Father of the American house
The homes of early architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe are getting attention
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."
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.