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Benjamin H. Latrobe was born in 1764 in Fulneck, England. He was raised in England. As a young man Latrobe was taught at the Morvian school in Fulneck. This was where Latrobe received a base for his further education. After Morvian, he transferred to Nieski school in Germany. There he received an impressive education. Which was composed of a broad curriculum. He was taught in all the liberal arts and also classical and modern languages. Latrobe started his career training under England's most renowned engineer of the day John Smeaton. Under Smeatons teachings Latrobe gained a strong grasp of technical and theoretical English civil engineering and meticulous draughtsmanship (Carter 1981, 1-2). Latrobe's interests in engineering soon led him to develop an interest in architecture. Latrobe decided to pursue his interest in architecture. He decided to work with S.R. Cockrell and become his apprentice. While Latrobe worked along with Cockrell he gained further experience and rapid advancement in architecture. Latrobe did many side jobs designing public works where he also gained experience and individuality. During Latrobe's partnership with Cockrell he also met other renowned architects of the time. Two of which were Gorge Dance and John Soane. Both of these architects were very influential to Latrobes own work. In fact, all three architects were very influential. They all helped mold and create Latrobe's architectural style. During this advancing time period in architecture there were mainly three distinct styles of architecture. The first style was Old school. This style was strict Palladianism which was inspired by Palladio himself. The second school was Roman in origin and had a lot of functional space and had a lot of decorative detail. Latrobe found both these styles to be over rich and also to elaborate in detail. Latrobe found the Third school to be the most attractive. This style was sometimes called the "Plain Style," which was characterized by simplicity, geometric power and rationalism. With all these great teachers and mentors. Latrobe was able to develop his own style which would start a new form of architecture and create the Greek revival (Carter 1981, 12).
Latrobe decided to move to the United States. With him be brought his architectural gift and curiosity. He was very interested in the US and he studied its history, its legends, the dress and manners of its people, and of course its architecture. Geological formations, waterfalls, the courses of rivers, and the nature of the soil and terrain were all carefully observed.
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Philadelphia gave Latrobe the opportunity to create two of his most memorable masterpieces the Bank of Pennsylvania and the city's new waterworks. The Bank of Pennsylvania is often referred to as the first Greek Revival structure in America. It was more truly a modern building of the Roman period, and as such it was a monument like no other building standing in the united states. For the first time in this countries history a masonry vault was used as an integral element in a total architectural concept. The large, circular space that served as the main banking room was lighted by a glazed cupola
surmounting the soaring central dom. This was all created and designed by Latrobe in the Greek style and was the first of its kind. The Bank of Pennsylvania's functions were otherwise enclosed in a design of almost geometric simplicity. This building was both beautiful and simple, and it remained a distinguished landmark until it was destroyed in the 1860's (Hamlin 1955, 15-17). The next test of Latrobe's architectural and engineering skills came when he was commissioned to devise a system to provide Philadelphia with an adequate supply of clean water for private and civic uses. It was the first time a major American city had undertaken such a challenging task. Latrobe proposed to tap the Schuylkill River as it flowed through the city and raise the water by steam power to a central storage tank, where it could be distributed through out the city by gravity. It took Latrobe less than two years to accomplish this path breaking feat. There were many critics that said such a hopeless scheme could never work. But his reputation, after the successful completion of his work, as an engineer was immediately established. The popular success of his innovation in public service is suggested in a report that by 1815 more than 228 bathrooms had been installed in Philadelphia. That of which had earlier been a rare convenience was now becoming a practical necessity. The structure that Latrobe built in the center square, to house the pumping machinery and attendant offices, was in itself an architectural gem. Like the Bank it was designed to serve its essential purpose in the most straightforward manner, again using classical Greek architecture, and again of geometric simplicity. He was the first in the
United states to provide a neat solution to a problem that would grow larger with time to accommodate the new machinery to the architecture (Hamlin 1955, 14-15).
A crucial point in Latrobes career came in 1803, when President Jefferson appointed him surveyor of the public buildings in the United States, which was the most important architectural position in the country. For the next eight years Latrobe would be concerned with the completion of the Capitol. These were years filled with heavy responsibilities, frustrations, and very considerable achievements(Norton 1987, 24). At the start he had been instructed to fallow the plans for the Capitol drawn up by a gentleman architect, William Thornton. Only the north wing had been completed by Thornton and Latrobe at first glance considered it functionally inadequate, badly constructed, and aesthetically deficient. As to the south wing and central structure that remained to be built, there was little exact evidence of what Thornton had in mind, and he was contemptuously unresponsive to Latrobes questions to him on the subject (Carter 1981, 32). Latrobe completed the job and it is all attributed to his stubborn persistence in the face or shortages, labor, and materials. Congress was impatient with the slow progress and the rising costs of the building, the president recommended wooden columns for the house of representatives to save both time and money. But Latrobe refused to consider wooden columns. He believed that the building must be an enduring and monumental symbol of the
nation's great destiny and a point of pride for all Americans. Latrobe once wrote, "I will give up my office sooner than build temple of disgrace to myself and Mr. Jefferson," (Horne 1984, 23-24).
Latrobe was a great man. He was a man of insight and greatly advanced archetectual ability. He completed the Bank of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia water works, the Capitol and many more public and private buildings. He was the first architect in america to use the Greek style in architecture. He is known to be the architect that triggered the Greek Revival and also influence future architects for year and years to come. Latrobe was a well rounded man, he was not only an architect but also an engineer. He was also a linguist and spoke over a half dozen
different languages. With all these different talents he was able to provide America with many different masterpeices of his abilty. All the work that he has done shows that he built buildings that were enduring and a monumental symbol of the nation's destiny. He showed his fellow Americans that he was proud to be and american and that he shows pride in what he does which is to make America a better place to live.
Carter, Edward C., 1981. "The Journals of Benjamin Henry Latrobe," New Haven: Yale University Press.
Hamlin, Talbo F., 1955. "Benjamin Henry Latrobe." New York: Oxford University Press.
Horne, John C., and Lee W. Formwalt, 1984. "The Correspondence and Micellaneous Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe." New Haven: Yale University Press.
Norton, Paul F., 1987. "Latrobe, Jefferson and the National Capitol." New York: Garland.