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.
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).
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.
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.
- Benjamin Henry Latrobe was an avid letter writer and journal keeper. His memoir was later published as Journal of Latrobe by a descendent, and more recently in a scholarly edition. The Library of Congress houses an extensive collection of Latrobe’s papers and architectural drawings. For more Latrobe designs for the Capitol Building, see the online exhibition Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation. To find many of his drawings for other important projects, search on the name Latrobe.
- While a number of Latrobe’s significant buildings have not survived, many others have been documented in the collection Built in America: Historic American Building Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, 1933-Present. Search on the term Latrobe but also browse the collection by place to find buildings influenced by his work. These buildings include Philadelphia’s Fairmount Water Works designed by Latrobe’s student Frederick Graff.
- Latrobe corresponded regularly with several presidents, as well as with Dolley Madison, with whom he worked to finalize the rebuilt White House. Read a long letter from Latrobe to Thomas Jefferson describing damage to the Capitol after it was burned. Search the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, 1606-1827 and The James Madison Papers, 1723-1836 for letters between the presidents and Latrobe.
- Learn more about the history of the U.S. Capitol Building by visiting the Web sites of the Architect of the Capitol, the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S. Capitol Historical Society External.