The life and times of America’s first professional architect.
Baker (Emerita, History/Goucher Coll.; Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion, 2011, etc.) offers up another solid historical biography with this insightful portrait of the early republic’s greatest architect. The last biography of Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820) was published more than 60 years ago, and, as the author notes, “little or nothing is remembered of his works.” Baker clearly portrays Latrobe as instrumental in shaping not only the republic’s buildings and physical landscape, but also “American habits and beliefs.” He apprenticed in London at one of the city’s most active architectural practices and was soon designing private homes for the wealthy. Unfortunately, Baker writes, there were also “disturbing signs of Latrobe’s inability to manage his financial affairs,” something that would plague him throughout his life. After he went bankrupt, he sought new opportunities in America’s fledging republic. He designed Virginia’s state penitentiary and the Bank of Philadelphia. In 1803, his friendship with Thomas Jefferson led the president to appoint him “surveyor of public buildings.” Primarily tasked with designing the then-under-construction U.S. Capitol, including the House of Representatives and Senate wings and the Supreme Court’s meeting room, he also designed the main gate of the Washington Navy Yard and the Washington Canal. Although he “abominated” slavery, slaves were used extensively in the construction of Latrobe’s works. Budgetary issues resulted in his termination. While in Pittsburgh, working with Robert Fulton on steamboats, he was called back to Washington to supervise repairs to a Capitol that had been burned by the British during the War of 1812. Again, he was fired over budgetary problems. His final years were spent designing Baltimore’s Basilica, a “technical marvel of the time,” and much-needed waterworks to help New Orleans fight its yellow fever epidemics. Latrobe’s designs, writes the author, “conveyed an inspirational message to his new countrymen about the worthiness of their great experiment.”
A fluid, much-needed biography of a remarkable man.