Architect and Engineer in Philadelphia

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"Architect and engineer in Philadelphia"
the seventh chapter of
Talbot Hamlin, Benjamin Henry Latrobe (New York: Oxford University press, 1955).

Many of the difficulties Latrobe had faced in establishing his career were innate both in his own personality and in the conditions of the time; but his own too informal business methods and the political passions of the period were not the only barriers over which he had to climb in Philadelphia. Even more important was the fact that of all American cities this was the one in which the old system of builder design was most powerful. The Carpenters Company of Philadelphia was a strong, arrogant organization, assiduous in its attacks on everything that threatened its hold on the building industry. It had produced two great evils: first, a system that was by nature conservative in both taste and construction; second, the fallacious idea that design costs nothing, for the design costs were hidden in the total contract payments. Even good businessmen could not realize that the prevailing system opened the way to enormous abuses and was as uneconomic as it was deceptive.

This condition made Latrobe's practice difficult. The opposition of the Carpenters Company to his own ideal of complete architectural services was constant. People admired his work--and then, to avoid his fees, went to a member of the Carpenters Company for their own houses. When daring innovators commissioned him, they always protested his bills; what they paid seemed to them almost a gift rather than a payment for services, and again and again he was forced to accept a pittance or to endure endless delays in getting his final amounts.

The idea that full architectural services were an unnecessary luxury oftened bedeviled his later practice; it was but one of the hardships faced by a man ahead of his time who was giving his life to the task of molding the world more closely to his ideals and making it aware of the potentialities for better and more efficient living and working that it could possess by merely, so to speak, stretching out its hand. And Philadelphia brought these paradoxes particularly to the front; for, though without a doubt it was the cultural capital of the country, it was also a town permeated with a kind of traditional smugness. It was successful, and knew it; it was wealthy, and knew it; it had many of the finest buildings in the country, and knew that too. Why change the system under which these buildings had been erected?

And the system was strongly entrenched. The Carpenters Company of Philadelphia was a true guild. Its secrecy, its controlled prices, and its guild traditions of form and detail were all willingly subscribed to by the wealthiest and most powerful builder-designers in the city. Its Price Book published as late as 1784, contains typical details of dormers, windows, cornices, and mantels, all of which go back in style to the later Georgian Colonial; even the work of the Adam brothers had made but little dent on this impervious surface of traditional forms. And, five whole years after the completion of the Bank of Pennsylvania, Owen Biddle's The Young Carpenter's Assistant, published in 1805, which boasts on its title page that it was approved by the Carpenters Company (of which its author was a member), contains scarcely a hint--save perhaps for a slight attentuation of proportions in doors and door trims--of the changes in architectural style that were already under way.

This guild system naturally guaranteed a generally high level in building standards and a general over-all adequacy of design. The fragments of Philadelphia that remain to us from the last decade of the eighteenth and first fifteen years or so of the nineteenth century reveal that harmonious but backward character; repeatedly the forms used in some of these remaining buildings would lead the unwary scholar to date them twenty years earlier than their actual erection, so persistent and all-pervasive was the guild conservatism. And to this whole system the work of Latrobe was a ringing challenge.

Of course in the long run the architect system was bound to win out. It permitted experiment and novelty as the other system never could; it was flexible; it centralized the design and executive authority in one person; and it completely removed the architect from financial involvement in the work and enabled him to bring to bear on any question a mind completely free from economic pressure. But final victory was only to come after Latrobe's death, for the earlier system yielded ground slowly. It attempted to rejuvenate its products by wholesale copying of the style and the details developed by free architects. Undoubtedly it still had a definite function to fulfill; for the amount of building required in the rapidly growing cities of the early decades of the nineteenth century was far greater than could be handled by the relatively few trained architects, and it was a happy circumstance for Philadelphia that the Carpenters Company could keep the general level of building as high as it was and thus, by such copying, slowly popularize the new forms even when the copies were in themselves inept or unthinking.

Yet to Latrobe, eager to take advantage of his new fame by widening his practice, the opposition of the Carpenters Company was a hardship. Later he had more work of more kinds than he could take care of, but in 1800 to 1803--newly married, with a growing family and a high social position that entailed a relatively expensive standard of living--he was prepared, and eager, for more commissions than he could get. The problem in Philadelphia was continually troublesome. As late as January 23, 1812, in a letter to Joseph Delaplaine, the Philadelphia publisher, who had asked him to write a book on architecture for the firm to publish, he broke out in bitterness:

. . . For my professional reputation I should have done enough had I only built the Bank of Pennsylvania and supplied the city with water. .. . As to the Carpenters Company, I do not thank that body, however much I respect individuals, for their praise. It is not their fault that I have maintained my professional character and standing. They have done me the honor to copy and to disgrace by their application almost all my designs from a moulding to a plan of a whole building. . . . I have changed the taste of a whole city. My very follies and faults and whims have been mimicked, and yet there is not a single instance in which I have been consulted in which some carpenter has not counteracted me. . . . If I write at all, it must be for men of sense, and of some science.

Latrobe was thoroughly aware of the historical basis for the system. For instance, in a letter to his brother Christian (November 4, 1804) he says:

You are probably right in the difference you imagine that there is between doing business here & in England in my profession. Had I in England, executed what I have here,--I should now be able to sit down quietly & enjoy otium cum dignitate. But in England the crowd of those whose talents are superior to mine is so great, that I should never perhaps have elbowed through them. Here I am the only successful Architect & Engineer. I have had to break the ice for my successors, & what was more difficult to destroy the prejudices the villainous Quacks in whose hands the public works have hitherto been, had raised against me. There, in fact lay my greatest difficulty.



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