Historians and biographers often speculate why young Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who apparently had a brilliant career ahead of him as an architect in England, left it all for the comparative wilderness of America. Some say it was the tragic death of his wife at an early age that made living amid the reminders of their life together intolerable. Others suggest it was the possibility of acquiring a property that was a part of an estate that belonged to his mother’s American family that drew him across the Atlantic. Could it have been that his career in Britain was not quite as prosperous as it appeared, and he saw the new U.S. as a land of opportunity?
Perhaps it was a combination of all three. But America was not necessarily foreign land for Latrobe. His mother, Anna Margaretta Antes, had roots back through her grandfather, Henry Antes, to the early days of the colony of Pennsylvania. It was Antes who personally made it possible for Count von Zinzendorf to purchase the land that became Bethlehem. He was also chief architect for the Moravians and designed many of its early communal buildings like the Single Brethren House and the Single Sisters House. He later broke with the Moravians over religious differences.
There were non-Moravian Antes uncles who fought bravely in the American Revolution. And many other relatives had ties to the Moravian settlement of Bethlehem. Latrobe himself had been raised as a Moravian. Although Latrobe may or may not have visited Bethlehem (if he did, apparently it has not been recorded or documented, according to the Moravian Archives), he cannot have been unaware of his family links to it and his Moravian heritage. It is hard to imagine that from all he had heard from his mother he was not at least curious about Bethlehem, a place to which he had so many family ties and was much talked of in the philosophical circles of Europe as a model community.
Latrobe was born into a family that had its roots in French Protestants who had fled to England to avoid persecution by the French monarch Louis XIV. His place of birth was the Fulneck Moravian Settlement near Pudsey, now in the city of Leeds, in the West Riding of Yorkshire, England. His father was a Moravian minister, the Rev. Benjamin Latrobe. His mother studied at the Moravian School at Fulneck. The Fulneck settlement had been established by Count von Zinzendorf in 1744. Its buildings were almost regal in their style and dimensions. One source feels that this was the belief by Zinzendorf that they should be in keeping with their relationship to the worship of God and the spirits of the missionaries. Others claim that what they really reflected was the count’s taste as a member of German nobility. Benjamin Ingham, an English non-Conformist minister who had helped Zinzendorf acquire the Fulneck property, noted critically that the buildings were, “finer than my Lord’s Huntingdon house.” Whatever the reason they could not have helped but to impress an imaginative child such as Latrobe.
Latrobe’s father held a very responsible position in the Moravian community as supervisor of the Moravian schools in Britain. In his journal for September 17, 1799, Latrobe noted his father’s early advice:
“The practice of keeping a regular journal was recommended to me very early in life by my father, merely for the sake of acquiring a habit of writing down my ideas with ease and correctness; for he recommended at the same time that I should at the close of every year, extract all the generally useful facts, and burn the remainder. I have followed his advice at intervals ever since I was a boy, both in writing and burning my journals.”
Two of the schools established at Fulneck in the 1750s were for male and female students. They exist as one school today. Many years later among their scholars were Herbert Henry Asquith, a prime minister of Britain in the early 20th century, and actress Diana Rigg, who is best known for her role as “Emma Peel” in the Avengers TV series.
At the age of 12, Latrobe left the Fulneck school and like his older brother, the educator, missionary and musical composer Christian Ignatius (who also translated from German into English a history of Moravian missions in North America by Bethlehem’s early 19th century Bishop George Henry Loskiel), he was educated at the Moravian School at Niesky in Upper Lusatia near the border of the German principalities of Prussia and Saxony. A career as a Moravian minister was planned for Latrobe. But deep questioning about the church doctrines weighed on his mind. Finally, after a long struggle with Moravian church authorities it was decided by all concerned that he find another path in life. He remained nominally a Moravian until his marriage in the Anglican Church of England. In America he became an Episcopalian.
Latrobe at a young age had shown a talent for drawing, particularly buildings and landscapes. How much of this was encouraged by the Moravian school he attended is not known. He had also shown a facility for learning languages. In later life Latrobe spoke and read English, German, French, ancient and modern Greek and Latin, along with having an understanding of Italian and Spanish and some Hebrew. According to one source, apparently on a whim at age 18, after spending several months traveling around Germany, Latrobe joined the Royal Prussian Army. Perhaps after all that studying, he decided to have experiences in his life, but entering the army of Frederick the Great, Prussia’s warrior king, was a dangerous way to get them. Some sources suggest he also joined the Imperial Austrian Army. But adventure had its risks, as Latrobe discovered, suffering some wounds in the process.
What followed was an extensive “Grand Tour” of Europe. Latrobe was particularly drawn to Italy and the vogue for classical architecture that in one form or another had become the preferred style from the Renaissance to the 20th century. As a part of his tour, he was mentored by a Moravian German baron who was a classical scholar interested in art, and Latrobe decided that what he wanted was to become an architect. Architects of the day were trying to create a “purer” form of classical architecture that better expressed what they felt was the style of ancient Greece that became known as neoclassical. It was just coming into vogue in Britain when Latrobe returned there. He got an apprenticeship to John Smeaton, one of England’s best-known architects. By 1791 Latrobe was opening his own private practice. But the course of his profession was not easy. The failure of the British Parliament to pay him for a municipal river improvement he engineered forced Latrobe to the edge of bankruptcy. And then the death of his wife in childbirth in the 1793 left him in deep depression and with two young children to support. Leaving his children in the hands of his wife’s relatives, Latrobe sailed for America.
