Benjamin Henry Latrobe

On May 1, 1764, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, considered to be the first professional architect in America, was born at Fulneck, a settlement of the Moravian Church near Leeds in Yorkshire, England. The son of a Pennsylvania-born musician and an Irish-born minister and church leader, Latrobe received a progressive education at Moravian schools in England and later in Germany. He apprenticed briefly in London, first with leading civil engineer John Smeaton (known for rebuilding the Eddystone Lighthouse) and then with Samuel Pepys Cockerell, an eminent neoclassical architect. Latrobe soon went into business for himself, but following the death of his first wife and subsequent financial problems, he emigrated to Virginia in 1795-96.

[Design of a city hall proposed to be built in New York. Presentation Rendering]. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect. Watercolor on paper, [1802]. Prints & Photographs Divison
First Floor, Entrance Hall, View West to Stair and Rear Doorway. Photographer and date unknown. Decatur House, National Trust for Historic Preservation, 748 Jackson Place Northwest, Washington, District of Columbia, DC. Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey. Prints & Photographs Division

During two years in Norfolk and Richmond, Latrobe designed several private houses as well as his first major public commission, the Virginia State Penitentiary External (1797-1806). In 1798 he moved to the more cosmopolitan environment of Philadelphia, where he soon remarried. There, his Bank of Pennsylvania (1798-1801) became the first major Greek revival building in America, influencing the nation’s public architecture thereafter. Of similar style, his Philadelphia Water Works (1799-1801) pumped river water into the city’s center using steam engines; though only moderately successful it was the first municipal water system in America. In addition to private houses, Latrobe’s other work in this period included planning for the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal (1803-6).

[United States Capitol, Washington, D.C. Perspective from the northeast]. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect. Watercolor, ink, and wash on paper, 1806. Prints & Photographs Division

In 1798 Latrobe made the acquaintance of Thomas Jefferson, himself an avid amateur architect. Following Latrobe’s Philadelphia successes, in 1803 Jefferson, then president, invited Latrobe to Washington to become the first “Surveyor of the Public Buildings” of the United States. In this post Latrobe was responsible for ongoing construction of the White House and U.S. Capitol Building, along with all other Federal building projects in the nation’s new capital.

The process of building the U.S. Capitol was a long one—the grand edifice that we know today was not fully completed until 1916. Latrobe’s major design contribution brought a neoclassical modernism to the structure. His plan for a grand east portico and staircase on the exterior related to an equally grand central Rotunda within—labeled “Hall of the People” in a floor plan dating from 1806—which created a space of symbolic interaction larger than but encompassing both the Senate and House of Representatives, located in each wing. 

[United States Capitol, Washington, D.C. Library of Congress, north wing, section & plans]. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect. Watercolor, ink, and wash on paper, November 18, 1808. Prints & Photographs Division

Other work included interior improvements, both in structure and design. Symbols of native plant life were incorporated in the ornamental details of columns: corn, tobacco, and magnolias. Latrobe’s Supreme Court chamber is known for its strikingly geometric use of space. In 1808, Latrobe designed a room that would house the Library of Congress—the first example of Egyptian Revival style in American architecture—but this version was never built.  Following the acquisition of Jefferson’s books by Congress in 1815, a different Library space was completed by Latrobe’s successor, which served through 1897 when a separate Library of Congress Building opened.

Latrobe continued work on the Capitol until 1811, when the threat of war put a hold on further building. Renewing his interest in the steam engine, he next moved to Pittsburgh to work with Robert Fulton on steamboats. In 1815, he reluctantly returned to Washington to rebuild the Capitol and its surroundings, which had been burned by the British the year before. With most of his previous work in ruins, Latrobe set about improving upon his former plans while enlarging the Capitol to meet the needs of a legislature growing in size. Two years later, however, he abruptly resigned in a dispute with the Capitol’s commissioner.

Elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1799, Benjamin Henry Latrobe was known for his ready talent and wide-ranging interests. In addition to his many public works, he completed over sixty residential projects during his career, and trained some of the most successful American architects to follow him. His final years were spent on various projects in Baltimore and New Orleans, including the Louisiana State Bank and the Baltimore Cathedral (1805-10, 1817-21), known for its complexity and beauty. While completing the New Orleans Waterworks, Latrobe unexpectedly died of yellow fever in September 1820.

