CRM Journal

Book Review

The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe

By Michael W. Fazio and Patrick A. Snadon. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006; 816 pp., drawings, photographs, catalog, index; cloth $75.00.


The moment Benjamin Henry Latrobe set foot in the United States he became the country's first professional architect in the modern sense and its most skilled engineer. His European education and practical experience, coupled with great energy and drive, vaulted him quickly into the consciousness of the wealthy and powerful. During the American portion of his career, lasting from his arrival in 1796 through his death in 1820, Latrobe created innovative and sophisticated designs for projects that included canals, land surveys, municipal water systems, houses, prisons, banks, and America's first Roman Catholic cathedral. In 1803, he received the title of Surveyor of the Public Buildings of the United States in Washington, DC, and his subsequent work on the Capitol and the White House is well recorded.

Talbot Hamlin was the first to chronicle these accomplishments thoroughly in his milestone study, Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1955). Since that time, further interpretation of Latrobe's career has been encouraged through multiple projects editing and publishing his surviving correspondence, papers, journals, and architectural and engineering drawings. Building on this scholarship, authors Michael W. Fazio and Patrick A. Snadon bring a fresh perspective to the ongoing dialogue about Latrobe, with a focus on his domestic commissions (English and American) and design theory.

In the preface, Fazio and Snadon announce their ambitious goal with a deceptively simple statement: "to reinterpret Latrobe's career by means of his domestic work." They aim to establish an alternative to Hamlin's epic presentation of Latrobe as architect, which they see as a reflection of the architect-as-hero ethos of the post-World War II era, and to a narrative predominantly defined by his public and institutional buildings. To this end, the authors position Latrobe's domestic commissions as rich but underutilized case studies for showing how Latrobe approached the problems and processes of architecture and design. As most of his English commissions were residential, this body of work more logically links back to his European education, training, and early career, which they see as an essential yet previously washed-over aspect of his life and experience. Other themes noted in the book concern Latrobe's professional practice and business management and, of particular relevance for cultural resources management, the manner in which contemporary preservation philosophies and methods have been applied to his few extant houses.

Fazio and Snadon set forth on this journey with a series of essays followed by a catalog of his domestic work. Some of the essays specifically target aspects of Latrobe's education, training, philosophy, and stages of his professional life while others touch upon these issues through both the houses he designed on "paper" and those that were constructed. The general flow is chronological. The introduction and first two chapters focus on his European foundations. Chapters 3 through 7 lay out and interpret his American activities and are followed by an analytical essay about his career and an epilogue addressing the preservation of Latrobe's physical legacy. In a number of essays, the authors attempt to use Latrobe's specific commissions and groups of commissions as case studies within their larger thematic framework and as individual guides for interpreting his surviving houses. The book's complex interplay of different types of essays followed by a catalog with entries of varying depth makes it simultaneously approachable and potentially confusing. Their objective for stand-alone essays is successful on the whole, and the volume can, to a certain degree, be digested in segments. The essays are also mutually reinforcing.

Overall, Fazio and Snadon display an enviable grasp of the influences and products of Latrobe's career, and they carry a number of the principal themes through to the end of the book. Latrobe's preoccupation with creating a "rational" house is their most interesting and effective theme. They explain that the term reflects Latrobe's desire to channel an intellect shaped by his European education and early professional experiences into dwellings that were functionally and artistically relevant to American clients. This use should be considered distinct from William Pierson's relation of "Latrobe" and "rational" in the Colonial and Neoclassical Styles (1970), which mainly concentrated on the formal characteristics of Latrobe's buildings. In each of the individual house essays, Fazio and Snadon demonstrate how Latrobe adapted the elements of his generic rational house concept to the specific requirements of his clients and the sites. Using this interplay, they also assemble the framework for introducing other features of Latrobe's American practice and evolution within his design philosophy. Their observations are not only of value in an academic sense, but they will also help resource managers interpret Latrobe's extant buildings and comparable buildings more accurately.

Throughout the book, the authors employ a broad spectrum of graphical material in their narrative and analysis. In addition to the expected reproductions of Latrobe's drawings and a range of historic images, photographs, and maps, they include an extensive series of new and redrawn plans, elevations, sections, and details, axonometric projections, spatial diagrams, and computer-generated interior perspective views. Some of the newly created graphics convey technical flash, but many—in particular the hypothetical reconstructions of plans and versions of plans—reinforce their points about Latrobe's process of design mediation, reconciling his mental prototype with the concrete needs of his American clients.

People interested in the architecture of the early Federal period in the United States, including its physical preservation and interpretation, should find the Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe of great value and interest. Readers will gain a better appreciation of Latrobe and his individual domestic commissions and insight into the importation and alteration of avant-garde Neoclassicism for an American audience at the dawn of the architecture profession in this country. Fazio and Snadon remind readers of an exciting period in the nation's history during which seemingly boundless enthusiasm and optimism about the future was finding expression, and limits, in the realities of available resources.

James A. Jacobs
Heritage Documentation Programs
National Park Service