Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Benjamin Henry La­trobe (1764-1820) is generally acknowl­edged to be America’s first professional architect and engineer, practicing in the United States from 1796, when he immigrated from England, until his untimely death from yellow fever in New Orleans in 1820. He worked, during that period, in cities as diverse as Richmond, Philadelphia, Balti­more, Washington, D.C., Pittsburgh, and New Orleans. It was in Pennsylvania, though, that Latrobe spent the most years and executed some of his most important commis­sions.

Although Latrobe had been born in England and educated there and in Germany, he had a deep affinity with Pennsylva­nia. His mother was Pennsylvania-born Anna Margaretta Antes, member of a prominent Pennsylvania­German family, who had trav­eled with Count Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf to England, where she met and married the Rev. Benjamin Latrobe, a high-ranking Mora­vian church official. Latrobe prided himself on his heritage, even though he did not remain a Moravian. He came to Amer­ica in part to claim the Penn­sylvania land his mother had left him, and when his English birth and French name proved to be impediments to his ca­reer, he referred to himself as “an American of the fourth generation.”

Latrobe bequeathed a rich artistic and iconographic heri­tage to Pennsylvania. His works included the Bank of Pennsylvania, a major contri­bution to the neoclassical revival; Philadelphia’s first waterworks system, an un­precedented engineering feat; the Susquehanna River Im­provement Survey; Dickinson College; William Cramond’s house, Sedgeley, the first Gothic Revival-style house in America; work for the Univer­sity of Pennsylvania; and a major contribution to the beginnings of steam navigation on the Ohio River. He also designed numerous resi­dences, banks, insurance offices and theaters. In addi­tion to his professional works, Latrobe left a rich legacy of drawings, the perceptive observations that he commit­ted to his sketchbooks as he traveled around the country. Fortunately, most of Latrobe’s drawings are preserved in his sketchbooks, in the collections of the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.

After landing in Norfolk in 1796, Latrobe spent two and a half years traveling in Virginia before settling in Philadelphia to establish his professional practice in December 1798. The change was good, as Latrobe had tired of Virginia’s provin­cial atmosphere and yearned for intellectual stimulation and professional opportunities. Philadelphia offered both, and Latrobe was soon an active member of the American Phil­osophical Society and busily engaged in his profession.

His move to Philadelphia was prompted by a lucrative and prestigious commission to design and build the Bank of Pennsylvania. At the instance of bank president Samuel M. Fox, Latrobe adopted the Jef­fersonian goal of giving to a modern public building the general form of an antique temple. Between 1799 and 1801, he supervised construc­tion of the bank, a fireproof structure of permanent ma­sonry vaulting that culminated in a domed circular banking hall. The building had a mar­ble exterior with two Greek Ionic porticoes and was sur­rounded with an enclosed garden. Finely executed be­cause of a liberal budget, in­cluding Latrobe’s four thousand dollar fee, the bank set a standard for civic build­ings and became one of the most influential prototypes for early nineteenth century American architecture. La­trobe, who took it as a point of reference for numerous later designs, regarded it as his masterpiece. The federal gov­ernment demolished the build­ing in 1867.

Simultaneously, Latrobe erected the city’s first steam­-powered waterworks system, his greatest and most success­ful engineering work and one which was as influential in its own way as the Bank of Penn­sylvania was in its. Philadel­phia was a city of fifty thousand residents whose water was supplied from wells in the street. The situation was unsatisfactory because there was insufficient water to fight fires and clean streets, and because wells ran dry or turned foul from pollution, particularly in summer months. Contaminated water was also viewed as a cause of the epidemic and endemic diseases of the city, particu­larly yellow fever. Latrobe’s system used two huge steam engines. One, on the Schuyl­kill River, drew water up the bank and into a basin, from where it flowed by gravity through a brick conduit be­neath Chestnut Street to Cen­tre Square, the site of present-day City Hall. There, a second steam engine raised the water into a cistern, from which the water was distrib­uted by gravity through thirty thousand feet of wooden pipes to public hydrants and private homes. When the system began operation in 1801, Phila­delphia residents could have fresh water piped into their homes for the first time in history and at the modest cost of five dollars a year.

