Saturday, June 9, 2012

Forgotten History: The Latrobe Family

Pittsburgh was once the center of the world.

Well, okay, center of the United States.

Oh, fine. So Pittsburgh maybe can only claim to be the nation's industrial center. Before we were the Steel City we were the Iron City, and arguably we could also have called ourselves the City of Glass or even the Steamboat City.

It's important to remind ourselves how important Pittsburgh was in the shaping of this country. We tend to have a communal inferiority complex when it comes to recognizing the city's place in national history, but the reality is that anyone who was anyone important spent some time in Pittsburgh. Some stayed, some strayed; some got rich and some didn't. The list of important Americans whose careers were shaped between these three rivers is mind-boggling, and includes names which aren't normally associated with Pittsburgh.

Take, for example, Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe, one of the first formally-trained, professional architects in the United States.

He was also, it must be said, a hottie:
Portrait by Charles Willson Peale, 1804

Latrobe has been described as the "Father of American Architecture" and credited with professionalizing architecture in this country. The way he thought about building design had a profound effect on architects up until the Civil War era. He spent at least a year of his life in Pittsburgh, but that time period is usually glossed over in biographies of this man.

Charles Frederick von Breda portrait of Latrobe, c. 1790
Born to a Moravian minister in a small town near Leeds, England, acquired extensive education and traveled throughout Europe. Following the death of his first wife, Lydia Sellon, he left his two surviving children and  immigrated to the United States in 1796 to make his fortune. Connected to the right people, and armed with stellar design and engineering skills, Latrobe was soon able to successfully launch a career in a country longing to establish grand architectural witnesses to its developing history. He is credited with introducing Gothic Revival style to American domestic architecture and creating private and public masterpieces.

Latrobe became friendly with Thomas Jefferson and is considered to be a major influence on Jefferson's design for the University of Virginia. The two men shared architectural interests and ideas, but it seems 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 may have caused 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. This was a much needed appointment for Latrobe, who was constantly plagued with money troubles. He also had a reputation of being difficult to work with, likely due to his high-strung personality and perfectionism.

Lydia Latrobe Roosevelt, from Mr. Roosevelt's Steamboat by Mary Dohan
The life of an architect and engineer during this period in history was an itinerant one; you went where the work was. Latrobe worked steadily over the next decade, receiving commissions for public and private buildings and infrastructure in Baltimore, Washington DC, and Philadelphia. But he needed a new gig in 1813 following the Congressional termination of his position as Surveyor of Public Buildings in DC. The War of 1812 had interrupted building projects in the cash-strapped nation, and Pittsburgh seemed to be the place to go for various reasons.

In coming to Pittsburgh, Latrobe was following a path laid out a few years earlier by his eldest daughter and his son-in-law Nicholas Roosevelt (of the Oyster Bay branch of that family). That couple had married some years earlier against Latrobe's wishes, for Nicholas Roosevelt was his very close friend and contemporary. Despite their age difference, Nicholas Latrobe became engaged to Latrobe's daughter Lydia when she was only 12 years of age. Benjamin Latrobe found the romance between his close friend and this young daughter of his first marriage preposterous and laughable, incredulously writing to Roosevelt "Were you really serious?" Serious they were. Despite various restrictions and multiple quarrels, the unlikely couple married in 1809 when Lydia was 17 and Roosevelt 41. Benjamin Latrobe was well-established in Washington society, and Dolley Madison attended the wedding.

With an introduction from his new father-in-law and friend Latrobe, the newly-wed Nicholas Roosevelt came to Pittsburgh in 1809. He had been hired to make a flatboat survey voyage down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers on behalf of Robert Fulton and Robert Livingston. The trip was meant to determine the feasibility of navigating those waters and potential steamboat construction. Roosevelt agreed to go for a $600 fee -- and so did Lydia Latrobe Roosevelt, who traveled some 2500 miles during her second and third trimesters of pregnancy! The couple sailed down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers and back over a six months period. Lydia is said to have designed comfortable living quarters aboard ship. She gave birth to their first child, a daughter named Roseta, in January 1810 after the couple returned from their trip.

Nicholas, Lyda and Roseta Roosevelt
Nearly two years later, the Latrobe-Roosevelt family set off again, this time on a side-wheeler steamboat. Nicholas, an 8-months pregnant Lydia, toddler Roseta and their Newfoundland dog Tiger left Pittsburgh on the first steamboat voyage ever. Their ship, New Orleans, had been constructed at a yard at the bottom of Boyd's Hill along the banks of the Monongahela River (below where Duquesne University would later be built). This journey would take 12 weeks. The Great Comet of 1811 kept them company along the way -- as did little Henry Latrobe Roosevelt, born shortly after they set out October 30, 1811. It's fair to say that the era of steamboat travel was also born on this voyage; from 1811-1888, boatyards along the Monongahela river produced more than 3,000 steamboats.

Despite the success of the New Orleans, the relationship between the Latrobe-Roosevelts and Robert Fulton was a fractious one. Benjamin Latrobe stood up for his son-in-law in the ensuing business battles and while perhaps wary of Fulton, he remained excited about the future of steam travel. Thus it was that on 13 October 1813, the financially pressured Latrobe family moved to Pittsburgh.

