American Architecture Series
Benjamin Latrobe

Biography of Neoclassical Architect, Noted for Greek Revival Designs.

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Baltimore Basilica (1806-21).
Designed by Benjamin Latrobe,
one of the greatest architects of the
late 18th and early 19th century.

Benjamin Latrobe (1764-1820)


Early Life and Architectural Training
Bank of Pennsylvania
US Capitol

American Architecture Series
• For a general guide, see: American Architecture (1600-present).
• For tower design, see: Skyscraper Architecture (1850-present).

To see how architecture fits into
the general classification of the arts,
see: Definition of Art.
For more about the different
disciplines, see: Types of Art.


One of the most influential American architects of the early 19th century, the British-born Benjamin Latrobe is famous for his work on the United States Capitol in Washington DC - when he reworked the original design by William Thornton (1759-1828), after the fire of 1814. He is also well known for his masterpiece of neoclassical architecture, the Baltimore Basilica (1806-21), America's first Roman Catholic Cathedral. Well educated, Latrobe received little formal training in building design, although he was apprenticed in London to a civil engineer as well as an architect, from whom he acquired a thorough grounding in basic architectural work. After emigrating to America in 1795, he collaborated with Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) - another champion of classicism - on construction of the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond (1796), and was made surveyor of public buildings in 1803. His monumental building designs, which did so much to introduce Greek art to American architecture, also include the beautiful Bank of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia (1799); the Fairmount Waterworks (begun 1799), built in a Greek temple style complete with Ionic columns; Nassau Hall, Princeton University (1802); the Baltimore Exchange (1816-20); and the Louisiana State Bank. An important figure in 19th century architecture, Latrobe is today regarded as America's first professional architect, involved in a wide range of architectural projects, including landscaping, town planning, sewage works and prisons, as well as high-profile works of public art like the US Capitol.


Early Life and Architectural Training

Henry Sellon Boneval Latrobe was born at Fulneck near Leeds, England, where his father, a bishop of the Moravian Church, had become master of a Moravian school for young children; Latrobe's mother was American. Latrobe was sent to a Moravian school in Germany to prepare for the ministry, but, unsure of his personal qualifications, he gave up the idea. Instead, after discussions with his 'mentor' Baron Karl von Schachmann, a classical scholar and art collector, he decided to become an architect, and in 1783 he returned to London.

Back in England Latrobe first attempted a literary career and published two historical books, but by nature he was a man of action. After a Grand Tour around Europe (1784), during which he saw several important designs of late-18th century architecture, including the nearly-completed neoclassical Pantheon in Paris, designed by Jacques Germain Soufflot (1713-80), and the classical Pantheon in Rome, he became apprenticed to John Smeaton, a prominent civil engineer who built Eddystone Lighthouse, and then entered the architectural office of Samuel Pepys Cockerell in 1789, staying there until 1791. He quickly gained a practical knowledge of architecture and decided to start his own office. The times were unfavourable because of England's sporadic hostilities with France in the 1790s, and Latrobe received commissions for only two houses and some renovations. Eventually his business went bankrupt. In addition, Lydia Sellon, his wife of 5-years died and Latrobe suffered a breakdown. As a result he decided to emigrate to America, sailing in November 1795.

For more background concerning the fine arts in America at this time, see: American Colonial art: 1670-1800. For more about European neoclassical architects, see: Carl Gotthard Langhans (1732-1808) and Karl Friedrich Schinkel (1781-1841) in Germany, Charles Cameron (c.1745–1812) in Russia, and the Regency neoclassicist John Nash (1752-1835).

Bank of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

Not long after his arrival in Virginia, Latrobe became friends with Bushrod Washington, nephew of President George Washington, as well as other notables. He spent the next two years doing odd projects in Virginia: he designed some houses, mapped a swamp, worked on the Richmond Penitentiary (1797) and established a number of important social and professional contacts. On a trip to Philadelphia he met Samuel M. Fox, president of the Bank of Pennsylvania. He moved to Philadelphia in 1798 after receiving the commission to design the Bank of Pennsylvania (1798-1800), his most beautiful work. Its colonnades recalled the graceful Erechtheum in Athens; its proportions were as perfect as those of any ancient building. This was soon followed by other commissions such as the engineering feat of constructing Philadelphia's first waterworks (1799-1802). He also designed several houses in Philadelphia, including Sedgeley Mansion (1799), built for William Crammond in a revival of Gothic architecture.

US Capitol

For lack of appropriations, work on building the U.S. Capitol ceased in 1800, but when Jefferson became president he pressed for funds to complete the building. In 1803 he appointed Latrobe surveyor of public buildings, making him responsible for the construction of the Capitol in accordance with the plans of William Thornton. Much controversy ensued between Jefferson and Latrobe over Thornton's original plans, particularly for designing the interior. Some compromises took place, and the south wing was completed. While the arches in the old Senate room of the north wing were under construction, one gave way, killing the clerk of the works. People jealous of Latrobe's success and offended by his somewhat boasting manner never let him forget the tragic death and blamed him for it. Latrobe later furnished new designs for the Capitol after it was burned by the British in 1814 but resigned from his position in late 1817. He was succeeded by Charles Bulfinch (1763-1844), a Boston architect whose Federal Style of neoclassical architecture became the template for all 19th century state capitol buildings in the United States.

While working in Washington DC, Latrobe dominated its architectural style, designing, among other buildings, St. John's Church (1816) and Decatur House (1818-19). The Roman Catholic Cathedral (1805-21) in Baltimore, designed without remuneration, stands today as his largest completed building and a sublime example of three-dimensional religious art. His last architectural commission was the central tower of Cathedral in St. Louis. He died of yellow fever in New Orleans while working on the city's waterworks system. He was interred at Saint Louis Cemetery, where his son Henry Sellon Boneval Latrobe, who also died from yellow fever had been buried three years earlier.


The use of Greek architecture for public buildings and the Gothic style for domestic buildings was largely introduced to America by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, although Gothic architecture for public buildings was principally championed by Richard Upjohn (1802-78) and James Renwick (1818-95). Although not the first architect in America, Latrobe was the first to make a strong impression on the public, and his numerous pupils, notably William Strickland (1788-1854) and Robert Mills (1781-1855), extended his influence in the 19th century by continuing to design in the Greek Revival style. Latrobe's pupils aggressively advanced the status of architects in America so that by mid-century architecture was a fully recognized profession. The history of architecture in 19th century America would undoubtedly have been very different if the French architects, such as Stephen Hallet (1755–1825), who worked at the Capitol, had introduced their version of classicism. But it was Latrobe's English background and firm intellectual and romantic leaning toward the ancient Greek style that pervaded the country, coming closer than any other to being the American national style. His contribution to American art should not be underestimated.

More 19th Century American Architects

Henry Hobson Richardson
Inventor of Richardsonian Romanesque style of public buildings.
Richard Morris Hunt
Famous for his pedestal under the Statue of Liberty.
William Le Baron Jenney
Pioneer of skyscraper design.
Chicago School of Architecture (c.1880-1910)
Leading group of skyscraper architects.
Cass Gilbert
Beaux-Arts designer of the Minnesota State Capitol.
Frank Lloyd Wright
Arguably America's most famous and influential architect
Second Chicago School of Architecture (c.1940-75)

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