Philadelphia

Philadelphia at Last

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

Nearly two years later (July 12, 1806), in a long letter of advice to his pupil Robert Mills (who had gone to Charleston, South Carolina, in an abortive effort to establish himself in practice there), he writes:

The profession of architecture [which Latrobe had earlier in the letter termed "a liberal profession"] has been hitherto in the hands of two sets of men. The first,--of those who from travelling or from books have acquired some knowledge of the theory of the art--but know nothing of its practice--the second--of those who know nothing but the practice,--and whose early life being spent in labor, & in the habits of a laborious life,--have no opportunity of acquiring the theory. The complaisance of these two sets of men to each other, renders it difficult for the Architect to get in between them, for the Building mechanic finds his account in the ignorance of the gentleman-architect;--as the latter does in the submissive deportment which interest dictates to the former. . . .

He goes on to criticize Mills adversely for tamely accepting clients' suggestions which jeopardize the integrity of his designs, and continues:

It will be answered, "If you are paid for your designs & directions, he that expends his money on the building has an undoubted right to build what he 'pleases.' " If you are paid!!--I ask in the first place, are you paid?--No! The custom of all Europe has decided that 5 p cent on the cost of a building, with all personal expenses incurred, shall be the pay of the Architect.--This is just as much as is charged by a Merchant for the transaction of business,--expedited often in a few minutes by the labor of a Clerk: while the Architect must watch the daily progress of the work perhaps for years, pay all his clerkhire, & repay to himself the expense of an education greatly more costly than that of a merchant.

Then he tells the sad tale of his experience in getting paid for the Richmond penitentiary referred to earlier.

There was one other difficulty that faced architects attempting to work in Philadelphia in harmony with the Carpenters Company the matter of superintendence. Contractors would build from architects' plans, but only if the authority for the detailing and the supervision of construction was handed over to them. Latrobe tried this method once with disastrous result in Sedgeley, and he warns a subsequent client. Wain, against it in a letter (April 1, 1805) about his proposed house:

As to the superintendence of the building, I mean, merely, if I used that phrase, that which is a thing of course in Europe, namely the furnishing of drawings for the whole detail as the building progresses. Otherwise the architect becomes responsible in reputation for all the whims, the blunders, many of them perhaps expensive, of the various mechanics who execute. It is unfortunate for the profession that here the department of design & direction is not separate from that of execution, by which means, especially in the erection of Mr. Crammond's house on the Schuylkill I have been disgraced both by the deformity & expense of some parts of the building, because, after giving the first general design, I had no further concern with it.

And other later letters take up the same theme.

Nevertheless the architect found clients in Philadelphia besides the Bank of Pennsylvania--few at first, but in increasing numbers as time went on and the advantages of full architectural services gradually became evident. One of the first was Edward Shippen Burd, for whom Latrobe designed a large house on Chestnut at Ninth Street; it dates from 1801-2, according to a list of Latrobe's works which he sent to Robert Goodloe Harper (January 12, 1816). Old photographs show it as an almost arrogant challenge to the prevailing Philadelphia conservatism. Its motifs were familiar enough--arched windows under recessed brick arches, a Palladian window above a fanlight entrance door--but it is the way in which they are put together that shows the architect's hand. The central, three-bay, three-story body of the house is flanked by one-story wings, topped by a thin marble coping that aligns with the second-floor windows. The main cornice is thin--almost meager--as though to call no attention at all from the basic geometry of the whole and the power of its red brick walls. Power indeed is instinctive in every line, and the three-sided marble steps that sweep so boldly up to the door compose magnificently with the masses of the side wings. The Burd house is a strong chord of simple, clearly related notes struck with convincing authority. This is the most London-like of all Latrobe's American houses--nowhere else did he so severely restrict his window areas--and it bears a close relationship in form and details to the Admiralty Building in London which Cockerell planned while the young architect was one of his most important designers and on which Latrobe undoubtedly worked.

Another early house was Sedgeley, the William Crammond house (already mentioned), which stood just outside the town on the banks of the Schuylkill. Here again Latrobe was revolutionary, for the house was Gothic--the first American example of the Gothic Revival in house design. It was, in fact, Latrobe's first domestic commission in Philadelphia, and the controversy it aroused may have turned his mind back to quieter, more classic types for his future houses, though it could not entirely destroy the romantic appeal that Gothic held for him, as we shall see. The house is known to us today only through engravings, for it has long since disappeared. Like all the architect's work, it was basically geometric in scheme. The structure itself was a simple rectangle with a hipped roof, apparently a variation of the typical five-bay house; around this was a one-story porch, open and airy on the front and the flanks but at the corners emphasized by square masonry pavilions pierced with arched openings. Perhaps memories of the corner pavilions of many English Jacobean houses, such as Wollaton Hall, lay behind his use of these corner motifs. In classic guise they had already appeared in the designs for the Tayloe house mentioned earlier. The openings in these pavilions were topped with pointed arches. The porch posts were of a simplified Batty Langley Gothic type, and there were Tudor drip molds over the windows of the main house. The cornices were Gothic in profile as well; that is as far as the "Gothic" went. The house, though it aroused enthusiasm on the part of some Philadelphians, never pleased its designer. And rightly so; for at its best it was a piece of superficial design that was merely novel and at its worst an awkward attempt to marry incompatible elements. Of that triumphant integration of use, structure, and beauty which is so evident in Latrobe's best work there is hardly a trace.

Sedgeley was a bitter lesson to him. As we have seen, he claimed that in execution it was butchered and its details were caricatured, but it is doubtful whether it could have been a great success even if he had had the complete detailing and superintendence in his own hands; for Latrobe's Gothic, though sometimes picturesque, was never solidly based on a knowledge o the idiom and often showed itself awkward and crude. Yet Sedgeley is important in the history of Philadelphia, because it was the first of its type and because like the Bank of Pennsylvania and the waterworks it was unprecedented.

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