Monday, 30 July 2012

Head First Look at Latrobe

The Library Company of Philadelphia has fielded a beguiling winner in architect / engineer Benjamin Latrobe’s “Views of Jeffersonian America 1795-1820.”

There’s a tasty oil portrait of our immigrant hero—from the UK at age 31—by Rembrandt Peale: spit-curls garnishing a thoughtfully broad brow, a fluffy white choker accenting his stark black broadcloth, dinky glasses sliding off a boldly fleshy nose, eyes aglitter with the curiosity that made him a trustworthy and indefatigable natural historian as well as an elegant architect. (I consider Latrobe’s Baltimore Roman Catholic Cathedral one of the most enduring places of worship in our country, certainly the best by far of its era.)

But while I knew his buildings and love them (extant and, alas, demolished), his natural history was news to my eyes. I relish the ground squirrel (5/31/96), which the witty inside-dopester gives the fake scientific appellation of “phlebotomy gratis,” which is to say, “free bloodletting,” a poke at one his era’s grossest medical miscalculations.

I delight as well in the caption trivia which gives the etymology of “chipmunk,” which is Ojibway for “head first,” the way the critter descends trees. And his color sketch of a triplet of dolphins fully lives up to his astonished prose: “Nothing can exceed the beauty and gaiety of the color of the dolphins.”

More sociological but equally fascinating is “Preparation for the enjoyment of a fine Sunday among the blacks, Norfolk” (3/4/97), in which a trio of slaves are primping and getting ready to have a holiday.

His topographical scenes don’t turn me on as much, except when they have some human element, as in his observations about the rampant vulgarity of a provisioning hamlet in the Delta of the Mississippi below New Orleans.

But Philadelphians will be most intrigued by the light thrown on the early years of the region. He designed the first steam-powered waterworks in 1801 when the population was 50,000. Wells were not working well enough—you couldn’t fight fires or clean streets with their pathetically unpowered streams, and yellow-fever epidemics threatened to foul them up when they weren’t going entirely dry.

So one engine took in clean, clear water from the Schuylkill, ran it through a brick conduit under Chestnut Street to Centre Square (where City Hall now stands) where another steam engine dumped it into a cistern for distribution through wooden pipes to hydrants and houses. Annual water fee, $5!

The drawings and landscapes are delectably bucolic. In the days before trash, there was steam—and yellow fever to worry about. That’s why we have place names like Fair Mount and Mount Airy, the canny rich having discovered that there was an inverse correlation between height of housing and number of mosquitoes.

But Latrobe will always be in our civic debt for the first big commission he had after he moved here in 1798—the $4,000 fee (a lucrative payment in the day of $5 annual water fees) for the Bank of Pennsylvania, which he supervised the erection of between 1799-1801. (The Feds who hadn’t yet learned their preservationist manners, demolished it in a High Vic frenzy in 1897.) Its cool Federalist elegance set a high standard for civic architecture, and Latrobe regarded it as his masterpiece.

But you’ll have to come to the Library Company to see what it looked like. And don’t miss the teenagers’ discovery of their peers, 1870-1920, next door at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. It’s a landmark.

Benjamin Latrobe exhibit: At the Library Company, 1314 Locust Street, through October 17. 546-3181. You may want to buy volume three of the Yale edition of Latrobe’s papers, a bargain at $30, on sale at their registration desk.

Reprinted from Welcomat: After Dark, Hazard-at-Large, October 15, 1986

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