Today in History

Today in History: May 1

Benjamin Henry Latrobe

Design for New York city hall.
[Design of a city hall proposed to be built in New York. Rendering],
Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect,
watercolor on paper, 1802.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Entrance Hall, Decatur House
Decatur House,
Photograph 31: First Floor, Entrance Hall, View West to Stair and Rear Doorway,
Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect,
748 Jackson Place Northwest, Washington, District of Columbia, DC.
Built in America: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey, 1933-Present

On May 1, 1764, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, considered to be the first professional architect in America, was born at Fulneck, a settlement of the Moravian Church near Leeds in Yorkshire, England. The son of a Pennsylvania-born musician and an Irish-born minister and church leader, Latrobe received a progressive education at Moravian schools in England and later in Germany. He apprenticed briefly in London, first with leading civil engineer John Smeaton (known for rebuilding the Eddystone Lighthouse) and then with Samuel Pepys Cockerell, an eminent neoclassical architect. Latrobe soon went into business for himself, but following the death of his first wife and subsequent financial problems, he emigrated to Virginia in 1795-96.

During two years in Norfolk and Richmond, Latrobe designed several private houses as well as his first major public commission, the Virginia State Penitentiary (external link) (1797-1806). In 1798 he moved to the more cosmopolitan environment of Philadelphia, where he soon remarried. There, his Bank of Pennsylvania (1798-1801) became the first major Greek revival building in America, influencing the nation's public architecture thereafter. Of similar style, his Philadelphia Water Works (1799-1801) pumped river water into the city's center using steam engines; though only moderately successful it was the first municipal water system in America. In addition to private houses, Latrobe’s other work in this period included planning for the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal (1803-6).

Design for the U.S. Capitol
[Revised design for the Capitol]; perspectives, east and north front,
Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect,
Graphite, ink, and watercolor on paper, 1806.
American Treasures of the Library of Congress

In 1798 Latrobe made the acquaintance of Thomas Jefferson, himself an avid amateur architect. Following Latrobe's Philadelphia successes, in 1803 Jefferson, then president, invited Latrobe to Washington to become the first "Surveyor of the Public Buildings" of the United States. In this post Latrobe was responsible for ongoing construction of the White House and U.S. Capitol Building, along with all other Federal building projects in the nation's new capital.

The process of building the U.S. Capitol was a long one—the grand edifice that we know today was not fully completed until 1916. Latrobe's major design contribution brought a neoclassical modernism to the structure. His plan for a grand east portico and staircase on the exterior related to an equally grand central Rotunda within—labeled "Hall of the People" in a floor plan dating from 1806—which created a space of symbolic interaction larger than but encompassing both the Senate and House of Representatives, located in each wing. 

Design for the Library of Congress
Design of the Library of Congress, North Wing of the Capitol [detail],
Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect,
Ink and watercolor on paper, 1808.
Temple of Liberty: Building the Capitol for a New Nation

Other work included interior improvements, both in structure and design. Symbols of native plant life were incorporated in the ornamental details of columns: corn, tobacco, and magnolias. Latrobe's Supreme Court chamber is known for its strikingly geometric use of space. In 1808, Latrobe designed a room that would house the Library of Congress—the first example of Egyptian Revival style in American architecture—but this version was never built.  Following the acquisition of Jefferson's books by Congress in 1815, a different Library space was completed by Latrobe's successor, which served through 1897 when a separate Library of Congress Building opened.

Latrobe continued work on the Capitol until 1811, when the threat of war put a hold on further building. Renewing his interest in the steam engine, he next moved to Pittsburgh to work with Robert Fulton on steamboats. In 1815, he reluctantly returned to Washington to rebuild the Capitol and its surroundings, which had been burned by the British the year before. With most of his previous work in ruins, Latrobe set about improving upon his former plans while enlarging the Capitol to meet the needs of a legislature growing in size. Two years later, however, he abruptly resigned in a dispute with the Capitol's commissioner.

Elected a member of the American Philosophical Society in 1799, Benjamin Henry Latrobe was known for his ready talent and wide-ranging interests. In addition to his many public works, he completed over sixty residential projects during his career, and trained some of the most successful American architects to follow him. His final years were spent on various projects in Baltimore and New Orleans, including the Louisiana State Bank and the Baltimore Cathedral (1805-10, 1817-21), known for its complexity and beauty. While completing the New Orleans Waterworks, Latrobe unexpectedly died of yellow fever in September 1820.

Louisiana State Bank
Louisiana State Bank,
Photograph 1: South-East Elevation, Fronting Royal Street,
403 Royal Street, New Orleans, Orleans Parish, Louisiana,
Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect,
Richard Koch, photographer, 1934.
Built in America: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey, 1933-Present

The Empire State Building Opens

The Empire State Building
Empire State Building. From south,
Samuel H. Gottscho, photographer,
January 8, 1934.
Architecture and Interior Design for 20th Century America: Photographs by Samuel Gottscho and William Schleisner, 1935-1955

On May 1, 1931, with the press of a ceremonial button in Washington, D.C., President Herbert Hoover turned on the lights of the Empire State Building (external link) for the first time. This event officially opened the world's tallest building, located at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 34th Street in New York City. At 102 stories and 1,250 feet, the Empire State Building reigned as the tallest edifice until the World Trade Towers, also in New York City, were completed in 1972. Since September 11, 2001, the Empire State Building is again the tallest building in New York. (At 1,451 feet, Chicago's Sears Tower is the tallest building in the United States.)

Technological advances, most important the elevator and lightweight steel-frame construction techniques, allowed for the development of what came to be known as "skyscrapers" in the late nineteenth century. In downtown areas where prime land was scarce, it quickly became profitable to build upwards. Notable early examples include the Wainwright Building (1891) in St. Louis, the Reliance Building (1890; 1895) in Chicago, and the Flatiron, Singer (1908; now demolished), and Woolworth (1913) buildings in Manhattan. The Woolworth Building was for a time the world's tallest building, until in a boom of competition in 1930, first The Bank of Manhattan (40 Wall Street) and then the Chrysler Building—at 927 feet and 1,046 feet, respectively—each briefly held that title before the Empire State Building's completion.

In 1929, a corporation that included former New York Governor Alfred E. Smith and General Motors' John Jacob Raskob was formed to construct the Empire State Building on a two-acre lot south of midtown Manhattan, on the site of the former Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. Excavation began in January 1930 despite the country's recent economic downturn. Construction commenced in March and Smith laid the building's cornerstone in September. Under the direction of the architectural firm Shreve, Lamb, and Harmon Associates and general contractor Starrett Brothers and Eken, the building's steel framework rose at a rapid average rate of 4½ stories per week. Due to efficient on-site planning and the use of pre-fabricated materials, construction was completed ahead of schedule in a phenomenal one year and forty-five days. The work force, which reached nearly 3,400 persons at the height of construction, was documented by noted labor photographer Lewis Hine (external link) and included Mohawk Indian steelworkers, known for their skill as "skywalkers" at extreme heights.

Upon its completion, the Empire State Building became a symbol of modernity and an icon of New York's thriving urban identity. Its Art Deco lobby presented three stories of multicolored marble and its mast, since replaced by a television tower, was originally intended as a mooring for dirigibles. It has been featured in scores of stories and films, perhaps the most famous being the 1933 production of King Kong starring Fay Wray. On July 28, 1945, in the midst of a dense fog, a stray B-25 bomber crashed into the north side of the building's 79th floor as it attempted to find Newark Airport. While three crewmembers and eleven office workers died, the Empire State Building survived, with damage on only two floors.