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Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Benjamin Henry Latrobe


PBS broadcast a program last night about Benjamin Henry Latrobe, America's first architect.  Check your local listings to see if it is going to be rebroadcast in your area.  It is worth watching.

Latrobe was not only America's first architect but in many ways, one of the most influential.  Latrobe designed the central part of the Capitol Building in Washington, DC after an earlier design by amateur architect William Thornton proved to be an unbuildable disaster.  Latrobe designed and built the waterworks in Philadelphia, the Baltimore Basilica, the Decatur House in Washington, the Washington Navy Yard, the Bank of Pennsylvania, both porticos on the White House, and numerous private homes.  He brought neoclassical architecture to the United States when he emigrated here from England in 1795.  Latrobe was in the process of designing a new waterworks for New Orleans when he contracted yellow fever and died there in 1820.


Given these impressive accomplishments, you might think that Latrobe would have been wealthy.  In fact, he went through multiple bankruptcies (the first in England which is probably why he emigrated) and he died a virtual pauper and was buried in an unmarked grave.  Latrobe seems to have been a technical genius and a business catastrophe.  In his defense, many of his business problems were because his clients (including the U.S. government) stiffed him.  But the pattern repeated itself often enough that it makes you wonder about his skills to advance his own endeavors.  Thomas Jefferson was a champion of Latrobe, perhaps because they were kindred spirits in their love of architecture. But even Jefferson let Latrobe take the fall when Congress complained that the marble columns in the House chamber were too expensive.  The columns were there at Jefferson's suggestion and Jefferson never owned up to them.

That Latrobe really was an accomplished architect can best be seen in the Baltimore Basilica.  The Archbishop, John Carroll hired Latrobe and defended Latrobe's designs again and again against naysayers.  The result was one of the most beautiful buildings in America.

Maybe the lesson of Latrobe's life is the necessity of strong champions to support a technical genius.  How different Washington, DC might look if Latrobe's vision had not been undermined, not only by rivals and short-sighted individuals, but by his own inability to promote his ideas.

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