May 08: Grecian Aspirations in an American City

2016/05/08 § Leave a comment

On this day in 1811, B. Henry Latrobe presented his “Anniversary Oration” before the Society of Artists in Philadelphia.

The Society was one of the several institutions of arts, letters and sciences founded early in Philadelphia, the most cosmopolitan city in the former colonies.  Immigrant architect Latrobe (1764-1820) had made his name with with some of the city’s most notable buildings, which introduced full-fledged Neo-Classicism to the young USA. (He also proposed elegant changes to the Capitol in Washington and made some very, very nice plans for Richmond).  As a well-known star in the city’s cultural firmament, he was a natural choice to deliver an address on the auspicious event of the institution’s anniversary.

Yet rather than celebrate the arts, Latrobe was moved to provide an apologia.  As such, his “Oration” was one of the first scraps of architectural theory written in the new country.  The architect felt pressed to argue on behalf of architecture–not the traditions of mere building, but real capital-A Architecture–in the midst of a democratic system that by its nature was bred skepticism about elitism.  Many worried that fancy buildings smacked of the monarchies and aristocracies that had been the inspiration for the recent Revolution; high-style beauty threatened to corrupt republican virtue and eviscerate the scrappy go-to-it work ethic that had already given the country much of its success and its character.

Latrobe countered that fine art (a broad category of endeavor in which he believed architecture had a place) had a “beneficent effect upon the morals, and even on the liberties of our country.”  He looked to ancient Greece as his example and evidence: the glories of Greece were accomplished because of (not in spite of) its free society, which encouraged healthy competition among peers and in an open marketplace to prove value, worth and excellence.  Three of the best-known ancient sculptures–an Apollo, a Venus, the Laocoön group–were not only aesthetic achievements, but monuments to the freedom of Greece itself. (Latrobe’s art history may not agree with that of later generations; just go with it).  Surely Philadelphia would build on its brief but brilliant record as a cradle of American liberty.  Latrobe predicted that “the days of Greece may be revived in the woods of America, and Philadelphia become the Athens of the Western world.”

Architecture’s special opportunity to exhibit “that republican simplicity which we profess” was manifest in his own projects, including the Bank of Pennsylvania, “a pure specimen of Grecian simplicity in design, and Grecian permanence in execution.”  Latrobe’s bank rose like a lotus from the muck of Philadelphia’s red-brick legacy.  Regrettably, it is now only experienced through images like the great view by Birch (above) and by imagining his basilica in Baltimore on a smaller scale; it was demolished in 1867 (and remains the site is a parking lot: well done, Philly).  (An important distinction between ancient Athens and contemporary Philadelphia: Pericles waited for baddies from Persia to knock down his buildings and make room for new ones; he didn’t appoint barbarians to the post of City Planner.)

Image: Benjamin Latrobe’s Bank of Pennsylvania (demolished), as portrayed in the Views of Philadelphia, by William Birch (1827)

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