Father of American Architecture

US Capitol, Washington, D.C. West approach with propylaea, plan & elevation
US Capitol, Washington, D.C. West approach with propylaea – image Library of Congress

Who was this man that many don’t know or have forgotten. . . except for those few studious academics who still refer to him as the Father of American Architecture?

  • He is believed to have been the first working professional Architect in the young United States of America. 
  • He designed the Bank of Pennsylvania, believed to be first Greek Revival architecture in the United States of America. 
  • He was hired by President Thomas Jefferson as the chief surveyor of Public Buildings for the United States, including early designs for the US Capitol and the White House. 
  • He designed the first Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United States, the Baltimore Basilica. 

The Founding Fathers created a governmental structure unique in human history… and they wished for an architectural style that would properly represent the new country – a (. . . UNIQUELY AMERICAN) Architecture.  In fact Thomas Jefferson, in particular, not only wished for it, he self-taught, studied and drew plans and elevations himself in an effort to create all things “American”.  Some give the title to Jefferson for that very reason.  But genius that he was, Jefferson recognized he was not fully trained in the technicalities of architectural practice, and so he looked to his friend Benjamin Latrobe.

August 1936 BENJAMIN LATROBE - ARCHITECT - Roman Catholic Cathedral of Baltimore
HABS August 1936 – Roman Catholic Cathedral of Baltimore – image Library of Congress

Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe was born in Great Britain on May 1, 1764 and came to America in 1796 at the age of 32 perhaps being the first formally trained, professional Architect ever to work in America.  (see our story on William Nichols who arrived in the US in 1800 at the age of 20 Forgotten Architect of the Old South).  It is interesting to consider the United States was only two decades old when he arrived from Europe.  Apparently, the work load was sporadic and spread-out because he stayed on the move.  Latrobe immediately went to work in Richmond, Virginia designing a penitentiary, but didn’t stay for more than a few short years.  In addition to work in Virginia, he designed projects in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Washington DC, and New Orleans.

Latrobe was a close friend of Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and Aaron Burr.  His relationship with Jefferson very likely influenced the design and layout of the University of Virginia.  Latrobe spent fourteen years in Washington DC, and after the War of 1812 he became the second “Architect of the Capitol” in 1815.  But his Neoclassical training and interests clashed with some of the powers in the Federal city, including the city planner – Pierre L’Enfant.  Latrobe resigned in 1817 with serious financial problems which eventually forced him into bankruptcy.  He moved again, to Baltimore… and again, to New Orleans.

Sanctuary at the Baltimore Basilica, Baltimore2
Sanctuary at the Baltimore Basilica, Baltimore – image Library of Congress

Arriving in January 1819, Latrobe spent the latter years of his life in New Orleans, Louisiana working on a large waterworks project.  Latrobe’s design was patterned after that of Philadelphia which he also designed as a response to constant yellow fever epidemics.  The project was quite sophisticated and included the ability to desalt water using steam powered pumps, but unfortunately, he did not live to see its completion.

Mr. Latrobe died September 3, 1820 from the very disease he was trying to eradicate and was buried in the Saint Louis Cemetery in New Orleans, where his son (Henry Sellon Boneval Latrobe – also an Architect) had been buried three years earlier having also died of yellow fever.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe, by Rembrandt Peale, c. 1815 / Courtesy Architect of the Capitol



D. Tracy Ward, Architect

Originally prepared 2013 – Reedited & Uploaded February 2018 – DTW’s Blog #0010

Our Original Posts, including images when applicable, are copyrighted © 1993-2018 by D. Tracy Ward and Benchmark Design, PC.  God bless America!  Treasure Liberty always and pass it on!   President Herbert Hoover, October 18, 1931:  This great complex, which we call American life, is builded and can alone survive upon the translation into individual action of that fundamental philosophy announced by the Savior nineteen centuries ago…” (read Mark 12:30-31)

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