Inventing the American House
Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe

Michael Fazio & Patrick Snaden

Appendix A

 

 

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Bulfinch's friend, James Swan, gave him an opportunity to explore other adventurous territory: interpreting the French hôtel, or its English manifestation in the hands of such designers as John Soane, in the context of Dorchester, Massachusetts (Figures 4-6). Bulfinch had no French books in his library, but when he spent time in France in the late 1780s, Thomas Jefferson, no doubt, took the opportunity to educate his countryman in matters of architectural taste. The French had employed circular garden rooms for 20 years. The architect Guslain Joseph Henry designed the Hôtel Lakanal (Figure 7) in 1795 with such a space surrounded by a variety of other elegant room shapes and provided it with a dense circulation and service core. Bulfinch's design succeeds on the basis of efficiency but fails in terms of grace; he infelicitously embedded a two-story cylinder in an orthogonal plan strung out laterally along a transverse hall with equivalent entries at both ends. The section reveals a peculiar spatial sequence along the house's longitudinal axis with two, tall volumes astride the low-ceilinged corridor, which had to serve as a common vestibule for both. It seems clear that Bulfinch so preferred the reserved to the dramatic that he was willing to conceal major interior features and was prepared to sacrifice spatial richness for efficiency and regularity.

While Bulfinch never developed this configuration further, his proposal for the Elias Hasket Derby House (1795-99) in Salem, Massachusetts (Figure 8) was modified by Samuel McIntire to take on a similar form. In Bulfinch's proposal, he allowed his principle stair to be approached tangentially and downplayed the longitudinal axis in favor of a central, wood-vaulted spatial cell around which the various spaces loosely revolved. This scheme suggests the elegant, sedate qualities that Bulfinch would so fruitfully pursue in his mature domestic commissions.

The Derbys, in possession of Bulfinch's plans for his Barrell and Thomas Russell houses, wished their residence to include prominent features from both. Fiske Kimball has thoroughly discussed the process by which McIntire succeeded in conflating the three designs.9 The most telling document is his first plan, obviously derived from Bulfinch's proposal, with all the principle elements still in their relative positions, but with all semblance of Bulfinch's order missing.10

While McIntire and Bulfinch were at work in New England, the center of American architectural activity developed farther south along the Potomac River between Virginia and Maryland when George Washington chose Pierre L'Enfant to plan the national Capital. L'Enfant, the son of a court painter, had grown up at Versailles during the reign of Louis XVI. In 1771 he entered the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture and, six years later, sailed for America where he became a soldier in Washington's army and attracted the future president's attention as an artist and designer. After carrying out a variety of design projects in the 1780s, such as a badge for the Order of Cincinnati and Federal Hall in New York City, he offered Washington his services as a city planner. When the President accepted, he set in motion a complex set of events that led to a published and executed plan but ended with L'Enfant's dismissal by 1792. Out of favor and bitter over his change of fortune, he faded from the architectural scene, producing only the Morris Mansion in Philadelphia (1794-96), perhaps the only design in America (Figure 9) that left Benjamin Henry Latrobe literally at a loss for words.11

While it does not appear that Latrobe had any professional relationship with L'Enfant, he was well aware of the Frenchman's plight. "Daily thru the city," wrote Latrobe, "stalks the picture of famine L'Enfant and his dog. . . ." While recognizing L’Enfant’s authorship of Washington's city plan, Latrobe had no respect for his architectural abilities, saying that "it is not known whether he was ever educated to the profession" and concluding that he had "neither good taste nor the slightest practical knowledge. . . ."12

In 1792, inspired by Thomas Jefferson and supported by George Washington, the Federal Government announced design competitions for both the President's House and Capitol. A remarkably heterogeneous group of men submitted entries for the Capitol competition, but none satisfied Washington. Amidst this impasse, William Thornton, a young physician from the Caribbean island of Tortolla, asked for and received permission to make a submission past the announced deadline.13 His so-called Tortolla scheme, a sprawling English Palladian country house, found little favor. However, after being allowed to examine at least some of the rejected designs, Thornton began work on a second scheme, possibly influenced by Washington's preference for a now-lost proposal from L'Enfant (indicated schematically on the published plan of the Federal City) or by the expressed architectural predilections of Washington and Jefferson.14 In 1793 Thornton's second proposal was accepted and turned over to French émigré Etienne Sulpice Hallet, known as Stephen Hallet in America, who was charged with rendering it buildable. Misunderstandings over design leadership led to constant animosity between Hallet and Thornton until 1795 when George Hadfield was summoned from England to take control of Capitol construction.

