This September marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the second Architect of the Capitol who is considered by many to be the “father of American architecture.” Latrobe was one of the first fully trained architects in America; he helped popularize Neoclassical and Greek Revival architecture in the new nation.
Latrobe has the distinction of being hired by two U.S. presidents on two different occasions to help design, repair, build and rebuild the interiors of the U.S. Capitol, both before and after the War of 1812 when British troops burned the U.S. Capitol in August 1814. President Thomas Jefferson hired Latrobe in 1803 as Surveyor of Public Buildings to build the south (House) wing of the U.S. Capitol, a position Latrobe held until congressional funding for construction dried up in 1811. In 1815, Jefferson’s successor, President James Madison, hired Latrobe back as “Architect of the Capitol” to rebuild the gutted interior.
The U.S. Capitol has gone through many transformations since it was first occupied by Congress in 1800 in the north (Senate) wing, the only built portion of the building at that time. Until he resigned as Architect of the Capitol in 1817, Latrobe established a legacy of beautiful and innovative Neoclassical interiors, featuring elements of Greek antiquity as allegories of representative government. The following descriptions highlight Latrobe’s work in the U.S. Capitol — architectural designs now over 200 years old, admired by millions of visitors every year.
National Statuary Hall
Also known as the Old Hall of the House, Latrobe twice built the two-story room that served as the original House Chamber. First built in 1805-1807, it was elliptical in shape. At Jefferson’s insistence, Latrobe added 100 “panel” skylights to the domed ceiling alluding to those of the Halle au bled in Paris, France. Latrobe, however, was no fan of skylights calling them “great evils” that tended to leak and expose harsh light. After the British burned the hall in 1814, Latrobe rebuilt it more to his Neoclassical taste — a semicircular, theater-style room under a coffered half dome capped with a windowed cupola. The natural “unity of light” cast from the cupola symbolizes the Enlightenment ideal of liberty. Huge Grecian columns lining the perimeter are variegated Breccia marble quarried along the Potomac River. Elaborate white Corinthian capitals topping the columns are modeled after those of the ancient Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, Greece.
Old Senate Chamber
Latrobe rebuilt this room twice — first (1808-1810) to correct design and decay issues, second (beginning in 1815) after British incendiaries reduced even its columns to rubble. The most significant change of Latrobe’s first rebuild, in addition to replacing rotting timbers and falling plaster, was to raise the original, two-story chamber one floor directly above so that the ground-story space would become what is now known as the Old Supreme Court Chamber (see next page). Today visitors can see the second rebuild, finished in 1819 by Latrobe’s successor Charles Bulfinch, and occupied by the U.S. Senate until 1859. A semicircular room covered by a richly coffered half dome, Latrobe expanded the diameter of the chamber by 15 feet to accommodate additional senators representing the growing nation. Along the east wall behind the vice president’s desk, eight stately marble columns of the Ionic order support the visitor’s gallery above. The columns are based on those found at the ancient Greek temple, Erechtheion, located on the Acropolis of Athens.
Old Supreme Court Chamber
Latrobe’s U.S. Capitol masterpiece, built in 1808-1810, is distinguished by its stunning vaulted ceiling. An unprecedented architectural achievement for its time, Latrobe ingeniously designed the magnificent ribbed vaults so that the masonry ceiling is held up by a foundation of columns and piers independent of the older exterior walls that had already defined the space. To support the chamber vaults on the east side, Latrobe constructed a three-bay arcade resting on sandstone Doric columns patterned after those of the ancient Greek Temple of Poseidon. On the opposite side, Latrobe built a semicircular arcade of robust piers positioned just inside the western wall. When in 1814 the British torched the Senate Chamber above, the Supreme Court’s vaults and columns withstood the conflagration but were damaged enough to require rebuilding. The Supreme Court used the chamber from 1810 until 1860, when it moved upstairs into the Old Senate Chamber after the Senate moved into its present-day space. The Supreme Court moved permanently to its own building in 1935.
Corncob and Tobacco Leaf Columns
Helping to create a new iconography for the young democracy, Latrobe took the unprecedented step of “Americanizing” the classical order of some of the columns he built for vestibules in the Senate wing. The most popular are the six “corncob” columns built in 1809 to help support the vaulted ceiling in the Senate Vestibule. Carved from Aquia Creek sandstone, the columns are fluted to resemble bundles of cornstalks with rope necking at the top; the capitals display corn husks folded back to reveal their cobs. The columns were a huge hit among lawmakers given the homage paid to an important American crop. Circa 1816, Latrobe built the small Senate rotunda adjacent to the Senate Vestibule. The rotunda includes a circular colonnade of 16 columns whose capitals feature broad tobacco leaves and delicate tobacco flowers. Tobacco was then America’s second largest export product and a symbol of the nation’s growing commercial strength.
Original Latrobe Drawings Discovered During Repairs
On April 2, 1964, electricians employed by the Architect of the Capitol to rewire the Senate Library then on the fourth floor of the U.S. Capitol made a priceless discovery. While removing old conduits and wires, the workers found a set of old drawings atop an interior wall. An investigation determined that the drawings were original plans made in November 1806 by Benjamin Henry Latrobe as part of a report submitted to President Thomas Jefferson.
The plans depict some of the alterations Latrobe envisioned for the Senate wing of the U.S. Capitol. The plan to the left is an unaltered view of what was then the top floor of the north wing (on the left) and Latrobe’s vision of half of the larger, unbuilt center section of the U.S. Capitol (on the right). The semicircular Senate Chamber is shown at the top (east side) and the rectangular Library of Congress with the curved south wall is at the bottom (west side). The half-circle on the right would eventually become the Rotunda.
Soon after Jefferson appointed Latrobe in 1803 to be the Surveyor of Public Buildings, the architect was alarmed by the structural problems plaguing the north wing of the U.S. Capitol, which was then only 3 years old. Latrobe denounced the “extremely injudicious” building materials and methods used, and in February 1804 wrote “the want of air and light in the cellar story had begun to produce decay in the timbers . . . the roof is leaky, and the ceilings and walls of several of the apartments were thereby injured . . .”
In 1807, as dangers and demands for more committee space mounted, Congress appropriated funds for Latrobe to begin the badly needed renovations. Ultimately, he would recast much of the north wing’s interior in Neoclassical splendor.