At that time, it was not at all unusual for a voyage across the Atlantic to take two months. Latrobe’s took four. When he finally arrived in Norfolk, Virginia in March 1796 the young architect had faced food shortages and near starvation. As a well-educated foreigner who had mixed in the “best” social circles in Europe, spoke several languages and was among the first professionally trained architects in the infant Republic, Latrobe attracted attention among prominent and wealthy Americans. Among them was Bushrod Washington, nephew of George Washington, who in the summer of 1796 introduced Latrobe to his famous uncle. Latrobe’s first major project in the U.S. was Virginia’s State Penitentiary at Richmond, which was considered groundbreaking for its time. As with all his public works projects, Latrobe never charged a fee, only expenses.
But after a year of working on a variety of projects he was bored. A friend told Latrobe that he really should move to Philadelphia, then still the nation’s capital. After a visit in 1798 he agreed. He got the contract for the new building for the Bank of Pennsylvania and relocated there in 1800. Latrobe’s charm and talents quickly won him a place in the city’s social circles, especially the American Philosophical Society, where the two papers he wrote on natural history and geology led to his being admitted as a member. His bank building, the first example of Greek Revival architecture in the U.S. (it was torn down in 1870), was a success. It was copied all over the country.
Another project, the Philadelphia Water Works, located where the Philadelphia City Hall is today, was also hailed both for its beauty and ingenuity. Latrobe believed that his interest in machines came from his mother’s side of the family:
“I do not know of an individual in whom the blood of the Antes flows who has not mechanical talents, the Women as well as the Men. My mother was exceedingly ingenious, and my sister Louisa would have made a capital Watchmaker had she followed that business , for at 13 Years old when she first got a watch, she took it to pieces and put it together again with no other instruments but her scissors and a knife.”
Latrobe is best remembered today for his work on the U.S. Capitol Building, the White House and other federal buildings in Washington. In 1803 President Thomas Jefferson named him Surveyor of the Public Buildings of the United States. Like most of the projects he built in Washington, Latrobe used enslaved Black work crews. He came to be horrified by the brutal treatment enslaved people received, particularly in the South. “Poor wretched Blacks,” he wrote in his journal, “you are indeed degraded…outcasts of the moral as well as the political world.”
At the same time Latrobe launched what many, including himself, consider his masterpiece: the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, Maryland. It was the first large basilica in the U.S. It became the site of a number of important church conferences in the 19th century.
The plans for the Capitol Building had already been drawn up by the previous architect William Thornton. A horrified Latrobe called it “faulty construction,” but Jefferson overruled any major changes in Thornton’s plans.
Along with the Capitol, Latrobe was involved with other projects including work on the Washington Canal and the Washington to Alexandria Turnpike. In the middle of the building projects the War of 1812 broke out. Latrobe was not in Washington but in Pittsburgh with Robert Fulton working on plans for steamboats in 1814 when the British army marched in. “Shall we burn this sinkhole of Yankee democracy?” the British commander supposedly said as he put the House of Representative’s chamber to the torch.
True or not, Latrobe’s foresight saved much of the building’s structural integrity . “Latrobe used fireproof building materials such as sheet iron, marble, sandstone, zinc and copper. His extensive use of masonry vaulting also proved to be practical as well as aesthetic. As a result, the exterior and many of the interior spaces remained intact,” one historian has noted.
Among those Latrobe knew in Washington was James Greenleaf, husband of Allentown’s Ann Penn Allen, granddaughter of city founder William Allen. Greenleaf, who was involved in the collapse of the North American Land Company that engulfed Philadelphia’s financier Robert Morris in the 1790s, was also a largely unsuccessful land speculator in the capital city. Greenleaf’s lengthy lawsuits, of which, according to an entry in his 1806 journal, Latrobe was well aware, against those who did not pay him the high prices they promised to pay, were so legendary that when Charles Dickens heard of them on a visit to America, they were said to have inspired in part his novel “Bleak House” about an unending legal wrangle.
A January 4, 1813 letter exists from Latrobe to Greenleaf offering some advice about building a bridge across the Lehigh at Allentown. He noted “it would give me sincere satisfaction if anything I could suggest,” could help with engineering on the bridge project. Apparently, Latrobe played no role in building the bridge. But he may have had a hand in designing the large home that Greenleaf and Allen lived in at 5th and Hamilton Street in Allentown, the site of the Post Office today. The late architect/preservationist Benjamin Walbert noted local historian John Heyl argued for Latrobe’s role as its designer.
After the war Latrobe took up his old post under James Madison. But he continued to be frustrated with the government insistence that he follow Thornton’s plan. Latrobe also found Washington D.C.’s layout as a city of wide avenues created by his predecessor, French architect Pierre L’Enfant, wildly impractical and unworkable. But as the plans had been approved by Washington himself, changing them was something no one wanted to tamper with.
Latrobe became so bored with it that he spent most of his time in the Philadelphia area working on private houses, turning work on the Capitol over to his clerk. He resigned as architect of the Capitol on November 20, 1817.
Latrobe’s last project, which he worked on with his son, was the building of a water works for the city of New Orleans. The project was delayed by trying to get an engine built to use as a pump for the water works. But shortly after that had been accomplished, Latrobe died of yellow fever on September 3, 1820.
Latrobe was buried in the Protestant section of the city’s Saint Louis Cemetery near his eldest son, who also died of yellow fever three years before. Far from forgotten he is still regarded as among the most talent architects of his day.