 1803 he appointed Latrobe Surveyor of the Public Buildings of the United States. Now began ten years of intense work that would bring a strange mélange of triumphs, frustrations, satisfactions, and defeats. Latrobe was unwavering in his determination to build a capitol worthy of his own soaring conception of the American destiny; and this he largely achieved against a long series of heartbreaking obstacles. Minor irritations, like Jefferson’s suggestion of wooden columns for the House of Representatives, he handled easily. The almost constant complaints and monetary reluctance of Congress, however, at times made his career in Washington almost unendurable; and worse than that, he was working from the start under the disadvantage of plans left by half-successful predecessors.