James Hoban, an Irishman who had set up a practice in Charleston, South Carolina, was awarded the premium for the President's House and began its construction. There seems to have been little but ill will between Latrobe and Hoban. Jefferson chose Latrobe to replace Hoban as Surveyor of the Public Buildings in 1803, which included responsibilities at the President's House. Hoban served as Superintendent of the Capitol at the time when Latrobe's most trusted assistant, John Lenthall, was killed in the collapse of the vaults in the Supreme Court Chamber. Latrobe considered Hoban a hack, writing to Thomas Munroe, Superintendent of Washington, D. C., in 1812 that "I have an insuperable repugnance that Mr. Hoban should be let into the completion of any part of the work [on the Capitol] designed by me." 15 Hoban attacked Latrobe in the Washington Federalist, accusing him of neglect, misrepresentation, and even ignorance of construction methods, and concluding that his "vanity" could be "equalled [only] by his disregard of truth." NEXT PAGE>>


FIGURE 4: Swan House, Dorchester, Massachusetts (ca. 1796), Exterior photograph (from Harold Kirker, The Architecture of Charles Bulfinch, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969). Bulfinch admired the room geometries developed by Robert Adam and the even more complex planning models offered by the French hôtels. Unfortunately, the best that he could do with varied room shapes in plan was to extrude them, here producing an awkward collision of architectural masses. The spaces in the French examples were more thoroughly integrated, and French designers frequently made highly informed references to classical models drawn from the ruins of antiquity. At the Swan House, Bulfinch did address, with limited success, the problems of scale given so much attention in Paris. Like Jefferson’s also-French-inspired Monticello, the Swan House was a two-story building with its second story de-emphasized. However, the effect was compromised by the dominant rotunda, with its tall windows and large mural wall surfaces. The house’s Francophile placement on dramatically modified terrain was comparable to Latrobe’s manipulation of the ground plane at Ashdown in Sussex. back

FIGURE 5: Swan House, First-floor plan (Fazio). This plan shows that Bulfinch organized the Swan house as an irregular grid into which he absorbed, none too elegantly, the circle of the rotunda. The technique he did not exploit was poché. In the French hôtels, relatively thin masonry walls and the use of dégagement (the absorption of ancillary spaces into potentially awkward areas between major rooms of various shapes) produced complex spatial sequences inside relatively plain and regular exterior walls. To accomplish the same ends but with greater efficiency in his American houses, Latrobe created thin-wall poché through the clever handling of thin wooden partition walls. back


FIGURE 6: Swan House, Longitudinal section (Fazio).
The relationship of the Swan House to its site was quite similar to Latrobe’s placement of the Van Ness House on manipulated topography, where he was concerned with principal-story views out over the Potomac. However, Bulfinch’s limitations as a designer again become apparent when one examines his interiors. The building section illustrated here is made strange by the principal axis’s being transverse rather than longitudinal and by the transverse hall’s being so low and narrow. Consequently, the two principal rooms, one with a tray ceiling and one with a concealed dome, and the diminutive corridor have almost no proportional relationship to one another. The interior elevations also reveal that Bulfinch had made no personal innovations, with doors, door and window surrounds, chair rails, and ceiling moldings applied with no more originality than those of builders like McIntire and without the woodcarver’s high level of personal craftsmanship. Latrobe, on the other hand, always related all of these elements to one another and to room volumes in his interior system of architectural ordering. back

FIGURE 7: Hotel Lakanal, Paris (1795), Ground-floor plan (Fazio). Here is an example of the French use of dégagement. Like Bulfinch, the architect Guslain Joseph Henry made his principal feature an embedded circular volume, in this case a garden room. Around it he arranged other rooms variously shaped as a basilica, an elongaged octagon, an elongated half-octagon, and a rectangle. At the house’s center, Henry developed a dense core filled with stairs and irregularly shaped minor spaces serving as dressing rooms, toilets, and circulation. The Hôtel Lakanal’s circulation patterns are comparable to Latrobe’s preferences: radial for servants and circumferential for family and guests. back


