Hey there, architecture enthusiasts! Have you ever heard of Benjamin Latrobe?
If not, let me introduce you to the man often celebrated as the ‘Father of American Architecture’. His designs are all over the country. He’s probably most famous for shaping the US Capitol in Washington, DC and the stunning Basilica of the Assumption in Baltimore Maryland. In New Orleans he designed the steeple of St. Louis Cathedral, the US Custom House, and a primitive waterworks plan.
Let’s Rewind To Where it All Began
He was born in 1766 in West Yorkshire, England to American parents and was quite the globetrotter and a language buff. Latrobe got his career start under the wing of two English bigwigs: engineer John Smeaton and neoclassical architect Samuel Cockerell. By 1791, he was confident enough to hang out his own shingle and start his own practice. He made quite a name for himself in England before life got, well, complicated.
Latrobe had a bit of a rocky start with his personal life. He married Lydia Sellon and had two kids. Then tragedy struck when Lydia died in childbirth in 1793. After facing bankruptcy and a harrowing nervous breakdown, Latrobe picked up the pieces and moved to the United States in 1795. He eventually called Virginia home.
While in Virginia, he designed the Virginia state penitentiary and Gamble Hill Plantation. It wasn’t long before he moved to Philadelphia when his knack for architecture got him the gig for the Bank of Pennsylvania. Philly treated him well. He tied the knot again, this time with Mary Hazlehurst, and they had three kids.
Fast Forward in the Life of Latrobe
Latrobe is now rubbing shoulders with the likes of Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers. He makes the move to DC in 1803 after Jefferson appointed him to oversee the public buildings. This is where he gets down to business with the US Capitol.
But life had more curveballs for Mr Latrobe. The War of 1812 forced a relocation to Pittsburgh. Then post-war, he was back in DC with the mammoth task of fixing up the war-ravaged Capitol and White House. By 1817, he’d had enough of the political whirlwind and headed to Baltimore to work on the Baltimore Exchange and see through the cathedral project he started years back.
Latrobe wasn’t done with Louisiana just yet, though. He had dabbled there as early as 1804 with a lighthouse project at the Mississippi River mouth. Sadly that project never saw the light of day. Despite his efforts to redefine New Orleans architecture with the Federal-style US Custom House, it wasn’t meant to last due to construction issues.
In the midst of all this, he even designed a tomb for a governors wife and tackled the city’s waterworks plan, which his son Henry initiated before his untimely death. Latrobe took over the project but, like his son, also fell victim to yellow fever in 1820.
Latrobe’s work, from his journal musings to his architectural legacy, paints a vivid picture of American history and development. His life might read like a rollercoaster biography, but through all the ups and downs, he left behind some real treasures that remind us of the power of resilience and creativity.
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