While the waterworks helped ordinary Philadelphi­ans, more affluent residents had long made a practice of vacating the city in the un­healthy summer months. In his “View of the Schuylkill,” Latrobe depicted the resi­dences of wealthy Philadelphi­ans at the falls of the Schuylkill above the city, one of the most desirable residen­tial areas outside Philadelphia during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Among the residences he depicted on the left-hand shore are those of Thomas Mifflin, governor of Pennsylva­nia from 1790 to 1799, and his trusted lieutenant Alexander James Dallas, secretary of the commonwealth during Mif­flin’s administration. On the right-hand shore was the es­tate of the Rev. William Smith, first provost of the College of Philadelphia, whose home was distinguished by a polygo­nal bay and a hexagonal tower that caused it to be known as “Smith’s Folly” as well as “Smith’s Octagon.”

Shortly after his success with the waterworks, Latrobe undertook a survey of the Susquehanna River to improve its navigation from Columbia, Lancaster County, to tidewater. The project was a cooperative venture of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and a Mary­land canal company. Latrobe first assisted his uncle with the Pennsylvania portion from Columbia to the Maryland border, but he took over as engineer following his uncle’s death in September 1801. La­trobe and his Maryland coun­terparts accomplished the clearing of natural obstacles for safe downstream navigation in spring .freshets, and completed a survey of the river from Columbia to the river mouth at Havre de Grace. Latrobe’s beautiful seventeen-foot-long by two-foot-wide watercolor map presents a rare and valu­able profile of the physical and cultural features of a part of Pennsylvania and Maryland just beginning to feel the im­pact of extensive agricultural and commercial development. The map clearly delimits shorelines, tributaries, falls, rapids, and navigational courses, as well as the vegeta­tion and geology of the land along the river. The landscape so meticulously portrayed by Latrobe has changed drasti­cally since he surveyed it: tilled fields have returned to woodlands, alluvial islands have been continuously modi­fied by flood and ice and roar­ing gorges have given way to power dams. The sediment in the channel, formerly a golden sand, is now a mixture of sand, slag, and fine coal dust derived from upstream mining wastes. The channel itself is reduced in width, while the adjacent flood plain level has risen rapidly in elevation due to the massive influx of coal­-laden sediment. Approxi­mately sixty percent of the river channel mapped by La­trobe is submerged by the reservoirs of three twentieth century dams.

While engaged in work on the survey, Latrobe had the opportunity to make a number of sketches along the river. In the drawing entitled “Geo. Stoners on Pequai Creek, Buckhalter’s ferry Susquehan­nah,” Latrobe depicted a typi­cal Lancaster County barn, in this case one owned by a man he employed as a contractor to supervise improvements on this stretch of the river. A quarter century after Latrobe drew this scene, Karl Bernhard, Duke of Saxe­-Weimar-Eisenbach, traveled through Lancaster County and described its distinctive barns in words Latrobe himself might have used to accompany this drawing: “I was particu­larly struck with the barns, which often look better than the dwelling-houses; the houses are generally of wood, and not handsome, whereas the barns are generally built of stone, at least the lower parts containing the stabling, and the two gable-ends. Between these, the barn is built of wood; a broad ascent leads to the entrance on one side, and on the other, the barn forms a broad shed over the entrances of the stables.”

For the duration of the survey Latrobe made Lancaster his headquarters, and on one of his many visits there he sketched the Lancaster County Courthouse. This structure was built after the original courthouse was destroyed by fire in 1784. The new building, completed in 1787 at a cost of more than fifty-nine hundred pounds, was mostly brick, accented with cut-stone cor­ners, lintels, and sills. From 1799 to 1812, Lancaster was the capital of Pennsylvania, and the county courthouse served as the state house when the legislature was in session. Latrobe was somewhat shocked by the popularly elected representatives; he wrote his wife: “Depend upon it, it is the true original ugly Club. Some of the figures there exhibited, are morceaux [pieces] fit only for the pencil of Hogarth. I counted only twelve combed heads, and two woolen nightcaps. . .. Some of the countenances unite coarseness and brutality in a superior degree. And yet I was most disappointed in hearing sound sense proceed from many of the least promising in appearance, though dressed in very uncouth language.”