FIGURE 8: Elias Hasket Derby House, Salem, Massachusetts (1795-99), First-floor plan (Fazio). Once cut off from French and English sources and left to his own devices, Bulfinch began to develop a distinctive plan type of his own, here involving the use of a central, spatial cell at the intersection of cross axes. The spatial cell was a device also explored by Latrobe, who had seen it used by S. P. Cockerell in England. Bulfinch employed a central transverse corridor for service rather than for entry as he had at the Swan House, while his longitudinal entry axis leads to Derby’s library. The vaulted cell of space forms an anteroom for it and for the adjacent sitting room, the largest room in the house. The planning move that made all this possible was Bulfinch’s shifting of the principal stair to one side, allowing it to be approached tangentially. The resulting plan distribution possesses the elegant, sedate qualities that he would so fruitfully pursue in his mature domestic commissions such as the Ezekiel Hersey Derby House. back

FIGURE 9: Morris Mansion, Philadelphia (1794-96), Exterior view (Library Company of Philadelphia). When he saw this pile, Latrobe was at a loss for words. He knew French émigré Pierre L’Enfant in 1806 as a disheveled figure wandering about Washington in a state of disgrace and bitterness. L’Enfant had laid out the Federal City for George Washington, in whose army he had served during the Revolutionary War. He also had grand visions for the President’s House and Capitol, known to us only through his provocative but enigmatic plan diagrams on the engraved Ellicott plan for the city. However, his working methods alienated many local citizens, and Washington had to sack him.

This residence that L’Enfant designed for Philadelphia merchant Robert Morris was architecturally incoherent. Its porches, with Corinthian columns supporting entablatures, appear out of nowhere; its hulking Mansard roofs were obviously drawn from L’Enfant’s French experience; its massing was perhaps French as well with end pavilions, but with an odd cavity at the center, where a subordinate pavilion might have been expected. The opposite facade had a central curving portico, like the embedded temple Latrobe used at Ashdown. Obviously L’Enfant did not know how to design a house. back


9 Kimball, McIntire, 77-90. back

10 While Charles Bulfinch practiced in Boston, a major urban center, and spent time as an elected official, Philip Hooker did so in a provincial setting, that of Albany, New York and vicinity. Competent and workmanlike, Hooker began designing in about 1790, basing his work on what he learned from his builder father and from books. While he may have come in contact with French émigré architects and engineers who had fled the revolution in France and made their way to upper New York State, most of his work was decidedly English: Neo-Palladian like that of James Gibbs or in the fashion of Robert Adam, and even some not-uninformed early Gothic revivalism. For example, Hooker's St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Albany (1802-03, steeple 1822) resembles Gibbs's St. Martin-in-the-Fields; his New York State Bank in Albany (1803) was closely modeled on Adam's Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce; and his remodeling ofTrinity Episcopal Church in Utica, New York (1818, 1828) had lancet-arch windows and pinnacles on an otherwise Gibbs-like mass. His later work shows more consciousness of Neo-Classicism with a fine sense of proportion, as in his domed Albany City Hall (1829-32). While they apparently knew nothing of one another, Latrobe would have viewed Hooker and his Neo-Palladian and Adamesque work as hopelessly old-fashioned and his Neo-Classicism as uninspired. Hooker's career is discussed and illustrated in A Neat Plain Modern Stile: Philip Hooker and His Contemoraries, 1796-1836 edited by Mary Raddant Tomlan (Distributed by the University of Massachusetts Press, 1993). back

11 Journals, Vol. 2, 376-78 (entry of 26 April, 1798). Latrobe wrote: ". . . I did not mention the house of Robert Morris because I know not what to say about it in order to record the appearance of the monster in a few words. Indeed I can scarcely at this moment believe in the existence of what I have seen many times in its complicated, unintelligible, mass." back

12 Journals, Vol. 3, 71-72. back

13 For a discussion of the Capitol competition, see Jeanne F. Butler, Competition 1792: Designing a Nation's Capitol, special issue of Capitol Studies: A Biannual Journal Devoted to the Capitol and Congress, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1976. back

14 See Pamela Scott, "Stephen Hallet's Designs for the United States Capitol," Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 27, Nos. 2/3 (Summer/Autumn, 1992), 145-170 and Bates Lowery, Architectural Drawings for the American Democracy, 1789-1912, New York: Walker and Co., 1985, 19-26. back

15 BHL to Munroe, 19 August 1812 (C3). back