August 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 5
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
Thomas Jefferson was impatient. Work on the United States Capitol had been progressing only fitfully since George Washington had approved the architectural plans in 1793; and now, in the fall of 1803, things seemed to be moving at a glacial pace. The north wing, to be sure, had been finished for several years and was in use by the Senate—in fact, the floor beams were already beginning to rot and the roof leaked badly. Meanwhile the south wing, intended for the House of Representatives, existed only as a crude temporary structure built on a more or less permanent base; and the middle section was just a confused network of uncompleted foundations. In March, 1803, President Jefferson had appointed a new architect to push the work along; yet here it was November and nothing palpable had been accomplished.
In this irritating situation, and with Congress grumbling bitterly about the delays, Jefferson—himself an amateur architect—made what he thought was a constructive suggestion. Why not, he said, build the great columns for the House of Representatives out of wood? It would be cheaper, and above all it would be quicker than waiting for the stonecutters to hew the massive stone segments which the architect had called for.
The Maryland Historical Society has recently acquired an extraordinary historical treasure: 8,800 letters, 325 paintings and drawings, and 14 diaries, all from the hand of Benjamin Henry Latrobe. James W. Foster, director of the Society from 1942 until his unexpected death last spring, devoted much time to securing the collection, which he described as “without parallel in this country.” This article is based in part on a study of the Maryland Latrobe collection; and most of the color portfolio beginning on page 41 is drawn from it by special arrangement with the Society.
But Jefferson had figured without fully knowing the temper of the man he had recently employed. “The wooden column idea,” the architect declared in a hasty message to his chief assistant, “is one with which I never will have anything to do. On that you may rely. I will give up my office sooner than build a temple of disgrace to myself and Mr. Jefferson.”
The man whose stubborn integrity envisioned a United States Capitol as enduring as the Constitution that it symbolized was Benjamin Henry Latrobe. An American only since 1796, when he had voyaged to Virginia from England, he had wholeheartedly adopted the new nation as his own, and was on the way to becoming the most influential architect and engineer of its adolescent years.
Yet Latrobe’s contribution to United States culture did not end with the many structures, public and private, that he designed and built. A man of quick sensibility and intense curiosity, he has left us, besides, a uniquely evocative panorama of early America as he saw and recorded it in hundreds of sketches, water colors, letters, and painstakingly kept journals.
Adversity brought Benjamin Latrobe to America, as it brought thousands of others before and after. At twenty-eight he was one of London’s most promising young architects, with a lovely wife and two children; the future looked good. At twenty-nine he was unemployed, a widower, and in political disfavor. Architectural commissions had dwindled disastrously with the outbreak of war between England and France in 1793, and Latrobe’s French name and known approval of the French Revolution did not help matters. Then, in the fall of 1793, his young wife died in childbirth.
Latrobe tried for two years to recoup his fortune, but with little luck. Morose over the loss of his wife, he fell into gloomy ways which decreased the already scant demand for his skills. Finally he decided on a fresh start: he would try America. His mother was an American who had come from Pennsylvania to study in an English Moravian school and remained to marry a Moravian minister; her son Benjamin was born on May i, 1764. She not only had taught him much about the colonies, but had left him some American real estate. With an excellent continental education and several years’ professional experience behind him, Latrobe had every reason to expect that his architectural talents would be valuable in the new republic across the Atlantic. He left his infant children in the care of relatives and took passage near the close of 1795.
Landing in Norfolk in mid-March, 1796, Latrobe plunged into an effort to become acquainted with the country. It was an era when men of culture and intellect easily met others of their kind if they could surmount practical obstacles. By dint of cheerful travel, mostly on horseback over muddy roads, Latrobe met and conversed with scores of eminent Virginians before he had been in America six months. The Pennocks, the Skipwiths, the Blackburns, the Randolphs, the Bushrod Washingtons—all were his hosts, and all found him charming and extraordinarily gifted. He sketched and painted, he wrote poetry, he displayed his various musical and linguistic abilities; and he designed an elegant house—his first in America —for Captain Pennock, of Norfolk. At the same time he kept up his journal, filling it with penetrating observations on the look of the countryside, the character of the great houses (he found them shabby by European standards), and the demeanor of American women (he found them lovely and unaffected).