Traveling between Philadel­phia and Lancaster, Latrobe crossed the Brandywine Creek at Downingtown. His drawing of the stone bridge there shows it nearing completion. The centering (the wood framework used in construct­ing the arches) had been re­moved from the left arch, but was still in place under the center and right arches. Ac­cording to Latrobe, the center arch had a sixty-foot span and the side arches had forty-foot spans. The erection of the bridge resulted from a 1795 petition from “sundry inhabit­ants” of Chester County to the judge and grand jury of the Court of Quarter Sessions and to the county commissioners. The commissioners contracted with Samuel Hains for the construction of the bridge for the sum of four hundred pounds, and Hains began construction in 1801. The bridge was replaced in 1921; however, the marble datestone of 1801 was incorporated into the new bridge.

In Chester County Latrobe also visited and sketched the Warwick Iron Furnace, a typi­cal “blast” or “high” furnace that operated from 1737 to about 1867. During the Revolu­tion the furnace produced cannon for the Continental Army. The stone furnace was thirty-two feet high, twenty-­one and one-half feet square at the base, and eleven feet square at the top. As was typical, the Warwick Furnace was built into the side of a small hill and was loaded from the top through a door that opened into the wooden “bridge” between the hill and the furnace. Horse-drawn wagons carried the iron ore up the road to the top of the hill, from where the ore was carried in baskets across the bridge to the furnace. The blast was furnished by long leather bellows driven by a water­wheel. At the front of the furnace was the “casting house”; here the molten metal ran out from the bottom of the furnace into a trough (“pig bed”), from where the slag that floated to the top could be drawn off. The Warwick Fur­nace produced about thirty tons of pig iron a week by burning charcoal, limestone flux, and iron ore. In a year it could burn the equivalent of two hundred forty acres of woodlands. The depletion of wood, along with the increas­ingly widespread use of coal instead of charcoal, contrib­uted significantly to the aban­donment of the furnace’s operation.

In 1803, Latrobe designed for Dickinson College the building that is today known as West College. He donated his professional services to the college because, as he wrote to trustee Hugh Henry Brack­enridge, “I conceive it to be the interest and duty of every good citizen to promote, quoad virile [as far as is manly], the education, and civilization of the society in which he and his children are to live.” Ten years later a trip to Pittsburgh afforded Latrobe his first opportunity to visit Carlisle and see the realization of his design. At the time of his visit, the exterior of the building had been completed, although the interior was as yet unfinished. Today, West College stands in the eastern section of the Dickinson College campus. It has suffered some alteration to its exterior, but its limestone facade gener­ally looks much as it did when Latrobe committed it to his sketchbook in 1813.

That trip to Pittsburgh marked an important water­shed in Latrobe’s life. Since 1803 he had been Surveyor of the Public Buildings at Wash­ington, in which capacity he was responsible for work on the U.S. Capitol and the Presi­dent’s House. But the appro­priations ended in 1811, and his architectural work in Wash­ington stalled with the out­break of the War of 1812. Latrobe had also contracted to construct and operate a steam­-powered waterworks system for New Orleans similar to that in Philadelphia, but the war prevented his building or shipping the engines from Washington. So he turned to the West in hopes of recouping his financial fortunes, and in 1813 Latrobe and his family moved to Pittsburgh.

