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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Benjamin Latrobe

White House, north portico
by Benjamin Latrobe
The next time you have the chance, look at the back side of a modern day twenty-dollar bill, and compare it to the back side of an old one. In each case you'll see the work of this country's first professional architect. No, he didn't design the White House. A man by the name of William Hoban did that. What I'm talking about are the porticoes, the south portico on the old twenty (below right), the north portico on the newer one  (above left). Both are the work of Benjamin Latrobe.  Without them, the building would be, at best, distressingly plain (as seen below left). Latrobe himself referred to Hoban's design as "all belly," apparently referring to the oval extension in it's southern elevation around which he built his semi-circular portico. These two elements, plus it's long, low, ground-floor wings give the mansion a sense of grace and elegance unlike by any building then or now.
Latrobe's south portico before the
Truman balcony

Benjamin Latrobe was born in England in 1764. His mother had been born in Pennsylvania, and some sources speculate that his father may have been born here too. The family was devoutly Moravian and as was their custom, they sent their son to Germany at the age of twelve to complete his education. Eight years later, he returned choosing to become an architect. He spent the next several years of his life in London, learning his trade amidst an unprecedented building boom. A few of his structures still stand there today. Lots more did until the fire bombs of WW II destroyed many of them. He married and began raising a family, a son and a daughter. His wife died in childbirth as did their third child.  Heartbroken in grief, his personal and professional life went into a tailspin to the point that his two children had to be put in foster homes. In 1796, he decided to make a clean break of it. He left them in England, and sailed for American. Word had it there wasn't a single professional architect in the entire new nation.

The Hoban's White House before Latrobe's north portico
At the time, the United States had a half-dozen self-trained gentlemen architects such as Hoban, Thomas Jefferson, William Thornton, and a few others. There were also a few inadequately trained engineers, many having learned their trade rather haphazardly as a result of the Revolutionary War. What the country lacked was a single individual marrying both these skills who, on top of that, was also a skilled artist. Latrobe was all these and more, a naturalist, amateur geologist, watercolorist, linguist, philosopher, and keen observer of all other aspects of the world around him. His early commissions included the domed, Classic Revival Bank of Pennsylvania in 1800 (pulled down in 1860) and the Philadelphia waterworks complex in which he designed housing for a steam driven pump which he engineered to draw water from the Schuylkill River, storing it in a large reservoir to bring fresh water (and an element of fire protection) to the growing city. Not coincidentally, he also designed the first house in Philadelphia with an indoor bathroom. Within just 15 years, thanks to his waterworks, there were 228 more just like it in the city.

Besides all this he was responsible for the rebuilding of both the White House and the U.S. Capitol after the British burned them. It was this comission which netted us today's twenty and fifty-dollar images. Latrobe was also responsible for the Catholic Cathedral in Baltimore, the Bank of the United States in Philadelphia, and a waterworks for New Orleans similar to that of Philadelphia. It was in conjunction with this that his twenty-year-old architect-engineer son, Henry, was sent south just before the War of 1812 to supervise the complex undertaking. While there, he came down with Yellow Fever and died. After the war, in 1820, Latrobe himself went to New Orleans to finish the project. Sadly, he too suddenly came down with the same deadly mosquito-borne disease and died.  He was 56.

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