Saturday, June 9, 2012

The Latrobe Family

It seems the same names crop up again and again when one reads about certain places and times. The name "Latrobe" is one such name. Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe was one of the first formally-trained, professional architects in the United States. He was also, it must be said, a hottie:

Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Latrobe has been described as the "Father of American Architecture" and has been credited with professionalizing architecture in this country. The way he thought about building designs had a profound effect on architects until the Civil War. Latrobe created masterpieces in Baltimore, Washington DC, and Philadelphia. He was in fact a friend of Thomas Jefferson and was likely a major influence on Jefferson's design for the University of Virginia. The two men shared architectural interests and ideas, but it seems some tension existed over the predominance of Greek revival symbolism, which Latrobe popularized in his designs. The White House Historical Association notes that Jefferson often contributed his own design ideas, which seemed to cause some problems in their working relationship. Latrobe wrote on one such occasion “I am sorry that I am cramped in this design by his prejudices in favor of the old French books, out of which he fishes everything..." Not surprising, given Jefferson's Francophilia!

Latrobe's White House plans, circa 1807. Source: Wikipedia Commons.
Despite their differences of architectural opinion, in 1803 Jefferson appointed Latrobe to the position of "Surveyor of Public Buildings" and charged him with constructing the south wing of the Capitol Building in Washington DC. Latrobe also oversaw reconstruction of that building following the fires set by British troops in 1814. Later that same year he moved to Pittsburgh to try to make his fortune by partnering with Robert Fulton in a steamship venture. A lack of capital, managerial conflicts, competition from established steamboat builders, and a poor economy due to the War of 1812 doomed this venture. However while here Latrobe designed and built a theater for the Circus of Pepin and Breschard, at least three private homes presumably incorporating his favored Greek Revival style, expanded a church, and even designed a barge. Latrobe was also commissioned to design the United States Arsenal (later known as the Allegheny Arsenal) building in the Lawrenceville section of town, although the edifice that was eventually built differed significantly from his original plans. Sadly, nothing is left of Latrobe's known Pittsburgh structures.

"Sketch of the facade of the proposed Arsenal at Pittsburg. 1814. BHLatrobe." Source: Library of Congress.

His son, Henry Sellon Boneval Latrobe, became a civil engineer best known for his railway bridges. The senior Latrobe designed a waterworks system modeled after the one he designed in Philadelphia, and son traveled to NOLA to secure the commission of the project. This took a while so in his spare time Henry participated in battles during the War of 1812 and found time to design a lighthouse and work on New Orleans' Charity Hospital and the French Opera House. Henry contracted yellow fever in 1817 and died in New Orleans. 

Pater Latrobe traveled to New Orleans upon learning of his son's death and completed work on the water supply system. While he was there he designed the Louisiana State Bank and the central tower with clock and bell of the Saint Louis Cathedral (unfortunately this tower collapsed in 1850 during reconstruction, although the bell was reused in the new building and remains there today). Like his son and many other visitors to New Orleans, Latrobe contracted yellow fever and died in New Orleans in 1820. Both father and son were buried in a common lye pit, a typical occurrence during Yellow Jack outbreaks. The Latrobes do have a touching memorial marker in Saint Louis Cemetery #1 erected by their descendants so they've not been completely forgotten in this city they did so much for:

Source: Find a Grave

There were two other Latrobe sons. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Jr was chief engineer of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad and laid out the line between Washington and Baltimore. John Hazelhurst Boneval Latrobe was a Maryland attorney who was regularly retained as counsel for the B&O RR (and who was reportedly a prominent supporter of the African colonization of Liberia, a well-intentioned but misguided and disturbing antebellum movement).

John H. B. Latrobe, circa 1860-90, photo from Brady negative. Source: Library of Congress.
John H. B. Latrobe kept a journal called "Southern Travels" written during a two-month period in late 1834 when he and his wife traveled from New York to Natchez (where his wife had family) and his return trip by stagecoach to their home in Baltimore. 

The Latrobes certainly left their mark on this country. Western Pennsylvania residents even have an abiding local connection: the town of Latrobe.

Latrobe, PA circa 1900

According to the Latrobe Historical Society, one Oliver Barnes purchased a 140 acre farm in Derry Township in 1851 for the Pennsylvania Railroad, as that company wanted to connect the eastern part of the state with Pittsburgh and planned to build railroad yards there. Plans changed and the yards were built instead in Derry so Mr. Barnes acquired the land for himself, laid out streets and lots, and named his new town Latrobe in honor of his friend and railroad associate, Benjamin Henry Latrobe Jr.  None of the four Latrobes ever set foot in the town that bears their surname.

Further reading:
Eaton, Leonard. Houses and Money: The Domestic Clients of Benjamin Henry Latrobe. William L Bauhan (January 1988).
Hamlin, Talbot. Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Oxford University Press; 1st edition (1955).
Latrobe, Benjamin Henry. The Journals of Benjamin Henry Latrobe 1799-1820. Yale University Press (1980)
Latrobe, John H. B. Southern Travels: Journal of John H. B. Latrobe. Historic New Orleans Collection; First Edition edition (1986)
The Versatile Benjamin Latrobe 


  1. That wouldn't be the Fulton Theater, would it?
    >Robert Fulton in a steamship venture based at...wait for it... Pittsburgh, and designed and built a theater for the Circus of Pepin and Breschard here.
    I guess not, the Fulton (now Byham) theatre was built in 1903 according to Wikipedia:
    So who was it named for?

  2. I did do a cursory check to see which theater that might have been referencing. It's definitely not the one you're thinking of and it seems the Latrobe-built theater is long gone. However the Fulton Building and Fulton Theater that we know today were indeed both named for Robert Fulton. The architect for those buildings, Grosvenor Atterbury, was one of many who were influenced by Boston architect H.H. Richardson. He is someone I've been meaning to read more about.