- Historic Sites
The great public buildings of a restless genius helped shape the face of his adopted country, and his journals, letters, and sketches brilliantly caught the spirit of the young nation
August 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 5
Their attempts were strikingly unsuccessful. Roosevelt and Lydia had become so violently enamoured that nothing short of stark prohibition would have deflected them; and Latrobe, who loved them both, was not much inclined to prohibit. He did demand a year’s “probation,” hoping that the relationship might cool, but they broke it with secret letters and even secret meetings. Then a lovers’ quarrel did occur, and for more than a year it looked as if the whole thing was indeed over. But Roosevelt was a houseguest not long after the Latrobes moved to Washington, and immediately the attachment was fervently resumed. By this time both Latrobe and his wife were reconciled—Lydia had become, at seventeen, one of Washington’s most attractive young ladies—and the marriage took place in the autumn of 1808. Dispelling all the fears of the parents, it turned out to be not only happy but full of excitement. One highlight was the fantastic maiden voyage of the New Orleans , first steamboat on the Mississippi, which Roosevelt built for Robert Fulton (see Leonard V. Huber’s “Heyday of the Floating Palace,” in the October, 1957, A MERICAN H ERITAGE ). Lydia was on that voyage, twenty years old, pregnant and scared, but dauntlessly pleased to share her husband’s historic adventure.
By the time the War of 1812 hovered on the political horizon, Benjamin Latrobe had finished a major contribution to the architecture of the United States Capitol. Under his direction the south wing was carried to completion as the most beautiful legislative chamber in the Western world. The design was Latrobe’s not only architecturally, but in terms of interior decoration, for he had specified most of the sculpture, the great crimson draperies, and the furniture. He also carried out, against formidable obstacles, a thorough renovation of Thornton’s defective work in the north wing. As an additional task, Latrobe undertook the extensive work of redecorating the White House in keeping with Dolley Madison’s perceptive taste, when the new administration began in 1809.
But the war was to leave most of his work in ruins. Not only did the British burn the White House in 1814, but the Capitol, too, was put to the torch, and its interiors thoroughly gutted. According to a story repeated by John H. B. Latrobe, the architect’s son, the British officer assigned to burn the Hall of Representatives paused in the entrance, and declared that it was a pity to burn anything so beautiful.
It was a time of multiple distress for Latrobe. The product of thousands of hours of devoted labor went up in smoke, and his financial affairs, never really prosperous, had recently taken the worst turn in years. For all his professional acumen Latrobe was a poor businessman, and time and again private venturesseveral of them in connection with Nicholas Roosevelt—ended in minor disaster. On top of that he was an easy touch for any friend wanting to borrow money, and by 1813 Latrobe had decided that to remain longer in Washington would mean bankruptcy. The most hopeful prospect for reviving his fortune seemed to be the steamboat business, in which both his son-inlaw and his friend Robert Fulton were heavily engaged. Fulton had set up a company to navigate the Ohio River by steam, and Latrobe arranged to move to Pittsburgh to superintend the construction of some of the boats. He left Washington in a bitter mood, writing to a friend that he was “bidding an eternal adieu to … this community … the more you stir it, the more it stinketh.”
He found Pittsburgh not much better, although at first the evils seemed merely physical: “Whoever can make up his mind to breathe dirt, & eat dirt, & be up to his knees in dirt,” Latrobe told a correspondent, “may live very happily Sc comfortably here.” Unfortunately it was not that simple. An account of his enterprises in Pittsburgh would be a tedious tale of further business failure, for zooming construction costs, rough competition, and serious misunderstandings with Fulton soon brought the steamboat company to absolute collapse. With it Latrobe’s health also collapsed. He had reached the bottom of his luck, and his letters in the spring of 1815 reveal a man sick in mind and body and almost at the point of giving up.
It was his brave wife Mary who saved him in this crisis. Without her husband’s knowledge she wrote eloquent and persuasive letters to the James Madisons and to her other important Washington friends, urging that Latrobe’s talents be used in rebuilding the ruined United States Capitol. She was rewarded with a large envelope carrying the President’s seal and con- taining an offer to reappoint Latrobe as the Capitol architect. He “wept like a child” when she presented it to him.
By July of 1815 they were back in Washington, with Latrobe surveying the rubble left by the British and already turning out dozens of drawings for the reconstruction. The south wing had been so fully demolished that he was able to redesign the House chamber in the shape he had always thought it should haveone large semicircle; and in many other matters the havoc of the British gave Latrobe scope for imaginative improvements. It was at this time that he designed his famous “tobacco capitals” for the columns of the Senate rotunda—still a tourist attraction, as are the “corn-cob capitals” he had done earlier for the Senate vestibule, which had survived the burning.