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The Latrobe Family and Charm City

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The Latrobe family is sewn into the fabric of Americana. Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the patriarch, was the Union’s first trained architect and a strong proponent of Greek, Gothic and Neoclassical architecture. Latrobe designed elements of the U. S. Capitol and the White House. His sons John H. B. Latrobe and Benjamin Henry Latrobe II, with headquarters in Baltimore, helped organize, orchestrate and engineer the nations first railroad. Ferdinand Claiborne Latrobe (son of John H. B. Latrobe) was mayor of Baltimore five times. He was known as the “Grand Old Man of Maryland.” His cousin Charles H. Latrobe (son of Benjamin Henry Latrobe II) was city engineer for a quarter century, designing bridges and buildings around Baltimore. Together the Latrobe Family helped shape and develop Charm City.

Architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe arrived on American soil in 1796. Known as the “Father of American Architecture,” Latrobe was born in England in 1764 to a British father and an American mother. He showed an early interest in landscape drawing and quickly moved to the architectural field. By age 20 Latrobe entered his initial apprenticeship in design and engineering. Married and the father of two, Latrobe’s first wife died in 1793 while giving birth to their third child. He struggled financially in his native country and sailed, with his children, to the newly forming United States in hopes of establishing a career. Landing in Virginia in March of 1796, Latrobe visited the Mount Vernon estate of President George Washington by that summer and his succesful and incredible life began taking form. After building a state of the art prison in Richmond, Virginia he moved to Philadelphia and then Washington D. C. seeking further government commissions.

Benjamin Latrobe relocated his family to Baltimore at the beginning of 1818 in order to finish work on the Baltimore Cathedral (or Basilica of the Assumption of the blessed Virgin Mary). Commissioned by John Carroll, America’s first native-born Archbishop, the building’s construction began in 1806 and was completed in 1821. He also created Baltimore’s original Merchant’s Exchange (razed in 1901) and the quaint Spring House of Dairy. Known as the father of American architecture, Benjamin Latrobe was a friend of presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. He and Jefferson were instrumental in bringing Greek Revival architecture to our newly forming country, pairing the classic style with themes of democracy. Latrobe died of yellow fever in New Orleans in 1821 while working on a massive waterworks system for the southern port city. His sons and grandsons stayed in Baltimore and created legacies of their own.

John Hazlehurst Boneval Latrobe was born in 1803 in Philadelphia. Moving to Washington as a young child his house was frequented by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. The multi-talented Latrobe took after his father’s passion for landscape painting. He eventually studied engineering at West Point but was forced to return home before graduating when his father suddenly passed away in 1820. Baltimore was home, and John H. B. began studying law with his father’s good friend, Robert Goodloe Harper. After passing the Maryland Bar, John went into private practice with his younger brother Benjamin Henry Latrobe II. The practice proved too difficult to maintain and Benjamin II turned to engineering. John H. B. went to work for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad as a land acquisition attorney. He was instrumental in the railroad’s expansion west, helping to link America’s rising industrial network. John H. B. incorporated the first telegraph service in the world along the Baltimore & Ohio’s line, his persuasive manner convincing company’s leaders of the communications system’s potential. He would spend most of his life working as the B&O’s chief legal counsel.

In his spare time, John H. B. Latrobe pursued numerous other ventures with the same intensity and professionalism he had for his day job. He was on the board of directors for Druid Hill Park and Green Mount Cemetery, spearheading the establishment of two of Baltimore’s finest outdoor museums. He founded the Maryland Historical Society and established a colony in Liberia for America’s growing population of freed slaves. John also wrote an extensive memoir (along with poetry) that can be read in the Maryland Room of the Central Branch of the Enoch Pratt Library System.

John’s work as a patent attorney may have peaked his interest in inventing. His most famous creation is the Latrobe Stove (Baltimore Heater), a heat concentrating device that went inside a home’s fireplace. By 1878 there were 300,000 in use in the United States.

