Latrobe’s America


The chief villain of the piece, from Latrobe’s point of view, was Dr. William Thornton, the accomplished dilettante whose basic plans for the Capitol had won George Washington’s approval in 1793. Latrobe would have been among the first to acknowledge Thornton as a gifted amateur—but he also understood perhaps better than anyone that the design of such a building was not the province of the amateur. Three architectsStephen Hallet, George Hadfield, and James Hoban—already had worked under Thornton’s supervision, without successfully translating his plans into reality. Now the Doctor was convinced that the newcomer was a usurper out to rob him of his reputation and ruin his design for the Capitol. Latrobe’s earnest attempts to explain just what he found wrong in Thornton’s plans met with indignant rebuffs. The trouble went far beyond the level of personalities, moreover, for Latrobe found it impossible to correlate precisely the few drawings he was able to get from Thornton with the work actually done on the unfinished south wing—everything was in a state of uncertainty. Still, Congress reverently insisted that “General Washington’s” plans—that is, Thornton’s—must be adhered to as closely as possible, and Jefferson, although he recognized Latrobe’s difficulties, felt obliged to proceed generally on that basis.

In these awkward circumstances Latrobe’s usually civil temper was put under strain, yet in the early stages of the controversy he was able to joke about his troubles with Thornton. One problem was the shape of the House chamber. Thornton’s plan called for a great oval, and some of the foundations were laid with that in view. Latrobe, convinced that such a chamber would have grave deficiencies of lighting and acoustics, would have preferred a single semi-circle; but he went ahead in accordance with Jefferson’s wishes, merely modifying the oval into two semicircles connected in the center by a rectangular space. “Of this I can make a very good thing of the sort ,” he wrote his chief assistant, explaining the italics with an anecdote about an old gentleman named Izzard, who was asked whether so-and-so was not “a good sort of man.” ” ‘N, N, Ne-ne-no!’ said Mr. Izzard, who stuttered violently, ‘He, he, he’s a goo-good man of a G, G God damn’d bad sort.’ This I say of my plan and no more.”

With all his troubles, the calendar of Latrobe’s Washington years—he moved his family there in 1807 and they stayed until 1813—marked many days of pleasure and excitement. The new federal capital was a bustling place. It was raw and unfinished, a “city of magnificent distances” as one foreign visitor called it, but it was the heart of the youthful country’s national activity, and it pulsed with a sense of the future. In the new houses that went up at a brisk and fairly steady rate, a broad variety of social entertainments spun themselves into an exhilarating social whirl. Mary Latrobe, the architect’s wife, had been a childhood friend of Dolley Madison in Philadelphia, and with such an entree the Latrobes themselves were soon the center of an active and brilliant group. In addition to the Madisons and the Jeffersons, they visited or were visited by the Joel Barlows, the Bushrod Washingtons, the Henry Clays, Robert Fulton, Washington Irving, Gilbert Stuart, and scores of others whose names are far less familiar but whose social attributes were no less delightful. Meanwhile Latrobe’s own name gradually assumed national prominence, his days were full of hard but rewarding work, and his charming children—there were now five—grew older and more accomplished.

Like most parents, however, the Latrobes occasionally had reason to doubt the wisdom of their offspring. In 1805 the oldest girl, Lydia, had stunned them by falling precipitately in love, at the age of thirteen, with Nicholas Roosevelt of New York and New Jersey, a great-great-uncle of “T. R.” One of the leading industrial entrepreneurs of the period, Roosevelt had built the big steam engines for the Philadelphia waterworks, and was among Latrobe’s closest friends. He ardently returned Lydia’s passion, and despite their daughter’s tender age the Latrobes might have looked upon the lovers with some benevolence except for one thing. Nicholas Roosevelt at thirty-seven was less than four years younger than Latrobe himself, and thus literally old enough to be Lydia’s father. The thing was impossible, the Latrobes felt, and they made almost desperate efforts to discourage it.