Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764–1820) was not, strictly speaking, America's first professional architect, although he was the first to demand a 5 percent fee, that recent innovation in English contracting. But he could do what none of his predecessors could: compose buildings imaginatively as space and volume and realize them in superb vaulted masonry. His Bank of Pennsylvania, Catholic cathedral in Baltimore, and U.S. Capitol were unmatched in their technical acumen and formal sophistication. Even greater work might have been in store had he not died suddenly of yellow fever in New Orleans when he was just fifty-six years old. This opened the door for William Strickland, his wayward pupil, whose career represented a natural extension of Latrobe's, aesthetically, professionally, and—alas—financially.
So we learn when we read the recent biographies of Latrobe and Strickland back-to-back. They are very different books: Jean H. Baker's Building America is a brisk narrative of Latrobe's life and deals only in passing with his buildings; Robert Russell's William Strickland and the Creation of an American Architecture focuses on the work itself, relegating biography to an introductory chapter. But as their titles suggest, these books share a theme. Each credits its subject with creating the visual imagery of American civic life, and each, as it happens, makes a strong case.
Baker had the benefit of the seven volumes of Latrobe's papers and architectural drawings published by Yale University Press (1976–94), which document his life in miraculous detail. That life was chronically restless: birth in England to a Moravian family, followed by six years of schooling in Germany, until the Moravian bishop decided that Latrobe's continued presence “would cause a great deal of damage.” There followed professional training in London and a brief period of private practice, ending in family tragedy and bankruptcy. After flight to the United States in 1796, the restlessness continued as Latrobe drifted from Richmond to Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and other points, searching in vain for steady employment.
Baker makes the turbulence of Latrobe's personality abundantly clear. A glance at her index is revealing; entries include “conceit regarding his knowledge and abilities,” “eagerness of temper,” “sense of superiority,” and so forth. Latrobe was subject to fits of rage, and not even the presence of President James Monroe could prevent him from seizing Samuel Lane, the U.S. Capitol commissioner, by the throat and threatening him in the most appalling language (“Were you not a cripple I would shake you to atoms, you poor contemptible wretch”; 183). But Latrobe's sense of superiority was not unjustified. He was a polymath of uncommon versatility, an adept watercolorist, a proficient translator from German and French, and a highly insightful travel writer, whose peripatetic life made him an attentive observer of his surroundings. Above all, he was a capable engineer, something that his architectural accomplishments have overshadowed. It was engineering that took him around the country as he tackled those impossibly ambitious schemes that characterize the age of internal improvements. Besides the celebrated Philadelphia Waterworks there was a Chesapeake and Delaware canal, another canal between the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers, and various projects for lighthouses, fortifications, and dry docks, almost all of which came to grief. Saddest of all was his partnership with the inventor of the steamboat, Robert Fulton.
For readers who know Latrobe only as an architect, his brave attempt at steamboat building will come as a surprise. In 1813 he left Washington for Pittsburgh to supervise the building of Fulton's Buffalo, a 300-ton steamboat intended to ply the Ohio River between Pittsburgh and Louisville. Latrobe displayed his formidable executive competence in directing his company of millwrights, ironmongers, and laborers, some of them paroled British prisoners captured during the still-raging War of 1812. But like most of Latrobe's capital ventures, the project was fatally underfunded; by the time the boat was launched, there was no money left for its steam engine. Had Latrobe not been summoned back to Washington to complete the Capitol, he might well have ended up in debtors’ prison.
By burning the Capitol in 1814, Latrobe's British kinsmen inadvertently did him a favor. The fire cleared out some of the awkward spaces that his predecessor, William Thornton, had foisted on him, particularly the oval chamber of the House of Representatives. Latrobe replaced this late baroque anachronism with a semicircular half-domed space that suggested the Pantheon, sliced in two and refined by neoclassical principles. Representative democracy never enjoyed a more sublime architectural setting. But here as elsewhere in the book, Baker neglects the spatial component of Latrobe's achievement, noting only that the room was less crowded and offered improved acoustics (amusingly, we read in Russell's book that Strickland was consulted in 1826 to repair the “terrible” acoustics of the chamber; 200).
While Baker is not a specialist, historians of architecture can read her book with pleasure. Even a short synthetic biography can give us a fresh perspective on a familiar figure, as it reveals unexpected connections. Baker's stress on the social and financial realities of Latrobe's life, which she makes vivid, is especially valuable. Given the amount of material that she had to master, we may pardon a few signs of haste. She might have noted that Philadelphia's Robert Morris House, “one of the ugliest houses [Latrobe] had ever seen” (53), was designed by Charles Pierre L'Enfant, whose plan of Washington, D.C., she discusses elsewhere. Nor are the lapses merely architectural. She calls Latrobe irreverent for quipping, “The sabbath is made for man, not the reverse” (16), a statement that has the most reverent pedigree imaginable (Mark 2:27).
