COLUMN: Civic Society with David Winpenny

Hammerwood, Sussex - one of Latrobe's few British buildings.
Hammerwood, Sussex - one of Latrobe's few British buildings.

David takes a look at the life of Yorkshire-born architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe – born 250 years ago this week – who went to America where he worked on the White House and the Capitol building.

This week’s question; which Yorkshire-born architect is known as ‘The Father of American Architecture’? Don’t worry if you don’t know; few Yorkshire people will have any idea – and even the Americans who know his name don’t know of his Yorkshire origins.

He was Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who was born 250 years ago today, on 1 May 1764. He was born at Fulneck, the Moravian settlement and school in Pudsey, between Leeds and Bradford. His father, also Benjamin, was an ordained leader of the community there. The family had left France in the late 17th century when Protestants were being persecuted.

They settled first in England then in Ireland, where the elder Benjamin, then a Baptist, was enthused by Moravian preaching. He moved to Fulneck in the early 1750s, where he met Margaret Antes from Philadelphia, another Moravian who was working in the community.

Young Benjamin was interested in drawing buildings from an early age; at 12 he was sent to a Moravian School in Germany, where he had the opportunity to study different styles of architecture. At 18 he travelled widely round Germany – and then joined the Prussian Army. Soon afterwards he became ill, left the army and travelled again before returning to England in 1784, where he was apprenticed to another Yorkshireman, the engineer and architect John Smeaton from Austhorpe, east of Leeds, who supervised the building of the Ripon Canal.

Latrobe went from Smeaton to work for the neoclassical architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell, then set up as an architect in his own right.

Two houses survive in England from this period – Hammerwood and Ashdown, both in Sussex. Both are in a simple Greek style.

He was also working, sometimes alongside Smeaton, on canal design; it was a failed project for a canal in Essex for which he was not paid that made him seek a new life in America – he had also lost his wife Lydia in childbirth, and was left with two small children.

They arrived in Norfolk, Virginia, in March 1796; as trained architect he soon found work – and friends. Among them was President George Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington. Latrobe met the President at his Mount Vernon home in the summer he arrived in America.

Soon Latrobe was being given official work; his first major US project, in 1797, was the State Penitentiary in Richmond, Virginia, incorporating modern British ideas about how a jail should be organised.

The following year he went to Philadelphia, his mother’s home city, where he designed a number of buildings including the first Greek Revival buildings in the US, the Bank of Pennsylvania (demolished in 1870) and the Philadelphia Waterworks building. While in Philadelphia, Latrobe married again.

Latrobe was well-placed to rise to prominence in the United States; he had a great capacity for friendship, and included Thomas Jefferson among his friends. It is thought that the designs that Jefferson prepared for the University of Virginia were influenced by Latrobe.

With a recognised position as a professional, competent architect, it was inevitable that Latrobe was consulted about the building of the country’s new capital, Washington.

He was given the task of overseeing the construction of the Capitol building, which had been designed by another architect, William Thornton. Although Latrobe criticised Thornton’s work, he was given little opportunity to improve it, though after the war of 1812, which destroyed some of the buildings, he was able to put more of his stamp upon the new work, including a low central dome, later raised to the large dome we recognise today.

He was also responsible for some of America’s greatest neoclassical interiors at the Capitol, including the Hall of the House, the Old Senate Chamber and the Old Supreme Court Chamber. Latrobe also provided new colonnades for the White House.

There were problems with his position as Architect of the Capitol and he resigned in 1818 after lack of payment forced him into bankruptcy.

He went to Baltimore, where he designed the first Roman Catholic cathedral in the US (now the Basilica of the Assumption) and the Baltimore Exchange, for long the largest domed building in America.

Here Abraham Lincoln’s body lay in state in 1865 on its way for burial in Illinois. It is another of Latrobe’s buildings that has been demolished, this one in 1902.

Latrobe moved in to New Orleans in 1819, for which city he had already designed a new waterworks, working with his son Henry (who also designed other buildings in the city). There were many delays in the New Orleans waterworks project, which finally opened in the year he moved to the city. Latrobe died of yellow fever in New Orleans on 30 September 1820, aged 56, and is buried in the St Louis Cemetery, overlooked by the tower he designed for the St Louis Cathedral.

Latrobe’s architectural style was essentially severely-classical; he was influenced by buildings like the Pantheon in Rome and by the designs of English architects like Sir John Soane and George Dance. As an engineer as well as an architect he was interested in public health (hence his interest in designing waterworks) and in the layout of cities; he suggested that the best city design was to lay out thin rectangular blocks with the long sides facing east and west – something that still characterises US towns and cities today.

If the name of Latrobe is hardly known in Britain today, he is certainly appreciated in America as one of its most influential early architects. It is curious, though, that there don’t seem to be many events to mark his 250th anniversary. Perhaps here in Yorkshire we should celebrate today, and raise a glass to a great Yorkshireman who became ‘The Father of American Architecture’.