Philadelphia

Philadelphia at Last

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"Philadelphia at Last"
the seventh chapter of
Talbot Hamlin, Benjamin Henry Latrobe (New York: Oxford University press, 1955).

Yet in Philadelphia the foundations of his success were also laid. Among the letters of introduction he had brought with him was one to the president of the Bank of Pennsylvania, Samuel M. Fox. As they dined together, Fox told Latrobe of the bank's building prospects, and Latrobe made for him then and there a little sketch of what he thought would be suitable. Shortly after this, on April 17, he left Philadelphia and returned to Richmond, deeply disappointed, no doubt, at the failure of his Philadelphia hopes.

In the course of this initial Philadelphia trip he made his first acquaintance with the United States Capitol, with which he was later to be so intimately connected. On his way from Richmond he passed through Washington; there he was introduced to Dr. William Thornton by their mutual acquaintance William McClure, and Thornton escorted him over the building as it then stood. On his return he stopped again in Washington and wandered around the building by himself. Though he noted certain reservations, he was deeply impressed and jotted down in his journal (April 27, 1798) : "The Capitol in the federal city, though . . . it is faulty in external detail, is one of the first designs of modern times. As I shall receive a plan of it from either Dr. Thornton or Mr. Volney, I mean to devote a particular discussion to it at my leisure." Unfortunately there is no record of this "particular discussion" in the existing papers.

At that time the external walls of the north (Senate) wing were complete, and much had been accomplished within. The area on the south was a maze of foundation walls, outlining the oval House of Representatives. In the central part the foundations were in an even more confused state, as a result of the controversies between Thornton and his assistant Hallet about what the final plan was to be. Yet there was enough to make clear, to Latrobe's trained eye, the great size, the monumental plan, the daringly bold conception.

The "faults" that Latrobe found in its exterior detail lay in the basically English Palladian treatment of its pilastered facade and the appearance of many touches of late Baroque detail, like the wreaths around the windows and the general pattern of the rustications and moldings. These were all in the Sir William Chambers vein--far indeed from the quiet surfaces, the restraint, and the power which Latrobe himself loved. Yet here was America making its boldest architectural statement, setting out in stone and mortar a striking expression of its faith; Latrobe admired the faith and the grandeur of the expression, though some of the terms seemed to him old-fashioned.

Architecturally alert in Philadelphia too, he comments on the white marble columns of the First Bank of the United States (by Samuel Blodgett) which gleamed in new brilliance on Second Street:

Talk to an Englishman of white marble columns . . . thirty feet high, and he is astonished at the magnificence of such columns. In London indeed such columns would not only be magnificent, but really valuable. ... As nine-tenths of our American, even our Virginian ideas and prejudices, are English, a very large proportion of the admiration . . . bestowed upon the said marble columns has been bestowed upon the material, white marble. Now it happens to be a fact that any other material besides white marble was not to be easily procured at Philadelphia. And so common is its use that the steps to the meanest house and cheeks to cellar doors are frequently made of it. . . .

The white marble columns of the bank are full of bluish and yellowish veins, but they have, notwithstanding, a very beautiful appearance. Sufficient attention has not been paid to the successive heights of the blocks, nor are the joints level. The plain workmanship has been well executed. The sculpture is not good.

One other building in Philadelphia impressed him with wonder more than admiration the mad huge house L'Enfant had designed for Robert Morris, which stood unfinished as a result of its owner's bankruptcy. Fascinated, Latrobe writes:

I went several times to the spot and gazed upon it with astonishment before I could form any conception of its composition. It singularly made me wish to make a drawing of it, but the very bad weather prevented me. It is impossible to decide which of the two is the madder, the architect or his employer. Both of them have been ruined by it.

Either then or later, he made several sketches of its details and a general plan of its enormous exterior walls, nearly 120 by 60 feet; these, together with the existing engravings and the descriptions, explain his amazement, A few of Latrobe's own devastating comments give an interesting picture both of the building and of his own taste:

The windows . . . are cased in white marble with mouldings, architraves, and sculpture mixed up in the oddest and most inelegant manner imaginable; all the proportions are bad, all the horizontal and perpendicular lines broken to pieces, the whole mass giving the idea of the reign of Louis XIII in France or James I in England. . . . In the south front are two angle porches. The angle porches are irresistibly laughable things, and violently ugly. . . . There is a profusion of wretched sculpture. . . . The capitals of the columns are of the worst taste. They are a sort of composite and resemble those of ------ at Rome, the production of the worst times of the art.

Just as earlier he had been blind to the Early Renaissance of Silesia, so now he could feel nothing but astonishment and disgust at this almost surrealist unfinished pile which, had it been completed, would have been unique among American houses.

His Philadelphia trip, therefore, was grist to his mill. He returned, to Richmond with new and wider visions of his adopted country, its building materials, its architectural hopes and achievements. And in Washington he had had his first glimpse of the city and the building that together were to engross him for so many years of his still undreamed future.

Seven months later, in November, he received a letter from Fox. Latrobe was informed that his design for the Bank of Pennsylvania had been approved, that he had been appointed architect, and that he should return to Philadelphia as soon as possible because construction would begin immediately. Here, at last, was his great chance for the scheme he had sketched was revolutionary. Now Philadelphia would be able to judge what his capabilities really were; moreover, this opportunity came to him from solid citizens, highly placed both socially and financially. He hurriedly made his plans and said farewell to his Virginia friends, and December saw him at last ensconced in Philadelphia as the architect of the most important private building project of the day.

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