Ultimately, the chronic financial desperation that tossed Latrobe from city to city had a salutary effect by sprinkling examples of first-rate monumental classicism across the country, each setting a high standard of quality. The local contractors who worked from his baffling plans and who, for example, struggled to decipher the inverted arches used for the foundations of his Baltimore Cathedral found themselves educated in the process. His refinements and techniques, even the moldings of his detailed drawings, worked their way into their subsequent projects. But even more, it was Latrobe's pupils—and his pupils’ pupils—who magnified his highly personal architecture into something of a national school of civic classicism. It is only when this later work is taken into account that Baker's claim that Latrobe “built America” becomes convincing.
The most remarkable of Latrobe's pupils was William Strickland (1788–1854), the Philadelphia architect and subject of Robert Russell's recent biography. Strickland was quite clearly a prodigy. His father had worked as a carpenter on the Bank of Pennsylvania and prevailed upon Latrobe in 1801 to accept his son as an apprentice when he was only twelve years old. Russell reproduces Strickland's lively (if erratically punctuated) account of his apprenticeship, although he misreads one crucial word:
On my first induction into the office of Latrobe, I was Jag, and dusted the port folios’ washed the brushes and looked round for a chance of promotion—at length ground plans were given me to copy…. At night I copied the Engraved plates and read the letter press of Stuarts Athens, Ionian Antiquities, etc.; and was soon enabled, by contrasting these works with Batty Langley, Swan and my father's bench mate, to discover the graceful forms of Grecian architecture. (26)
The garbled word in the first sentence is not jag but fag, British boarding school slang referring to the practice of requiring younger pupils to perform menial chores for their older classmates. Strickland evidently learned the term from Latrobe.
By 1805 Strickland had advanced sufficiently beyond dusting portfolios for Latrobe to send him to survey New Castle, Delaware, along with fellow apprentice Robert Mills and others. He was caught taking time off without permission and, to his chagrin, was promptly expelled from the office. Strickland was now sixteen, with only four years of formal architectural education behind him, but—astonishingly—it was enough. After a few years working as a surveyor and a theatrical scene painter, he established his own architectural practice and found rapid success. The juvenilia was uneven, some of it in the flat cardboard Gothic style he had absorbed from his mentor. By 1816 Latrobe could grumble about “making the fortunes of a parcel of ungrateful pupils. One of them is poisoning the taste of the towns by a morbid tendency to Gothic architecture” (30).
The ungrateful pupil soon surpassed the teacher. In 1818 Strickland won the competition for the Second Bank of the United States, becoming an architectural celebrity overnight; he was not yet thirty. Russell devotes a full chapter to this career-making building and the controversy surrounding it. Latrobe, who placed second in the competition, complained that Strickland revised his submission after having viewed Latrobe's project, from which he cribbed. But the charge of plagiarism was laughable since both architects had plagiarized the Parthenon, and understandably so; after all, the competition had mandated “a chaste imitation of Grecian architecture, in its simplest and least expensive form” (43).
This is hardly the only example of Strickland's copyism. As a designer, he could be distressingly literal. Just as his Second Bank reproduced the Parthenon, so his Naval Asylum copied the Temple of the Ilissus and the lantern of his Philadelphia Merchants’ Exchange replicated the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates—each taken verbatim from James Stuart and Nicholas Revett's Antiquities of Athens. One could believe it was the only book Strickland owned. And yet the interior of his Second Bank was an ingenious spatial performance, utterly unshackled from precedent. Strickland was hobbled by the temple form, which mandated blank walls at the front and back, and could light his rooms only from the sides; nonetheless, he boldly ran a vast barrel vault straight across the breadth of the building, supporting it on a double row of Ionic columns, making the main banking room into a basilica. It still surprises the visitor, a Roman space lying in wait behind a Greek frontispiece.
This is the paradox of Strickland: on one hand, fussy archaeological exhibitionism (the clock face of the Second Bank, he boasted, was “copied from the reverse of an antique gem, found at Corinth, and described by Stuart in his valuable work on the Antiquities of Athens”; 299); on the other, immense power of invention. For example, he may have based the elegant lantern of his Merchants’ Exchange on the Choragic Monument, but this was only one part of a complex and inspired composition. Beneath the lantern Strickland reprised the Choragic theme at monumental scale, recasting it as a mighty rotunda, and in the process turning what would have otherwise been an unpleasantly angular corner into a triumphant architectural event. It was one of the most brilliant episodes in the Greek revival, and, again, it would have been impossible without the tutelage of Latrobe.
