Group gives credit where credit is due

Latrobe's America aims to preserve architect's vision

May 15, 2002|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,SUN ARCHITECTURE CRITIC

Maryland has a Latrobe House, a Latrobe Hall and a Latrobe Building. But how many people really know who Latrobe was?

A nationwide alliance called Latrobe's America has been formed to preserve the work and vision of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the nation's first professional architect and the man widely considered the father of American architecture.

The consortium brings together for the first time nine organizations and historic sites that share Latrobe's legacy, including structures, artifacts and writings. Between now and 2006, those organizations expect to spend more than $50 million to celebrate Latrobe's accomplishments and preserve his buildings, including Baltimore's Basilica of the Assumption and the U.S. Capitol.

Maryland groups and individuals figure prominently in the consortium, whose formation is being announced in Washington today. Among the group's founding members are the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, which is leading a $25 million effort to restore and modernize the cathedral, and the Maryland Historical Society, which holds the largest collection of Latrobe's designs and printed works. The Johns Hopkins Press plans to publish a scholarly review of Latrobe's work. Wayne Ruth, chairman of the Basilica of the Assumption Historic Trust, is a driving force behind Latrobe's America.

"We as a nation celebrate the accomplishments of many great architects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright," Ruth said. "We want [2003] to be the year to reintroduce and celebrate the genius of Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

"Given his legacies and his historic role as the father of American architecture, Latrobe's name should be better known than it is. And we are going to change that."

Latrobe was born in England in 1764 and was trained as an architect and engineer. He immigrated to America in 1795 and settled first in Virginia and then Philadelphia, where he received the appointment as architect of the Bank of Pennsylvania and designer of the city's waterworks.

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson appointed him the nation's first Surveyor of Public Buildings, a position that made him responsible for the design and oversight of construction of all government buildings.

One of the nation's most prolific architects, he was commissioned in 1805 to design Baltimore's basilica, the mother church of Roman Catholicism in the United States, and the structure is considered Latrobe's masterwork. The Capitol and the cathedral were the most monumental buildings in America during the early 1800s. Latrobe died in 1820.

To mark the 200th anniversary of Latrobe's appointment as Surveyor of Public Buildings, Hopkins Press plans to release the book Inventing the American House: the Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, by architectural historians Michael Fazio and Patrick Snadon.

The next year, the Maryland Historical Society will present an exhibit on Latrobe that will begin in Baltimore, then travel to other locations. The exhibit will focus on the many facets of Latrobe, including his life as an artist, engineer, musician and architect, as revealed by his paintings, drawings and letterbooks. The historical society is also working on a documentary about Latrobe.

Restoration of the basilica is expected to begin next year and be finished by 2006, the 200th anniversary of the start of construction.

Other organizations in Latrobe's America include Adena, the Ohio Historical Society; Decatur House in Washington; the Octagon, a museum operated by the American Architectural Foundation; St. John's Church on Lafayette Square in Washington; Pope Villa, a residence in Lexington, Ky.; the U.S. Capitol and the White House Historical Association.

Advisers to the nonprofit group include historians William Allen, Charles Brownell, William Seale and Pamela Scott, as well as Snadon and Fazio.

Founding members were scheduled to announce the group's formation at Decatur House and then lead a press tour of Baltimore's basilica and the Maryland Historical Society.

Besides increasing Latrobe's name recognition, Ruth said, the group hopes to serve in a continuing capacity as an educational foundation, contributing to scholarly research and promoting the preservation of significant Latrobe-era architecture for historical and cultural study.

It also wants to underscore his contributions to the expression of democracy and religious freedom in America, Seale said.

"Latrobe's contributions go beyond his brick and mortar legacy," Seale said. "He came to the new republic with ideas that were a perfect fit with a young nation and its leaders, who were struggling to identify the country and themselves.

"Certainly Latrobe's skills were superb," he said, but even more important was "his ability to create designs that helped define the philosophical and political content of the new republic."

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