March 18: Grandpappy of American Architecture

2016/03/18 § 2 Comments

During the middle part of this month in 1796, Benjamin Henry Latrobe arrived in the United States.

Back in November of 1795, Latrobe (1764-1820) had departed from England, where he was born, trained under engineer John Smeaton and architect Samuel Pepys Cockerell, and began his practice.  With his immigration to the US, England lost an architect who could have held his own against his contemporaries John Soane, Robert Adam and William Chambers.  But his arrival in America was a huge boon.  Architecture in the US (just barely the US at that point) had lagged behind Europe during the century-plus its European settlement, its designers often relying on books and the rare traveller from Over There to communicate new ideas.  Latrobe brought the most up to date method of building and aesthetic concerns of the day; the new style had arrived in full form, under the direction of an architect who could direct buildings just as good as they might have been in London.

American clients were quick to identify his promise, and he completed a series of important large civic structures, and lots of private houses, first in Virginia, then Philadelphia, Washington, Baltimore, and finally New Orleans.  Setting aside the argument about what constitutes the job of “architect” (which is messy, contentious and ultimately unprofitable), we won’t say that he was the first architect in the country, but will pronounce that he was one of the first to practice so far and wide, and the first, it appears, to introduce the manner of training that would become standard as the profession was being defined in the new country.  A bunch of really important nineteenth-century architects (William Strickland and Thomas U. Walter, among others) descend from Latrobe’s office, making him definitely a grandfather-figure in American architecture.  He wrote eloquently about the place of architecture in a democracy (more on that later), was sought out by Thomas Jefferson as architectural advisor, and man, he could build a dome.  You have caught on by now that Clio loves a dome, haven’t you?

Image: Baltimore Cathedral (Clio’s)

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