Father of the American house

The homes of early architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe are getting attention

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The south portico of the White House and a former apartment building inhabited by college students in Lexington, Ky., might seem like odd bedfellows. What connects these divergent structures is English-born Benjamin Henry Latrobe, who has been called the father of American architecture and America's first world-class architect.

These and other nexus points in Mr. Latrobe's wide-ranging career are the focus of a new national consortium, Latrobe's America, an alliance of nine prestigious cultural organizations dedicated to preserving Latrobe's work and vision.

"Latrobe's name should be better known than it is, and we are going to change that," says Wayne Ruth, a founding member of the alliance. "We as a nation celebrate the accomplishments of many great architects, such as Frank Lloyd Wright, who deserve the honors bestowed on them, and in 2003, we want that to be the year we reintroduce and celebrate the genius of Benjamin Henry Latrobe."

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Latrobe worked with Thomas Jefferson on the White House's exterior and with Dolley Madison on its interior. Next year marks the 200th anniversary of Latrobe's appointment by Jefferson as the country's first surveyor of public buildings. But besides his work on major public projects, including the US Capitol, he also kept busy designing 60 residences.

That's where the Kentucky structure comes in. It is one of only three of Latrobe's residences still standing, and is viewed by architectural historians as closest to Latrobe's vision for the American home.

"I don't think you'd look at a plan of a Latrobe house and say, 'I saw that in the Sunday newspaper,' " says Michael Fazio, a professor of architecture at Mississippi State University. He is collaborating with Patrick Snadon, an architectural historian at the University of Cincinnati, to write a book, "Inventing the American Home."

No one, certainly, would mistake the perfectly square Pope Villa, built in 1810-11, for a modern suburban home. Yet it and other Latrobe works reflect his desire to create something distinctive – a "rational house" – for the new democratic republic.

The rational house, Dr. Snadon explains, was Latrobe's way of addressing what he saw as problems with the standard large American houses of his day. He didn't like their exterior stairs (which he considered dangerous), external service wings (which spoiled the facade's appearance), and central hallways, which he disparagingly referred to as turnpike halls and as a "common sewer" for all the chamber pots and dirty linens that traveled through them.

Latrobe wanted everything in one building, even though the tendency at the time, especially in the South, was to build kitchens behind the house. That way, if the kitchen caught on fire, there was less chance of the house being destroyed, too.

The creation of outbuildings was "quick, cheap, and flexible – quintessentially American – but Latrobe loathed it," Dr. Fazio observes. "His solution was to integrate all the functions into the body of the house."

On the surface, Latrobe's house designs are simple, yet inside they reveal sophistication. They are climate-sensitive and take advantage of passive solar gain. The major rooms faced south, and the storage rooms, stairways, entrances, and servant rooms had a northern exposure.

He also was a master at laying out rooms, halls, and passageways to create "scenic" routes and circulation patterns that kept those in the home – residents, guests, and servants – from constantly bumping into one another.

Tapping his skills as both architect and engineer, he devised very different floor plans for first and second floors.

"To beguile visitors during the rather long route from the front door up to the second-story public rooms," Snadon says, Latrobe "introduced a changing, asymmetrical sequence of spaces and turns ... all articulated with different effects of light, shadow, and color."

For visitors accustomed to conventional floor plans, Fazio says, this could could be like a "carnival ride."

Fazio says Latrobe's legacy has come into clearer focus lately because of the work of the Maryland Historical Society, which owns the largest collection of Latrobe's letters, sketches, and designs. The society has made mountains of his materials available to researchers.

Students of his work realize the importance of protecting it, which helps explain why millions are being spent to restore the surviving houses he designed.

Besides Pope Villa, there is Decatur House (across the street from the White House) and Adena, the home of a former senator and governor, Thomas Worthington, in Chillicothe, Ohio.

Although few in number, these survivors are important because they represent Latrobe's major house types: a town house (Decatur), a country house (Adena), and a suburban villa (Pope).

The latter takes its name from John Pope, a Kentucky senator and lawyer. He got to know Latrobe when both worked together on a plan for improving the West with bridges, roads, and canals.

Although Latrobe's work extended far beyond Washington as the result of commissions, he never visited some of the more distant sites, including those in Kentucky and Ohio.

The Ohio home, which serves as a museum of the Ohio Historical Society, is undergoing a $6.6 million renovation tied to the state's 2003 bicentennial.

In Kentucky, the Lexington structure occupied by university students had long been thought to be a Latrobe design.

No one knew for sure, though, because, according to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, "subsequent owners [of Pope Villa] so extensively altered the house that knowledge of Latrobe's connection with it was almost lost."

Plans for the house were on file at the Library of Congress, but until the building caught fire in 1987, there was no conclusive evidence that these drawings were actually used in its construction.

After the fire, which mostly damaged the roof, the walls were exposed to show how the building's interior matched up with Latrobe's detailed drawings. It was purchased by the Blue Grass Trust for Historic Preservation, and now a national advisory board is looking at whether the restored home should be used as a museum or as a laboratory for the university's historical preservation program.

Decatur House, which is a public museum, is also getting considerable attention. An advanced air-quality system is being installed to protect the home's period furniture, and a 1960s-era elevator is being removed to expose more of the original architecture.

The home was originally owned by Stephen Decatur, a naval commander and decorated war hero who died in a duel with former mentor Commodore James Barron. Their relationship grew rancorous, it is thought, over a disparaging comment made by Latrobe.

Fazio says that Latrobe had envisioned making a fortune on the project. As it happened, he never never even designed or built a home for himself.

"My guess," Fazio says, "is it's because he never quite had enough money."

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