Benjamin Henry Latrobe

(1764—1820) architect

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English-born Moravian architect of French descent, educated in England and Saxony (where he absorbed many advanced ideas, partly through Freemasonry), who introduced an advanced, austere Neo-Classicism to the USA. He was a pupil of S. P. Cockerell before setting up his own office in 1790 from which he designed Hammerwood Lodge, East Grinstead, Sussex (1792), an essay in Neo-Classicism with an unfluted version of the ‘primitive’ Paestum Order of Doric, much influenced by French architects such as Ledoux. He also designed Ashdown House, Forest Row, Sussex (1793), a beautiful building having a projecting Greek Ionic circular porch with Coade-stone details. These are two of the most remarkable houses for their date in the British Isles, and show Latrobe to have been in the vanguard of Neo-Classicism, far more adventurous than any of his better-known contemporaries in England.

He emigrated to America in 1796, where, through his Freemasonic connections, he met George Washington and acquired a wide circle of influential friends. He made his mark with the very advanced Richmond Penitentiary (1797), which incorporated many of Jefferson's ideas, and then with the Bank of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (1798), the first great monument of the Greek Revival in the USA. In the following year he designed Sedgeley, a house for William Crammond on the banks of the River Schuylkill, the first Gothic Revival domestic building in the USA (destroyed). In 1803 he was appointed Surveyor of Public Buildings by Jefferson, and worked on the Capitol in Washington, DC, creating some of the finest Neo-Classical rooms in America (reconstructed with modifications after its destruction by the British in the War of 1812–15), and inventing American Classical Orders such as the corn-cob and tobacco capitals. He also advised Jefferson on the design of the University of Virginia (1817–26), and should be given credit for what is one of the most beautiful architectural ensembles in the USA. His best complete work is the RC Cathedral, Baltimore (1804–18), with segmental coffered vaults, minimalist Classicism, and shallow-domed ceilings as severe as any of their date. He contributed to the design of gardens, including that of the White House, Washington, DC. The Louisiana State Bank, New Orleans (1820), was his last building, but it was still faithful to the dignified polished Classicism he had introduced to his adopted country. His pupils included Mills and Strickland.

G. Brown (1970);E. Carter et al. (eds.) (1977, 1980);J. Cohen & Brownell (1994);Colvin (1995);Hamlin (1955, 1964);Hitchcock (1977);R. Kennedy (1989);Latrobe (1971);P. Norton (1977);Padover (ed.) (1946);Wasmuth & Kalman (1983)

Subjects: Architecture — Art.

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