Latrobe had high hopes for Pittsburgh. He planned to renew his architectural practice and to enlarge the scope of his engineering practice, not only building the engines for the New Orleans Waterworks, but also acting as agent for Robert Fulton’s Ohio Steamboat Company. In a shop on the Monongahela River next to Anthony Beelen’s foundry, Latrobe built the Buffalo ac­cording to plans provided by Fulton, for service on the Ohio River between Pittsburgh and the falls at Louisville. (Below Louisville Fulton’s Mississippi Steamboat Company provided service to New Orleans.) The plan Fulton gave to Latrobe made the Buffalo a relatively deep-hulled vessel. Fulton had never been to the West to see the nature of the Mississippi basin rivers, and Latrobe knew enough about them to reach conclusions only after the Buffalo was framed and launched in May 1814. He then wrote Fulton that smaller, shallower-draft boats were more appropriate for the upper Ohio River, because sea­sonal low water rendered boats like the Buffalo inopera­ble for much of the year. La­trobe’s perception was correct, albeit belatedly; all of Fulton’s boats descended the Ohio and operated on the lower Missis­sippi River, where the water was deep enough for safe operation. The upper Ohio was not regularly navigated by steamboats until the 1820s, when a trend toward smaller boats took hold. The issue of correct design was the subject of an acrimonious exchange between Fulton and Latrobe after the Buffalo incurred sub­stantial cost overruns by the summer of 1814. Fulton argued that Latrobe should have ex­amined the river and built a smaller boat, while Latrobe maintained that Fulton had prescribed the boat’s size and that, as agent, he was merely carrying out Fulton’s instruc­tions. The conflict resulted in Latrobe’s dismissal as Fulton’s agent in September 1814, leav­ing Latrobe in severe financial straits. For a time Latrobe sought reconciliation with Fulton, for the Buffalo required only a small sum to be com­pleted. That possibility, how­ever, evaporated when Fulton died unexpectedly in February 1815.

Latrobe’s sixteen months in Pittsburgh cost him dearly. The collapse of the Ohio Steamboat Company left him without the capital and credit necessary to complete the engines for the New Orleans Waterworks. He received a number of minor architectural commissions, such as houses for Daniel Beltzhoover, William Foster, Christopher Cowan and William Robinson, but nothing on the order of the commis­sions he had undertaken in the East. Latrobe was a broken man. It was only his wife’s intercession with Pres. James Madison that secured for him the commission to rebuild the U.S. Capitol after it had been burned by the British.

Upon returning to Wash­ington in 1815, Latrobe made few trips to Pennsylvania. In 1816-18 he did attempt to secure the commission to design the Second Bank of the United States in Philadelphia, a posi­tion that he believed would be the capstone of his career. As he wrote to a friend, “My professional ambition termi­nates in the desire to build this Bank, which will be a monu­ment of the Arts of this day, in our country, for many centu­ries.” He also wanted to end his days in Philadelphia, the city that had nurtured him in the early years of his American career. But it was not to be: the bank commission went to his former pupil William Strick­land, who may very well have stolen Latrobe’s design to win the competition.

Instead, Latrobe went south, to New Orleans, to complete that city’s waterworks. His son Henry had died there of yellow fever in 1817, and Latrobe moved there to bring the project to fruition. In a bitter irony, Latrobe died of yellow fever on September 3, 1820, three years to the day after Henry’s death.


For Further Reading

Carter, II, Edward C., John C. Van Horne, and Charles E. Brownell, eds. Latrobe’s View of America, 1795-1820: Selections from the Watercolors and Sketches. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

Carter, II, Edward C., John C. Van Horne, and Lee W. Formwalt, eds. The Journals of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, 1799-1820: From Philadelphia to New Orleans. New Haven: Yale Uni­versity Press, 1980.

Hamlin, Talbot. Benjamin Henry Latrobe. New York: Holt, Rine­hart & Winston, 1955.


John C. Van Horne is librarian of the Library Company of Philadel­phia and associate editor of the Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Among his publications is Religious Philanthropy and Colonial Slavery: The Ameri­can Correspondence of the Associates of Dr. Bray, 1717-1777. He was educated at Prince­ton University and the University of Virginia.