Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s “First Great Structure”

“Center Square Water Works,” Section.(PhillyHistory.org)

“Centre Square. Erected in 1800. Taken Down in 1828,” Copy of original by John James Barralet. (PhillyHistory.org)

Benjamin Henry Latrobe had abundant talent and even more ambition. He left his native England for America after realizing that there were those “whose talents are superior to mine… I should perhaps never have elbowed through them.” But in America, Latrobe could claim: “I am the only successful Architect and Engineer.” Here he could find opportunities to demonstrate his skills and shape the future of a new nation, as well as his profession.

And so he did, first in Philadelphia in 1798, then in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, New Orleans and beyond. By the time Latrobe died of Yellow Fever in 1820, he left a trail of buildings the likes of which had not been seen or imagined on this side of the Atlantic. He showed what the profession of architecture could do, if given half a chance.

None of it was easy. “I have had to break the ice for my successors, and … destroy the prejudices … [of]  villainous [sic] Quacks in whose hands the public works have hitherto been…” The American custom of hiring builders for design and construction frustrated Latrobe, and made his every step difficult, but within a few years after his arrival, a few standing examples demonstrated his genius. In Philadelphia, Latrobe completed two buildings that would turn heads and change minds.

One was the Pump House at Center Square. Inspired, in part, by the Roman Pantheon, Latrobe adapted the oculus at the dome’s center not for light, but to emit smoke generated by the new engineering feat inside—a steam engine. This stoking, smoking, white-marble Pump House sat smack in the center of Philadelphia’s city plan as a dual symbol: a bold reflection of young America inheriting the past greatness of ancient civilization and a temple to dawn of the industrial age at the start of a new century.

Detail, demolition of “Pennsylvania Bank, 1867″ with the Merchants’ Exchange cupola in the distance.  Albumen print by John Moran, photographer. (The Library Company of Philadelphia)

Latrobe’s second early triumph, his Bank of Pennsylvania, quickly became “one of the most influential buildings in the nation’s history.” Critic Paul Goldberger waxes in a PBS documentary, calling it “a wonder.” Architectural historians from Talbot Hamlin (“an epoch-making work”) to Jeffrey Cohen, (“a game changer”) agree.

Ionic Capital from the Erectheum, Athens. From Antiquities of Athens, Stuart and Revett, 1762 (Google Books)

Where Latrobe’s bank looked like a Greek Temple, the Ionic temple on the Ilyssus near Athens, and was the first building to use archeologically-correct details (published decades before in Stuart and Revett’s landmark book, Antiquities of Athens) the Bank of Pennsylvania was, as Hamlin pointed out “in no sense a copy of any ancient building.”  Here Latrobe developed a plan “simply and functionally from the necessities of the building, with a new kind of simplicity and openness. Like the Pump House, “it was a creation and not a copy.” And with its vaulted interior, “nothing this technically ambitious had ever been built in America.”

For a brief moment, Latrobe made it sound easy. “It was a plaything to me,” he reflected, adding, “so in fact, are all my designs.” They “come of themselves unmasked and in multitudes…”

President Thomas Jefferson, a fan of ancient architecture who owned and treasured his copy of Stuart and Revett, took notice of Latrobe’s display in Philadelphia and brought him to the nation’s Capital. As Goldberger describes it, Jefferson needed Latrobe to “fix [William] Thornton’s mess” at the Capitol, then under construction.

Problem was, Washington needed an architect who was also a politician, which Latrobe decidedly was not. Years later, he commented about his work there: “I have run my race in a sack, and if I have got to the goal, it has only need by tumbling on & over all obstacles & persevering to the end.” But in Philadelphia, at the Bank of Pennsylvania, Latrobe had been given carte blanche.” That building Latrobe considered his masterpiece, or as he more immodestly put it: “my first great structure.”

Nothing important by Latrobe survives in Philadelphia. The Pump House lasted only until 1828. His Bank of Pennsylvania was pulled down in 1867. But Latrobe’s influence and impact lived on.

 

Related posts at PhillyHistory: Philadelphia as Athens- of America: More Than Skin Deep and Salvaging Parts of the Greek Revival.

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