Perhaps best known today for his association with Edgar Allan Poe, John H. B. Latrobe was one of three judges that awarded the struggling author with a first place prize in a local writing contest for the story MS. Found in a Bottle. Poe showed up to collect his prize at John’s Mount Vernon rowhouse. The historic building stands today and is in shouting distance of the Basilica of the Assumption. The short story was published in the the Baltimore Saturday Visitor, helping to launch Edgar Allan Poe’s turbid career.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe II, younger brother to John H. B., was born in 1806. He studied engineering and law, following the paths of his famous father and gifted older sibling. After a short time practicing law, Benjamin II began a career in engineering, starting at Ellicott’s Mill measuring ballast stone for the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad. He rose rapidly through the ranks and eventually became head engineer for the historic company. His greatest standing accomplishment is the Thomas Viaduct, the railroad’s first bridge built on a curved alignment. Originally rated for 30 ton trains, today the massive stone viaduct carries loads weighing up to 300 tons. Benjamin Henry Latrobe II designed the rolling pathways in Green Mount Cemetery where he is buried.

Charles Hazlehurst Latrobe was born in a house on Calvert Street in 1833. He was educated locally and apprenticed under his father, Benjamin Henry Latrobe II, as an engineer for the B&O Railroad. He worked several years with his father expanding the rail lines west of the Ohio River at Wheeling, Pennsylvania. When his cousin, Ferdinand Claiborne Latrobe, was elected mayor of Baltimore in 1875, Charles was appointed Chief Engineer of the Jones Falls Commission. He designed the containing walls that direct the Jones Falls through the city. The former Guilford, Calvert and Saint Paul Street bridges spanning the Jones Falls, with their monumental iron arches, were also articulated by the third generation engineer. As an architect Charles created Patterson Park’s Pagoda and Casino building, projects he worked on during his quarter century tenure as a city employee. During the Civil War he served in the Confederate Army where he earned the title of First Lieutenant in the Engineers of the Confederate States of America. Charles H. Latrobe is memorialized with a granite cross on the eastern wall of Green Mount Cemetery.

Born in 1833, Ferdinand Claiborne Latrobe was the oldest son of John H. B. Latrobe. During his first professional life he practiced law with his father, working closely on the B&O Railroad’s legal affairs during its westward expansion. In 1875 Ferdinand was elected to his first of seven terms as Charm City’s top official. Loved by many in the community for his down to earth lifestyle, the mayor was known to have breakfast with his mother each morning, traveling there (as he traveled everywhere) in his horse-drawn carriage with his legendary Old Grey Mare leading the way. His political tenure was one of dignity and respect, his battles with Baltimore’s mob culture uniquely significant. In 1895 Ferdinand acquired land from the estate of Johns Hopkins that eventually became Clifton Park. He is memorialized in statue on the North Broadway median near East Baltimore Street.


Written by monumentcity

June 18th, 2011 at 10:43 am

Engineer Wendell Bollman

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The Baltimore born Wendell Bollman (1814-1884) designed the first iron truss bridge in the United States. In 1847, working under the engineer Benjamin Henry Latrobe II, son of the U. S. Capitol’s architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Bollman was named head of the Harper’s Ferry, Virginia line of bridges for the B&O Railroad. Realizing that standard wooden bridges decayed too rapidly, he turned to the less frequently used iron for construction. The self-taught engineer’s structures performed well and the iron truss bridge was quickly adopted by his bosses. He received a patent for his truss design, vaulting him to the top of his profession. Wendell Bollman‘s importance to the advancement of American engineering is rooted in his methods. His use of math and logic helped pave the way for a more scientific approach to civil planning.

Only one Bollman bridge, located in Savage, MD, remains today. The rest have either been replaced or were destroyed. His most famous bridge (at Harper’s Ferry) was taken out several times during the Civil War. The strategic overpass was rebuilt and lasted until 1936, when it was wiped out during a devastating flood. However, two of his iron creations still adorn historic Baltimore buildings. The dome of City Hall‘s rotunda and the steeple of the First and Franklin Presbyterian Church were fashioned by Bollman.

Written by monumentcity

February 26th, 2010 at 1:02 pm