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).

Personally, however, there were serious gaps in the Philadelphia to which he returned, for the two friends to whose conversation he had most eagerly looked forward were no longer there; Volney and Scandella were gone. Both had been frightened by the Alien and Sedition laws--Volney especially, for he had been in constant correspondence with the French government; Scandella because he realized that, if President Adams had bitterly attacked as innocent a person as the famous Dr. Priestley, his own freedom (libertarian and radical that he was) might be in jeopardy. Volney had fled to France in the autumn. Scandella had gone to New York to seek ocean passage, but as he traversed the Jersey marshes on his way from Philadelphia, where yellow fever had been rampant that summer, he felt the dread symptoms. He arrived in New York desperately ill, tried in vain to get a room at the Tontine Coffee House, and was mercifully taken in by a Philadelphia acquaintance, Elihu Hubbard Smith, at his apartment in 45 Pine Street. There, in a strange city, he died on September 17. Four days later his hospitable friend followed him, struck down himself by the same disease.

Yet an earlier acquaintance with these two brilliant foreigners continued to be beneficial to Latrobe. It was to them that he had sent most of his observations on natural history and on geology, and it was probably through them that his scientific work came to the attention of the American Philosophical Society. In the winter of 1798 he sent to the Society the first of his formal papers, "Memoir on the Sand Hills of Cape Henry." Its receipt is acknowledged in the Transactions of December 21; on December 27 it was reported as worthy of publication, and Latrobe agreed to furnish an etched illustration. Seven months later (July 19, 1799) "Ben. Henry Latrobe, Engineer," was duly elected to full membership, and from then on, as long as he was in Philadelphia, he was a constant attendant at American Philosophical Society meetings. For two years, 1800 to 1802, he was on its council. He served on several important committees and submitted a number of papers, notably one on the steam engine (May 20, 1803), his account of the descendants of Pocahontas (February 18, 1803) mentioned earlier, and a paper "On Building Stone made use of in Washington" (February 20, 1807). Among these aristocrats of American learning Latrobe found his rightful place, and over a long period of professional confusion and financial worry his membership in the Society must have been to him a continual source of satisfaction; here at least his talents were fully appreciated.

His first years in Philadelphia were busy and encouraging. His design of the Bank of Pennsylvania and the water system of Philadelphia established him as the most accomplished and imaginative of the architects and engineers in the United States. But this period after he moved to the city in 1798, a widower all but unknown save to the few to whom he had carried letters of introduction, brought him another advantage which in the long run may have been even more important. His personal charm, to which his life itself bears witness, won him rapidly the friendship and confidence of many of the most influential families in Philadelphia--especially those who constituted the financial and commercial rather than the political elite.

Meanwhile he was leading a professional life of frenzied activity. Suddenly he found himself not only the architect of an expensive, monumental building the Bank of Pennsylvania but also the engineer in charge of the Philadelphia water supply; and other clients came, too. He had to set up an office and to arrange for the purchase of the steam engines and pumps for the water supply, and both of these undertakings had eventful consequences. He employed in his office several persons who were to be important to him--some disastrously. Frederick Graff (1774-1847), the engineer who became famous later on his own account, was at the beginning his clerk of the works on the bank and later the chief draftsman on the waterworks, receiving there a basic engineering training of the greatest value to him and to the country. A Frenchman, Breillat, is also mentioned as a draftsman at this time. But perhaps the most useful member of his staff was the draftsman Adam Traquair, the son of a well-known Philadelphia sculptor and marble worker, James Traquair, who sold busts of famous Americans on an almost mass-production basis, employing several young sculptors in the process; the father also made marble mantels, as his son did after him, and from the Traquairs the architect later obtained many of the mantelpieces for the Capitol and the Presidents House. Latrobe retained a close friendship with this employee long after they had separated, and when Latrobe moved to Washington Traquair remained a faithful agent to watch over his interests in Philadelphia. Lastly, Latrobe employed as his clerk one John Barber, in whom he reposed an unwarranted confidence. In the summer of 1800, when the architect was away on his wedding trip, Barber absconded, taking with him a considerable sum of money and all the most valuable office and personal papers. He was never captured; he simply vanished. And this loss was a catastrophe. Exactly what the papers were it is impossible to say, but their removal involved Latrobe in untold anxiety, much threatened litigation, and actual money losses of several thousand dollars. It was a bitter blow.

Some of this trouble was probably connected with the confused problem of the waterworks financing. But if the waterworks job brought worry with it, it also brought valuable contacts. Latrobe's scheme was based on the use of two large steam-driven pumps. There was but one source for such pumps--Nicholas Roosevelt, the extraordinary New York inventor, promoter, and charming gentleman, who at that time was the only steam-engine builder of any consequence in the country. Latrobe therefore set out for New York to see him, in the bright October days of 1799; we can follow his course through sketches he made en route. He went through Scotch Plains and Springfield on October 16; two days later he was making sketches of the Falls of the Passaic, fascinated not only by the grandeur of the natural scenery--the vertical crags and the rushing water--but also by the evidences of L'Enfant's work there, for the French architect had built a powder magazine in a cave (which Latrobe sketched), had developed a grandiose scheme for diverting the stream and constructing a canal, and had also prepared a plan for the city. Latrobe tried to find the remaining fragments of the abandoned scheme. From there he went to Laurel Hill, Roosevelt's place near Newark, to Roosevelt's engine plant--the Soho Works, named after the Boulton & Watt factory in England--at Belleville, New Jersey, and then on to New York. Before he returned the two men had drawn up and signed a contract for the engines; but, still more important, Latrobe had gained a new friend--undoubtedly his most intimate associate in all the early American years.

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