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Happy Birthday Benjamin Latrobe! (1764)

Happy Birthday Benjamin Latrobe!

Benjamin Latrobe, by Charles Willson Peale

On this day in 1764, Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe was born, near Leeds, England. He was educated as an architect and opened his own firm, creating such works as Ashdown House, and Hammerwood Park, both in the Greek Revival style that was swiftly gaining popularity in England.

In 1796, he arrived in America, briefly settling in Norfolk and Richmond Virginia where he was commissioned to design homes and public buildings. It is during this period that he won the bid to design the Richmond Penitentiary, which has since been demolished.

Latrobe's Bank of PA
Bank of PA-

In 1798, Latrobe’s work brought him to Philadelphia where he designed the Bank of Pennsylvania, earning his spot in architectural history as the man who brought Greek Revival architecture to America. This building has all of the hallmarks of Greek Revival style- a boxy, symmetrical building fronted by a triangular pedimented portico supported by Ionic Columns.  His next major project was the Philadelphia Waterworks, a system designed to bring drinkable water to the citizens in the city through steam power.

With his reputation growing, in 1803 Benjamin was appointed to the position of Surveyor of Public Buildings of the United States. It was in this position that he worked on designs of the U.S. Capitol and the White House, both buildings featuring heavy Greek Revival influence. Although he was very busy with these projects, Benjamin also managed to design other buildings such as St. John’s Episcopal Church and the Decatur House in Washington D.C. and the magnificent Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Baltimore, Maryland.

As a federal official, he was allowed to submit designs for federal buildings in other cities. In 1807, he sent plans to New Orleans for the United States Custom House on Canal Street. The building was completed by a contractor who used local materials and did not execute the plans well. Within a decade the building was demolished and a new Custom House was designed by Pierre Benjamin Buisson. In 1810, Benjamin sent his son Henry, an accomplished architect in his own right, to bid on a New Orleans Waterworks project that would use the same steam power technology as which powered the Philadelphia Waterworks. After winning the bid and starting the project, Henry contracted yellow fever and died. Benjamin arrived in New Orleans a year later to continue the project.

New Orleans (1819-1820)
Latrobe’s journal described his immediate impression of his new home, “New Orleans has, at first sight, a very imposing and handsome appearance, beyond any other city in the United States which I have seen.”
His journal is a treasure-trove of information about the sights and sounds of New Orleans in the antebellum era, and being an architect, he focuses on the buildings in this city. Early on, Latrobe praises the attributes of creole architecture versus that of the Americans and their Anglican-influenced architecture. His admiration centers on the practicality of the layout of creole architecture and when describing the houses located between Bourbon and Rampart Street in the French Quarter he says,

The houses are, with hardly a dozen exceptions among many hundred, one story houses. The roofs are high, covered with tiles or shingles, and project five feet over the footway, which is also five feet wide. The eaves, therefore, discharge water into the gutters. The height of the stories is hardly ten feet, the elevation of the pavement not more than a foot and a half, and therefore, the eaves are not more than eight feet off the ground. However different this mode is from the American manner of building, it has very great advantages with regard to the interior of the dwelling and to the street. In the summer the walls are perfectly cool, while the pedestrians are shaded from the sun and protected from the rain. (March 22, 1819)

Clearly in this passage, he is describing Creole Cottages, a typical type of home that still can be found located in historically creole neighborhoods (French Quarter, Marigny, and Treme). These simple homes are a reminder that adaptations were necessary to combat the oppressive heat in the Gulf South. The overhang of the eaves provides shade, the foot or so elevation provides ventilation below the home, and the ten foot ceilings keep the heat above the residents inside the home.

On the other hand, his description of the American architecture is not as glowing:

But so inveterate is habit that the merchants from the old United States, who are daily gaining ground in the manners and habits, the opinions and the domestic arrangements of the French, have already begun to introduce the detestable, lopsided London House, in which a common passage and stairs acts as a common sewer to all the necessities of the dwelling, and renders it impossible to preserve a temperature within the house materially different from that of the atmosphere without as the coughs, colds, and consumptions of our Eastern cities testify.

It is not just the layout and attention to adapting to the humid subtropical climate that Latrobe describes, but also his opinion of the general differences in aesthetics. “With the English arrangement, the red brick fronts are also gaining ground, and the suburb St. Mary, the American Suburb, already exhibits the flat, dull dingy character of Market Street in Philadelphia, instead of the motley and picturesque effect of the stuccoed French buildings of the city.”

Tower of the Winds
Latrobe’s Waterworks – Lost New Orleans

It is these sentiments that had major effects on Benjamin’s architecture practice as he developed a new style that blended the creole design with Greek Revival details. Looking back at his first project on his arrival, the Waterworks – drawings of this building show an octagonal shaped tower, based off of the Tower of the Winds, an ancient Greek timepiece, which used wind and sundials to tell time. The front of the building included a standard triangular pedimented portico, not unlike his design for the Pensylvania Bank. It is important to note that he sent these plans with his son a decade earlier, but only now was able to complete this project.

Court of Two Lions -Dan S. Leyrer

His next building, built in 1819, is referred to as the Court of Two Lions (535-541 Royal Street). On first glance this building looks like any Creole Townhouse in the French Quarter. This two story structure is constructed of brick covered in plaster with a hipped roof pierced by dormers, a favored by the Creoles. Instead of double hung windows, as found in the American sections of town, the second story reveals French doors that open up onto a balcony running the full length of the building. Old habits are hard to break, so Latrobe slipped in some subtle Greek Revival details such as Corinthian capped pilasters above the front corner door, and a side door decorated with plain box pilasters and dentils.

Latrobe's French Quarter
Louisiana State Bank, photo by me.

His last project was a design for the Louisiana State Bank, located at 403 Royal Street. I already covered this building last September for my Favorite Building Friday! segment, but I do want to summarize the main points of that post. Like the Court of Two Lions building just down the street, the Louisiana State Bank is a blend of the New Orleans creole style (brick covered with stucco, flat roof, entresol layout, French doors) with a touch of Greek Revival detail (Ionic pilasters surrounding the door). Sadly, Benjamin Latrobe did not live to see his building finished, as he died of yellow fever before it was completed.

Benjamin Latrobe passed away at the age of 54, after creating many great buildings and landmarks in America. It is clear the “imposing handsome appearance of New Orleans” left a mark on his architecture style as he in turn left a mark on the city. One can’t help but wonder what his next building would have looked like.

Works Consulted:

  • Cable, Mary. Lost New Orleans. New York, NY: American Legacy., 1980.
  • Cangelosi, Robert. “Benjamin Latrobe.” In KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–. Article published January 31, 2011.
  • Christovich, Mary Louise, Samuel Wilson, Bernard Lemann, and Betsy Swanson. New Orleans Architecture: The American Sector. Vol. II. Gretna, LA: Pelican, 1998.
  • Latrobe, Benjamin H. The Journal of Latrobe, Being the Notes and Sketches of an Architect, Naturalist, and Traveler in the United States from 1796-1820. Carlisle, MA: Applewood Books, 2007.
  • Toledano, Roulhac. The National Trust Guide to New Orleans. John Wiley & Sons, 1996.