Capitol-designer's capital drawings of early America

Latrobe's View of America, 1795-1820: Selections from the Watercolors and Sketches, Edward C. Carter II, John C. Van Horne, and Charles E. Brownell, editors. New Haven and London: Published for the Maryland Historical Society by Yale University Press. Bibliography. Index. 400 pp. $35. This book contains 25 years' worth of visual and written records of the early American scene which no longer exists, made by a man who himself played a considerable part in altering that scene.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe was not just an observer like other travelers who went home to report what they had seen. He was a participant in the development of a new country.

He came to this country as a well-educated young man from England, and almost immediately began literally to make his mark. He was an engineer and architect trained in the latest European technology as well as in the humanities. One of his first big projects was a waterworks system for Philadelphia, for instance, which involved brick-lined tunnels through rock, and steam engines to pump water from the river. His interest and competence in science, music, art, and philosophy gave him entrance to the inte llectual society in what was then the cultural capital of his newly adopted country.

He went on to construct more waterworks, canals, bridges, highways and buildings from New York to New Orleans. Most people probably know him as the main architect of the Capitol in Washington, but the book points out other masterpieces, some perhaps even more worthy. His adaptations of neoclassical style to contemporary needs was remarkable.

Latrobe had the cultural and administrative background, as well as the teaching ability, to get good commissions and to train others in the technology he brought to the new republic. He also had enough artistic talent to make careful renderings of plants, animals, people, and landscapes, as well as engineering drawings. (His skill in portraying the human figure, however, wasn't up to the standard of the rest.) Apparently he drew and painted as much for pleasure as out of necessity for his work.

All this is easy to see in what the editors call the ``showpiece volume'' in the series devoted to Latrobe's papers. The book presents perhaps a third of the pictures from Latrobe's sketchbooks with his own commentary, or that of contemporaries if his was not available, and a brief update by the editors. They indicate what has changed since Latrobe made the picture, plus other relevant information. Many pictures are either the only or the earliest ones known of a place. Only a very few of Latrobe's view s remain as he saw them, such as Mount Vernon, and St. John's Church in Washington, D.C. -- though the church's surroundings have certainly changed!

Readers familiar with the scenery through which Latrobe traveled will be fascinated to see how it looked in his day, especially the mid-Atlantic states, the cities in particular. The idea of historic preservation ought to receive added impetus from a book like this.

Interestingly, the editors warn readers not to take Latrobe's landscape views too literally, noting that he saw nothing wrong with taking a little artistic license with a scene to improve the picture's composition.

The editors suggest that if readers are stimulated to seek out places Latrobe visited and to try to pinpoint the exact spots from which he drew his views, the field of historical geography may benefit. In any case, readers will be challenged to do as Latrobe did: Construct and maintain a mental map of the country to use for their projects. Latrobe was always taking note of land forms, rivers, sources of building material, and so on, enabling him to analyze without delay the feasibility of constructing, say, a canal and to carry out a commission efficiently.

Essays in appreciation of Latrobe's professional career and his art, as well as a statement of editorial considerations, preface the drawings.

Mary S. Cowen, a longtime bird watcher, writes frequently about nature and art.

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