Latrobe had hopes of prospering in a steamship partnership with Robert Fulton. The relationship made sense, for Latrobe was an early proponent of steam power, having constructed various steam-powered waterworks in US cities to pipe water into homes. However, a lack of capital, managerial conflicts, competition from established steamboat builders, and a sluggish national economy doomed this Pittsburgh steamboat partnership.

As an agent for Fulton's Mississippi Navigation company, Latrobe engaged in very public disputes over steamboat technology patent rights, writing letters like this one that were published in Pittsburgh's newspapers:

Published in Pittsburgh Weekly Gazette, 22 July 1814

Latrobe didn't much appreciate Pittsburgh, writing to a friend that "Mud and smoke are the great evils of this town. Whoever can make up his mind to breathe dirt, and eat dirt, and be up to his knees in dirt, may live happily and comfortably here." Happy and comfortable Latrobe was not, but during the year he reluctantly lived in Pittsburgh he designed and built a theater for the Circus of Pepin and Breschard and at least three private homes presumably incorporating his favored Greek Revival style. He also expanded an existing church, built steam engines 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. What was eventually constructed differed significantly from his original plans, which remain in the Library of Congress. Today 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.

Latrobe and family moved back to DC to oversee reconstruction of the Capitol following the fires set by British troops in 1814.  Meanwhile, his son by his first marriage, Henry Sellon Boneval Latrobe, had become a civil engineer known for his railway bridges. In 1811, the senior Latrobe had accepted a franchise to design waterworks systems for the city of New Orleans. His son Henry secured the commission for the project and moved there to began construction. Unfortunately, a little war with the British intervened, and Henry fought during the War of 1812. He also found time to design a lighthouse and work on New Orleans' Charity Hospital and the French Opera House. However, Henry contracted yellow fever in 1817 and died in New Orleans at age 25.

A little more than a year after his son's death, and fresh from bankruptcy proceedings, Benjamin Latrobe left DC for a fresh start. He traveled to New Orleans to complete his son's work on the water supply system, and his family joined him the following year. In New Orleans, Latrobe designed the Louisiana State Bank and the central tower with clock and bell of the Saint Louis Cathedral. This tower collapsed in 1850 during reconstruction, but the bell was reused in the new building and remains there today.

Like his son and so many other visitors to that city, Benjamin Latrobe contracted yellow fever and died in New Orleans on 2 September 1820. Both father and son were buried in a common lye pit, a typical method of interment during Yellow Jack outbreaks. The Latrobes do have a memorial marker in Saint Louis Cemetery #1 that was erected by their descendants.

Source: Find a Grave

Latrobe and his second wife Mary Elizabeth Hazlehurst had one surviving daughter, Julia E. Latrobe, who never married. Although she lived to the age of 86, Julia seems not have left anything as a legacy beyond a circa-1812 manuscript in which she recorded dance steps and reminiscences of her childhood, and various party invitations and greeting cards. These items are in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society.

There were two surviving Latrobe sons. John Hazelhurst Boneval Latrobe was a Maryland attorney
John H. B. Latrobe, c.1860-90, photo from Brady negative.  Library of Congress.
who was retained as counsel for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. He had aspired to a career in architecture, but abandoned this idea due to family financial circumstances following his father's death. He was, however, a talented landscape artist and art patron, and illustrated and wrote a drawing manual under the pseudonym E. Von Blom. He was also known to be a prominent supporter of the African colonization of Liberia, a well-intentioned but misguided antebellum movement. John H. B. Latrobe kept a journal called "Southern Travels" written during a two-month period in late 1834. In it, he chronicled his travels with his wife Charlotte from New York to Natchez (where wife had family), and the return trip by stagecoach to their Baltimore home.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Jr
Youngest son Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Jr initially studied law under big brother John, working on cases involving his late father's property disputes. He then assisted his brother in drafting provisions for the original Maryland charter of the B&O RR, which involved surveying and field work. This awakened latent mathematical abilities that he decided to pursue. Junior, as he was sometimes known, eventually became chief engineer of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, laying out the line between Washington DC and Baltimore and designing the Thomas Viaduct outside the latter city. He had a distinguished career as a civil engineer, and was the guiding force in extending the B&O into Pittsburgh by absorbing a Connellsville railroad company.

While the Pittsburgh buildings constructed by Benjamin H. B. Latrobe are gone, Western Pennsylvania residents have an abiding connection to the Latrobe family: the town of Latrobe.

Latrobe, PA, circa 1900

According to the Latrobe Historical Society, 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. He 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 Latrobe men ever set foot in the town that bears their surname.

New Orleans, his eternal home, remembers Benjamin Latrobe in other ways. Near the French Market arch at Ursulines Street is a small park dedicated to Benjamin Latrobe. The site of this park is actually the former waterworks that father and son designed and created. The park incorporates architectural remnants from the works into its sculptures and fountains.

And although the Louisiana State Bank Building at Royal and Conti in the French Quarter no longer functions as such, the building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1983. It has been home to many commercial enterprises over the years. As of 2014 a wedding and events business operated there, called Latrobe's on Royal.

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. 1986.
The Versatile Benjamin Latrobe
Sutcliffe, Andrea J. Steam: The Untold Story of America's First Great Invention. Palgrave Macmillan. 2004.


  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.