The climax of Strickland's career is the Tennessee State Capitol (1844–55), which brought him to Nashville for the final decade of his life. It was a stirring rendition of the Greek temple as civic building, an Ionic colossus in Tennessee limestone, but what was once a fresh and novel architectural idea was now something of a platitude. While Russell gives a rich and detailed account of the building's making, his book also helps solve the puzzle of why a sophisticated intellectual like Strickland would leave a cosmopolitan city like antebellum Philadelphia for what was, in comparison, an architectural backwater. The answer, as it was for Latrobe, was financial desperation. After the Panic of 1837 upended his architectural practice, Strickland became involved with a canal company developing a new town at the confluence of the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers, to be called Cairo. Strickland made the survey, made a gridded plan (dotted with regular public squares, like his native Philadelphia), and drew a stunning perspective of the town, crammed with the houses, churches, mills, and monuments that he hoped to build. Charles Dickens saw the drawing during his first trip to the United States and later lampooned it mercilessly in his Martin Chuzzlewit as “the thriving city of Eden.” Unfortunately, Strickland, like Latrobe before him, made the mistake of accepting payment in stock shares, and by 1842 he was bankrupt. Under the circumstances, to a middle-aged architect facing poverty, a commission in Nashville must have seemed like a godsend.
Russell organizes his book chronologically, and its first eight chapters proceed sequentially through Strickland's major and minor projects. The most significant—the Second Bank, Merchants’ Exchange, and Tennessee Capitol—get their own chapters. Strickland died shortly before the completion of the Capitol in Nashville and was buried there beneath a solemn tomb placed, just as he specified, “the third stone from the floor, at the northeast wall of North Basement Portico” (218). By rights, the book might have ended there, but three additional chapters offer case studies: “Monuments and Memorials,” “Domestic Work,” and “Strickland the Engineer.” While these chapters provide valuable material (the story of Strickland's sarcophagus for George Washington, for example, is extraordinary), their placement at the end of the book makes them read inadvertently like appendixes.
This is particularly unfortunate when it comes to engineering. Strickland spent most of 1825 on a prolonged study trip to Great Britain, funded by the private Society for the Promotion of Internal Improvement in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. His mandate was to investigate and document every innovation in “the construction of canals, roads, railways, bridges, steam-engines,” but in fact he did a great deal more, looking into the building of gasworks, the manufacture of iron, and even “the methods of calico printing” (282). It was a grand tour of the Industrial Revolution itself, industrial espionage at its most genteel. Strickland's Reports, Russell tells us, “had an enormous, immediate, and significant impact on American transportation and technology” (284). He makes clear that Strickland could easily have devoted the rest of his life to engineering, had he so chosen. But the making of buildings seems to have drawn him in a way that mechanical problem solving did not. Here again, the parallels with Latrobe are moving.
The one unhappy oversight in Russell's book concerns a building in which Strickland placed high hopes: Girard College. This was the school for “poor white male orphans” for which Stephen Girard, the richest man in the United States at the time of his death in 1831, allotted the lion's share of his estate. Strickland placed second in the competition, ahead of such luminaries as John Haviland, Isaiah Rogers, and Town & Davis—only to be bested by his own former pupil, Thomas U. Walter. But the design for a peripteral Doric temple that Russell publishes is not Strickland's second-place competition entry; it is actually his revised design, completely different from his original submission, and hastily drawn up as a desperate last-minute gambit (it seems that, having won his first great competition with just this sort of sly move, he thought he would try again). The story is told in Monument to Philanthropy: The Design and Building of Girard College, 1832–1848, by Bruce Laverty et al., a source that Russell might have consulted with profit.1 Had he done so, he would have seen that Strickland's original competition entry was a temple-fronted Corinthian building raised on a high rusticated basement and capped by a central lantern of square form—a scheme uncannily similar to that of the Tennessee Capitol.
Strickland's loss to Walter, a man who began his working life as a bricklayer on the vaults of the Second Bank, eerily recalls Strickland's own early victory over Latrobe. It casts a poignant light on the idealism of Latrobe, who took it as his duty to mentor the coming generation of architects, even at the risk of raising up rivals. But Strickland did the same and paid a similar price. In a way, the most important insights of these two books lie in the space between them—that is, in the way that ideals, values, and even business strategies are transmitted from one generation to the next. We can be grateful for these two fine books individually, but together they are greater than the sum of their parts (they would gain even more in value if we had a comparable biography of Thomas U. Walter, which remains bafflingly unwritten, even though his letters, diaries, and drawings are all preserved at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia).
Speaking of gratitude, each of these books owes an incalculable debt to a pioneering predecessor: Talbot Hamlin's Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1955) and Agnes Addison Gilchrist's William Strickland, Architect and Engineer, 1788–1845 (1950).2 It would have been more generous of the authors to have mentioned these essential earlier sources somewhere on their first pages.
Bruce Laverty, Michael J. Lewis, and Michele Taillon Taylor, Monument to Philanthropy: The Design and Building of Girard College, 1832–1848 (Philadelphia: Girard College, 1997).
Talbot Hamlin, Benjamin Henry Latrobe (New York: Oxford University Press, 1955); Agnes Addison Gilchrist, William Strickland, Architect and Engineer, 1788–1845 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1950).