- 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
Yet his old troubles soon returned to vex him anew, this time aggravated by the fact that President James Monroe, who took office in 1817, gradually became convinced that Latrobe was extravagant with public money and slow to achieve results because of overattention to his private interests. These questionable conclusions were actively promoted by Colonel Samuel Lane, the official intermediary between Latrobe and Monroe. Under pressure from Congress to find a scapegoat for the inevitable building delays, and with a dictatorial personality naturally negative to Latrobe’s, Lane soon became his sworn enemy.
To Latrobe’s professional frustrations personal anguish was now added. His talented son Henry had gone to New Orleans to act as his father’s agent in the design and construction of a water system which, it was hoped, might rid the city of yellow fever. The young man had done extremely well in advancing the project; but in September, 1817, he suddenly fell sick and died, a victim of the disease he had dreamed of defeating. It was all too much to bear, and in November, 1817, Latrobe submitted his resignation. He did it with dignity, and he saw to it that Monroe received a full set of drawings so that his successor—who turned out to be Charles Bulfinch—could profit by them in finishing the work on the Capitol. Once more Latrobe left Washington under a pall, his prospects darkly in doubt; and this time he filed legal notice of bankruptcy.
There followed a quiet interval in Baltimore, where he had been engaged since 1816 to design, in partnership with Maximilian Godefroy, a mercantile exchange—a big, airy building which was not torn down until 1901. This brought in some cash for current expenses; and he also had the satisfaction of seeing his great cathedral rise to three-dimensional beauty. But his best work was now behind him. He suffered the humiliation, in 1818, of taking second place in a competition for the design of a new Bank of the United States, the award going ironically to William Strickland, who had received much of his training as an apprentice under Latrobe.
Nothing else in the East looked promising, and meanwhile construction of the New Orleans waterworks was languishing. There were two remaining sons, both so gifted that they would one day be wellknown in their own right, but too young to help in 1818. (The older, John H. B. Latrobe, became a renowned lawyer; the younger, Benjamin Henry, Jr., took up civil engineering with conspicuous success.) There seemed no solution short of parting from his family for a while, and in December, 1818, Latrobe set sail for New Orleans on a brig suggestively named the Clio . For he was now entering upon the last chapter of his personal history.
The sea voyage and the following months in New Orleans were tonic to the tired architect. He had time on his hands and a new environment to explore, much as during his earliest days in America in 1796. Again he took up his journals and his beloved water coloring, recording the sights and sounds of French New Orleans in eager detail. He found much to fascinate him and partially heal the grief over his lost son—a civilization different enough from that of the eastern seaboard to bring out all his curiosity and his shrewd, always humane reactions. He loved the native market place, and wandered there making sketches. The beauty of the Creole ladies at a Washington’s Birthday ball dazzled him, but he had recently witnessed, at his boardinghouse, a savage beating administered by the landlady to a Negro girl whom Latrobe had come to consider a paragon among servants; and he knew of other such incidents. This seriously dampened his pleasure at the ball: “I fancied that I saw a cowskin in every pretty hand gracefully waved in the dance.” He went to the theatre; he watched the Negroes in their Sunday amusements of singing and dancing; he committed to his journal long thoughts on religion engendered by a comparison of Catholicism and Protestantism as represented in New Orleans—coming out himself, as a true child of the Enlightenment, in favor of a natural religion “unprofaned by external dictation.”
But Latrobe’s respite from trouble was not to be long. By the summer of 1819 he was very hard at work on the water system, and encountering typical hindrances. Courageously he struggled over each in turn, and in September felt far enough ahead to go North and bring back his wife and two young children. The spring and summer of 1820 found him well established in New Orleans, with enough commissions (besides the waterworks) to bring both hope of financial success at last, and a firm professional reputation in the city. Despite a yellow fever epidemic in the late summer, Latrobe personally superintended the digging of a ditch for the main suction pipe of the water system, ignoring the armadas of mosquitoes that hummed by the riverbank. On September 3, just three years after the death of his son, he fell sick with yellow fever, took to his bed, and died a few hours later.