American Architectural History: A Contemporary Reader

By Keith L. Eggener | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
The first professional
Benjamin Henry Latrobe

Mary N. Woods

Benjamin Henry Latrobe, a young English architect and engineer, immigrated to the United States in 1796. After working in this country for ten years, he wrote to a former student:

The profession of Architecture has been hitherto in the hands of two sets of Men. The first
of those [gentlemen] who from travelling or from books have acquired some knowledge of
the theory of Art, know nothing of its practice, the second of those [mechanics] who know
nothing but the practice, and whose early life being spent in labor, and in the habits of a
laborious life, have had no opportunity to acquire 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.1

Latrobe expected deference, not competition, from the gentlemen and building mechanics he encountered in the United States. He introduced and championed English ideas of professionalism and often claimed the distinction of being the first professional architect and engineer to practice in the United States. Only a professional architect’s design, Latrobe explained to Thomas Jefferson, was a “simultaneous consideration of the purpose, the connection and the construction of his work.”2 The professional alone combined theoretical knowledge with a practical understanding of building.

From the outset Latrobe and other early professional architects found themselves embroiled in controversies over duties, authority, and compensation. Latrobe’s twentyfour years in the United States were difficult and frustrating. Although proud that he could claim to be the first professional architect, he admitted that he had

not so far succeeded as to make it [architecture] an eligible profession for one who has the
education and the feelings of a Gentleman, and I regret exceedingly that my own Son …
has determined to make it his own. The business in all our great cities is in the hands of
mechanics who disgrace the Art but possess the public confidence, and under the false
appearance of Oeconomy have infinitely the advantage in degrading the competition. With
them the struggle will be long and harassing.3

Building craftsmen (usually called building mechanics in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) and clients undoubtedly found Latrobe’s claims for the professional

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