As always throughout his life, Latrobe’s remarks in his journals and letters reveal a man whose human sympathy nicely balanced his almost scientific devotion to facts. Having declared that the mansions of Virginia were shabby, he observes: “It is a necessary consequence of the remoteness of the country. … An unlucky boy breaks two or three squares of glass. The glazier lives fifty miles off. An old newspaper supplies their place in the mean time . Before the mean time is over the family gets used to the newspapers & think no more of the glazier.” And speaking (to an imaginary correspondent) of the Virginia ladies, he is moved to further social comment: I prefer their manners without exception to those of the Women of any country I was ever in. Were I to chuse a Wife by manners I would chuse a Virginian, and yet let me tell you there are things done Sc seen in Virginia which would shock the delicacy of a bold Englishwoman … What think you of the known promiscuous intercourse of your servants, the perpetual pregnancies of your young servant girls, fully exhibited to your children …
Oh but who minds the blacks … You are right, Madam! Poor wretched Blacks! You are indeed degraded: not even considered as better for virtue, or worse for vice! Outcasts of the moral, as of the political world!
Progressively furnished with cordial letters of introduction, the young architect jogged the back roads from plantation to plantation, sometimes making visits of unusual interest for the annals of American history. He happened to arrive at Bizarre, the estate of Richard Randolph, during the final episode of the strange and violent ménage à trois which had developed between that gentleman, his wife, Judith, and her beautiful sister, Nancy (see Francis Biddle’s “Scandal at Bizarre” in the August, 1961, A MERICAN H ERITAGE ). Latrobe found Richard Randolph acutely sick with what appeared to be an attack of indigestion—since diagnosed by many researchers as poisoning at the hands of the jealous Judith. The embarrassed guest stayed one night and left in the morning, thus missing Richard Randolph’s death by a few hours.
It was shortly after this that he visited Mount Vernon. George Washington, less than a generation after his famous exploits as leader of the Revolution, had already attained an almost mythological stature among his countrymen, and of this Latrobe was well aware. He came prepared to exhibit the best deportment of an English gentleman, but to watch, listen, and make notes with the scrupulous attention of a star reporter. Bushrod Washington, the great man’s nephew, had written a letter of introduction for him, and on July 17, 1796, he trotted his horse up the country road to Mount Vernon: The house becomes visible between two groves of trees at about a mile’s distance. … Everything … is extremely good & neat, but by no means above what would be expected in a plain English country gentleman’s house of £500 or £600 a year. …
Having alighted at Mount Vernon, I sent in my letter of introduction, and walked into the portico next to the river. In about 10 minutes the President came to me. He was dressed in a plain blue coat, his hair dressed & powdered. There was a reserve but no hauteur in his manner.
An hour’s conversation ensued in which the President made precise comments about high life at Bath (now Berkeley Springs, West Virginia), the various rivers of Virginia, the Dismal Swamp, and canal building. Since Washington had at first remarked that he was in process of finishing some letters to go by the next mail, Latrobe now rose to leave; but evidently he had by this time charmed his host: “He desired me, in a manner very like Dr. Johnson’s, to ‘keep my chair,’ and then continued to talk to me.” They covered architectural projects in England, Latrobe’s family connections in Pennsylvania, and coal mines. Latrobe mentioned the possibility of silver mining in Virginia. To this Washington replied that he “heartily wished for his country that it might contain no mines but such as the plow could reach, excepting only coal and iron .” Then he got up and left his guest, saying that they would meet again at dinner.
Accepting the implied invitation, Latrobe went out and prowled about the grounds, making sketches to serve as the basis for later water colors. When he went back to the house, he met Mrs. Washington and her granddaughter, both of whom he found attractive: [Mrs. Washington] retains strong remains of considerable beauty, seems to enjoy very good health, & to have as good humor. She has no affectation of superiority in the slightest degree, but acts completely in the character of the mistress of the house of a respectable and opulent country gentleman. Her granddaughter, Miss Eleanor Custis (the only one of four who is unmarried) has more perfection of form, of expression, of color, of softness, and of firmness of mind than I have ever seen before, or conceived consistent with mortality. She is everything that the chisel of Phidias aimed at but could not reach …
They were soon joined by young George Washington Lafayette, son of the famous French general, who was staying with the Washingtons during his father’s imprisonment in Austria. It was now midafternoon, and President Washington reappeared for dinner.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Latrobe himself left what is perhaps his most appropriate epitaph. In those twilight months in New Orleans, looking back over his busy and harried career, he remembered the happy days in Philadelphia when his new marriage and his success with the Bank of Pennsylvania seemed to augur a future of glory. An incident came to his mind that struck him, among a thousand, as having given him more “particular satisfaction” than any other in his life, and he set it down in his journal: Walking up Second Street [where the Bank was situated] I observed two French officers standing opposite the building and looking at it without saying a word. I stepped into Black’s shop and stood close to them. After some time one of them exclaimed several times, “C’est si beau, et si simple!” He said no more and stood for a few minutes longer before he walked away with his companion.