South-East Elevation, Fronting Royal Street. Richard Koch, photographer, 1934. Louisiana State Bank 403 Royal Street, New Orleans, Orleans Parish, LA. Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey. Prints & Photographs Division

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The Empire State Building Opens

On May 1, 1931, with the press of a ceremonial button in Washington, D.C., President Herbert Hoover turned on the lights of the Empire State Building External, officially opening the world’s tallest building located at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in downtown Manhattan. At 102 stories and 1,250 feet, the Empire State Building remained the world’s tallest for nearly forty years, until completion of the World Trade Center’s twin towers in 1970 and 1972.  Yet, due to its bold Art Deco style and accumulated cultural cachet, the Empire State Building remains the beloved landmark of New York City’s skyline as well as a worldwide icon of urban modernity.

Empire State Building. Photograph; New York: Irving Underhill Inc., c1931. Prints & Photographs Division

Technological advances, most notably the elevator combined with lightweight steel-frame construction techniques, allowed for the development of what came to be known as “skyscrapers” in late nineteenth century America. In downtown areas where prime land was scarce, it quickly became profitable to build upwards. Notable early examples include the Wainwright Building (1891) in St. Louis, the Reliance Building (1890; 1895) in Chicago, and the Flatiron, Singer (1908; now demolished), and Woolworth (1913) buildings in Manhattan. Manhattan’s Woolworth Building was for a time the world’s tallest building, until in a boom of height competition first The Bank of Manhattan (40 Wall Street; 1930) and then the Chrysler Building (1930)—at 927 feet and 1,046 feet, respectively—each briefly claimed the title before the Empire State Building’s completion.

In 1929, a corporation that included former New York Governor Alfred E. Smith and General Motors’ John Jacob Raskob was formed to construct the Empire State Building on a two-acre lot south of midtown, on the site of the former Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Excavation began in January 1930 despite the country’s economic downturn. Construction commenced in March and Smith laid the building’s cornerstone in September. Under the direction of the architectural firm Shreve, Lamb, & Harmon and general contractor Starrett Brothers & Eken, the building’s steel framework rose at a rapid average rate of 4½ stories per week. Due to efficient on-site planning and the use of pre-fabricated materials, construction was completed ahead of schedule in a phenomenal one year and forty-five days. The work force, which reached nearly 3,400 persons daily, was documented by noted labor photographer Lewis Hine External and included Mohawk Indian steelworkers External, known for their skill as “skywalkers” at extreme heights.

On July 28, 1945, in the midst of a dense fog, a stray B-25 bomber crashed into the north side of the building’s 79th floor as it attempted to find Newark Airport. While three crew members and eleven office workers died, the Empire State Building survived, with damage on only two floors.

Empire State Building view of New York, New York. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer, [between 1980 and 2006]. Highsmith (Carol M.) Archive. Prints & Photographs Division

New York City’s beloved Empire State Building has remained a cultural symbol of the city’s thriving metropolitan identity.
With a three-story Art Deco lobby lined in marble, seventy-three elevators, and more than 2 million feet of rentable floor space, the Empire State building maintains its own zip code. Originally announced as a docking station for dirigibles, the structure’s upper reaches now serve as a broadcast tower for the country’s largest media market.

Regularly photographed, the skyscraper has been featured in scores of stories , novels, comics, TV shows and films: from King Kong in 1933 to Sleepless in Seattle fifty years later.  Today the Empire State Building continues as a frequent tourist destination, with observation decks on the 18th and 102nd floors offering panoramic views of an ever-changing cityscape.

In 1982 it was added to the National Register of Historic places, and designated a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service in 1986.

Roman Totenberg & Artur Balsam on Empire State Building observation deck [c.a. 1931-47]. Photograph. Roman Totenberg Papers. Music Division

Panoramic view of the world’s largest city from the observatory of New York’s Empire State Building. Folio postcard; Albert Brabazon, photographer; [New York: 1945]. Prints & Photographs Division

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