Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe was born May 1, 1764 in England.
His mother had been born in Pennsylvania, but had been sent to England for her education.
At the age of 18, Latrobe spent several months traveling around Germany, and then joined the Prussian army, becoming close friends with a distinguished officer in the United States army.
Latrobe returned to England in 1784, and apprenticed as an engineer.
Then in 1787 or 1788, Latrobe began working in the office of neoclassical architect S.P. Cockerell.
In 1790, Latrobe was appointed Surveyor of the Public Offices in London, and established his own private practice in 1791.
Latrobe was commissioned in 1792 to design Hammerwood Park, near East Grinstead in Sussex, his first independent work, and designed the nearby Ashdown House in 1793.
In February 1790, Latrobe married Lydia Sellon, and they lived a busy social life in London. The couple had a daughter (Lydia Sellon Latrobe) and son (Henry Sellon Latrobe), before she died giving birth during November 1793.
Lydia had inherited her father’s wealth, which in turn was to be left to the children through a trust with the children’s uncles, but never ended up going to the children.
In 1795, Latrobe suffered a breakdown and decided to emigrate to America, departing on November 25th aboard the Eliza.
Latrobe arrived in Norfolk, Virginia in mid-March 1796 after a harrowing four-month journey aboard the ship, which was plagued with food shortages and near starvation conditions.
Soon after arriving in Virginia, Latrobe became friends with Bushrod Washington, nephew of President George Washington, along with Edmund Randolph and other notable figures.
Through Bushrod Washington, Latrobe was able to pay a visit to Mount Vernon to meet with the President in the summer of 1796.
Latrobe’s first major project in the United States was the State Penitentiary in Richmond, commissioned in 1797. The penitentiary included many innovative ideas in penal reform, espoused by Thomas Jefferson and other figures, including cells arranged in a semicircle, similar but not identical to Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon, that allowed for easy surveillance, as well as improved living conditions for sanitation and ventilation. He also pioneered the use of solitary confinement in the Richmond penitentiary.
While in Virginia, Latrobe worked on the Green Spring mansion near Williamsburg, which had been built by Governor Sir William Berkeley in the 17th century, but fell into disrepair after the American Revolutionary War.
In April 1798, Latrobe visited Philadelphia for the first time, meeting with Bank of Pennsylvania president Samuel J. Fox, and presented a design for a new bank building. At the time, the political climate in Philadelphia was quite different than Virginia, with a strong division between the Federalists and Jefferson’s Democratic-Republicans, along with anti-French sentiment, thus the city was not entirely welcoming for Latrobe.
On his way to Philadelphia, Latrobe passed through Washington, D.C., where he met with William Thornton and viewed the United States Capitol for the first time. He stopped by Washington again on his way back to Richmond.
Latrobe remained in Richmond, Virginia until November 1798 when his design was selected for the Bank of Pennsylvania. He then moved to Philadelphia, so that he could supervise the construction, though he continued to do occasional projects for clients in Virginia.
While in Philadelphia, Latrobe married Mary Elizabeth Hazlehurst in 1800 and quickly achieved eminence as the first professional architect working in the United States.
Soon, Latrobe befriended Thomas Jefferson, likely influencing Jefferson’s design for the University of Virginia. Latrobe also knew James Monroe, as well as New Orleans architect and pirate, Barthelemy Lafon, and became Aaron Burr’s preferred architect.
Then in 1803, Jefferson hired Latrobe as surveyor of the Public Buildings of the United States, and to work as superintendent of construction of the United States Capitol.
As construction of the Capitol was already underway, Latrobe was tasked to work with William Thornton’s plans which Latrobe criticized. In an 1803 letter to Vice President Aaron Burr, he characterized the plans and work done as “faulty construction”. Nonetheless, President Thomas Jefferson insisted that Latrobe follow Thornton’s design for the Capitol.
Latrobe modified plans for the south wing to include space for offices and committee rooms; he also introduced alterations to simplify the construction work.
In 1804, Latrobe removed a squat, oval, temporary building known as “the Oven,” which had been erected in 1801 as a meeting place for the House of Representatives.
Although Latrobe’s major work was overseeing construction of the United States Capitol, he also became responsible for numerous other projects in Washington.
In 1804, Latrobe became chief engineer in the United States Navy. As chief surveyor, Latrobe was responsible for the Washington Canal. Latrobe faced bureaucratic hurdles in moving forward with the canal, with the Directors of the Company rejecting his request for stone locks. Instead, the canal was built with wooden locks which were subsequently destroyed in a heavy storm in 1811.
Latrobe also designed the main gate of the Washington Navy Yard. Latrobe worked on other transportation projects in Washington, D.C., including the Washington & Alexandria Turnpike which connected Washington with Alexandria, as well as a road connecting with Frederick, Maryland, and a third road, the Columbia Turnpike going through Bladensburg to Baltimore. Latrobe also provided consulting on the construction of the Washington Bridge across the Potomac River in a way that would not impede navigation and commerce to Georgetown.
In June 1812, construction of the U.S. Capitol came to a halt with the outbreak of the War of 1812 and the failure of the First Bank of the United States.
During the war, Latrobe relocated to Pittsburgh, returning to Washington in 1815, as Architect of the Capitol, charged with responsibility of rebuilding the Capitol after it had been destroyed in the war.
This time, Latrobe asked for more freedom in rebuilding the Capitol, and ended up providing President James Monroe with complete drawings for the entire building in 1817.
Latrobe disliked the Baroque-style plan for the city, and other aspects of L’Enfant’s plan, and resented having to conform to Thornton’s plans for the Capitol Building.
Rejected, Latrobe resigned as Architect of the Capitol on November 20, 1817, and without this major commission, faced difficulties and was forced into bankruptcy. Latrobe left Washington for Baltimore in January 1818.
He spent the year working on various projects before leaving for New Orleans in December of 1818, arriving on January 10, 1819.
Latrobe spent the last year of his life in New Orleans, working on a waterworks project, and died there September 3, 1820 from yellow fever.
Because Latrobe founded the architectural profession in America, he has been called the “Father of American Architecture”.
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