Benjamin Henry Latrobe was born on May 1, 1764, in Funeck, near Leeds, Yorkshire, England. He died on September 3, 1820, in New Orleans, Louisiana, United States. He was a British-born architect and civil engineer who established architecture as a profession in the United States. Latrobe was the original proponent of the Greek Revival style in American buildings.
Latrobe, the second Architect of the Capitol, is considered by many to be the “father of American architecture.” He was one of the first fully trained architects in America; he helped popularize Neoclassical and Greek Revival architecture in the new nation.
Latrobe attended the Moravian college at Niesky, Saxony, and traveled to France and Italy. During this time, he acquired a knowledge of advanced French architecture. After he returned to England in 1784, he studied with the Neoclassical architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell. Latrobe may have also studied engineering under John Smeaton, a well-known civil engineer. He began his own practice in 1790 and designed the Hammerwood Lodge in Sussex which highlights his subsequent combinations of bold geometric forms with classic details.
Latrobe emigrated in 1795 to the United States, where his first important work was the State Penitentiary in Richmond, Virginia (1797–98; demolished 1927). Latrobe then moved to Philadelphia and in 1798 received a commission for his Bank of Pennsylvania. The banks’ Ionic porticoes inspire countess imitations; the building is now considered the first monument of the Greek Revival in America. It is clear, however, that Latrobe did not feel confined by styles, as his Sedgeley House, Philadelphia, built about the same time, is thought of as the first Gothic Revival structure in the United States.
While in Richmond, Latrobe met Thomas Jefferson, who, in 1803, made him a surveyor of the public buildings of the United States, a position he held until congressional funding dried up in 1811. In this post, Latrobe inherited the task of completing the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. In the House of Representatives and the Senate chambers, he incorporated American floral motifs-corn cobs and tobacco leaves-into the classical scheme. His Supreme Court Chamber (designed 1806–07) in the Capitol is notably an original American classical interior.
Latrobe was also active as an engineer, especially in the design of waterworks. Some of his more inventive schemes, involving engines, steamboats, and similar projects, brought him to financial ruin. While supervising his waterworks project for New Orleans, Latrobe contracted yellow fever and died. Latrobe set lofty standards of design and technical competence that were adopted by his foremost pupils, Robert Mills and William Strickland.
Latrobe has the distinction of being hired by two U.S. presidents on two separate occasions to help design, repair, build, and rebuild the interiors of the U.S. Capitol, both before and after the War of 1812 when British troops burned the U.S. Capitol in August 1814. In 1815, Jefferson’s successor, President James Madison, hired Latrobe back as “Architect of the Capitol” to rebuild the gutted interior.
The U.S. Capitol has gone through many transformations since it was first occupied by Congress in 1800 in the north wing, the only built portion of the building at that time. Until he resigned as Architect of the Capitol in 1817, Latrobe established a legacy of beautiful and innovative Neoclassical interiors, featuring elements of Greek antiquity as allegories of representative government. The following descriptions highlight Latrobe’s work in the U.S. Capitol-architectural designs now over 200 years old, admired by millions of visitors every year.
Also known as the Old Hall of the House, Latrobe twice built the two-story room that served as the original House Chamber. First built in 1805–1807, it was elliptical in shape. At Jeffersons’ insistence, Latrobe added 100 “panel” skylights to the domed ceiling alluding to those of the Halle au bled in Paris, France. Latrobe cupola. The natural “unity of light” cast from the cupola symbolizes the Enlightenment ideal, however, was no fan of skylights calling them “great evils” that tended to leak and expose harsh light.
After the British burned the hall in 1814, Latrobe rebuilt it more to his Neoclassical taste — a semicircular, theater-style room under a coffered half dome capped with a window of liberty. Huge Grecian columns lining the perimeter are variegated Breccia marble quarried along the Potomac River. Elaborate white Corinthian capitals topping the columns are modeled after those of the ancient Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, Greece.
Latrobe rebuilt this room twice — first (1808–1810) to correct design and decay issues, and second (beginning in 1815) after British incendiaries reduced even its columns to rubble. The most meaningful change of Latrobe’s first rebuild, in addition to replacing rotting timbers and falling plaster, was to raise the original, two-story chamber one floor directly above so that the ground-story space would become what is now known as the Old Supreme Court Chamber. The Old Senate Chamber was restored in 1976 for America’s bicentennial.
Today visitors can see the second rebuild, finished in 1819 by Latrobe’s successor by the U.S. Senate until 1859. A semicircular Charles Bulfinch, occupied and covered by a richly coffered half dome, Latrobe expanded the diameter of the chamber by 15 feet to accommodate additional senators representing the growing nation. Along the east wall behind the vice president’s desk, eight stately marble columns of the Ionic order support the visitor’s gallery above. The columns are based on those found at the ancient Greek temple, architectural achievement Erechtheion, located on the Acropolis of Athens.
Latrobe’s U.S. Capitol masterpiece, built-in 1808–1810, is distinguished by its stunning vaulted ceiling. Unprecedented for its time, Latrobe ingeniously designed the magnificent, ribbed vaults so that the masonry ceiling is held up by a foundation of columns and piers independent of the older exterior walls that had already defined the space.
To support the chamber vaults on the east side, Latrobe constructed a three-bay arcade resting on sandstone Doric columns patterned after those of the ancient Greek Temple of Poseidon. On the opposite side, Latrobe built a semicircular arcade of robust piers positioned just inside the western vaulted ceiling has evoked visual comparisons to a pumpkin or an umbrella.
When in 1814 the British torched the Senate Chamber above, the Supreme Court’s vaults and columns withstood the conflagration but were damaged enough to require rebuilding. The Supreme Court used the chamber from 1810 until 1860 when it moved upstairs into the Old Senate Chamber after the Senate moved into its present-day space. The Supreme Court moved permanently to its own building in 1935.
Helping to create a new iconography for the young democracy, Latrobe took the unprecedented step of “Americanizing” the classical order of some of the columns he built for vestibules in the Senate wing. The most popular are the six “corncob” columns built in 1809 to help support the vaulted ceiling in the Senate Vestibule.
The corncob columns’ popularity likely helped Latrobe secure more appropriations for his work. Carved from Aquia Creek sandstone, the columns are fluted to resemble bundles of cornstalks with rope necking at the top; the capitals display corn husks folded back to reveal their cobs. The columns were a huge hit among lawmakers given the homage paid to an important American crop. Circa 1816, Latrobe built the small Senate rotunda adjacent to the Senate Vestibule. The rotunda includes a circular colonnade of 16 columns whose capitals feature broad tobacco leaves and delicate tobacco flowers. Tobacco was then America’s second-largest export product and a symbol of the nation’s growing commercial strength.
On April 2, 1964, electricians employed by the Architect of the Capitol to rewire the Senate Library then on the fourth floor of the U.S. Capitol made a priceless discovery. While removing old conduits and wires, the workers found a set of old drawings atop an interior wall. An investigation determined that the drawings were original plans made in November 1806 by Benjamin Henry Latrobe as part of a report submitted to President Thomas Jefferson.
An important and irreplaceable piece of history was found that day. Hopefully, it was saved for posterity. Latrobe, although not born in the United States, was as much a patriot as any full-blooded American. His buildings show his love and admiration for this country, and it is, for this reason, we celebrate his life and legacy. At Scarano Architect PLLC we respect and admire those architects that came before us and were the building blocks of our country. Please feel free to check out our website and see our award-winning designs. We can help you with all your design and architectural needs.