|Benjamin Henry Latrobe, or B. Henry Latrobe (1764-1820), changed the course of architecture in the United States. Latrobe, the founder of the modern architectural profession in this country, and his friend Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), the great amateur in the Renaissance tradition, are the first American architects of international stature. Their thinking came together in building after building, culminating in Latrobe’s masterpiece, the Basilica of the Assumption, and Jefferson’s masterpiece, the Lawn of the University of Virginia.Latrobe was born in England in 1764, the son of a prominent Moravian churchman. His education in Moravian schools in Europe fostered his gifts so that he developed into a “universal man,” a distinguished amateur in many fields, particularly in art and the sciences. After returning to Britain, Latrobe trained as an architect and engineer, and then emigrated to the United States in 1795.
During the next quarter-century before his death in 1820, Latrobe designed almost every kind of building for locations from New York City to New Orleans, but most of his executed structures have been destroyed. Latrobe’s career centered on the region from Pennsylvania to the District of Columbia. In the late 1790s he rose to prominence in Philadelphia as an ambitious but immature avant-garde architect and engineer. He introduced the newest phase of an international movement called Neoclassicism as well as the revival of Gothic architecture, and he created the Philadelphia Waterworks, a landmark in civil engineering.
Latrobe’s bold Philadelphia works seized the attention of President Jefferson, who called the architect to Washington to carry on the construction of the national Capitol. This problem-ridden commission, which occupied Latrobe from 1803 to 1812 and 1815 to 1817, brought his powers to full bloom. Latrobe brought to the architecture of the federal government not only his imaginative, purified kind of Neoclassical style but also the ideal of all-masonry construction meant to last for centuries. A proponent of enduring brick and stone domes, Latrobe had to contend with Jefferson’s love of skylights and of perishable but economical wooden domes pioneered by the French master Philibert Delorme (1514-1570). Inspired by further French precedent, Latrobe developed a two-layered compromise, with a masonry inner dome to provide enduring structure, and a wooden outer dome to shed water while admitting solemn lighting from half-seen panes.
The Basilica of the Assumption, built from 1806 onward, was the supreme beneficiary of Latrobe’s maturation at the Capitol. Latrobe donated his services, in accord with a custom of early British architectural professionals, who often worked for free for non-profit institutions. The functional and economic aspects of the cathedral entailed Latrobe and the Baltimore lay officials in acrimony that ultimately was resolved only by the diplomacy of Bishop John Carroll, a patron who shaped the building decisively. Via a process of many, wearisome changes to the design, Latrobe succeeded brilliantly. His great accomplishment lay in uniting two elements that only the greatest church architects have ever reconciled, an oblong body and a domed space. Latrobe provided the cathedral with an oblong, cross-shaped body because this was the most practical plan for a Western Christian church and because it had obvious Christian symbolism. He fused this body with something very different, a domed space, which for centuries various Christian thinkers had considered ideally beautiful and thus ideally suitable for divine worship.
To this day the Basilica – which was lengthened in the 1890s — appears on the exterior to be an oblong building, but this impression dissolves when one steps inside, where the dominant effect is of a grand domed space.
Latrobe relied on his command of many fields to perfect his conception. Building for the ages like the ancient Romans, he used his insight as an amateur geologist in choosing a remarkably beautiful silver-gray gneiss from Ellicott City for the monumental outer walls of the cathedral. Latrobe’s gifts as a mathematician and engineer came into full play as he developed the remarkably open structure of the interior and devised a double-shell dome over the heart of the church. For the inner dome he created a solid, classically detailed masonry hemisphere. For the novel outer dome, he employed the skylights and the Delorme wooden construction to which Jefferson had exposed him.
Now, though, Latrobe, a careful student of light, used the half-concealed panes of the skylights to illuminate the cathedral crossing with a solemn, celestial effect. For his finishing touch the architect, after depicting landscapes in watercolor for decades, knew just how to compose an inspired skyline for the cathedral. For the cathedral towers Latrobe designed domes that swell and taper to set off the majesty of the skylit central dome, in a composition whose restored freshness and sparkling beauty we can at last enjoy once more today.
Charles Brownell, Ph. D.
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