Reinventing the American House: Domestic Architecture, Interiors and Furniture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe

Patrick Snadon, University of Cincinnati

Tuesday, September 13, 2011Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
Klismos style chair designed by Latrobe for the Waln House, Philadelphia

Klismos style chair designed by Latrobe for the Waln House, Philadelphia (house demolished; chair in Philadelphia Museum of Art), c. 1808

Facade of Decatur House, Washington, D.C.

Facade of Decatur House, Washington, D.C., designed by Latrobe 1817 (extant)

Entrance vestibule of Decatur House

Entrance vestibule of Decatur House, Washington, D.C., designed by Latrobe 1817 (extant)

Facade of Pope Villa, Lexington, KY

Facade of Pope Villa, Lexington, KY, designed by Latrobe, 1811 (extant)

Latrobe drawings of dining room for a house for the Tayloe family

Sheet of drawings by Latrobe, (plan with laid-back elevations) with watercolor washes, of the dining room of a house for the Tayloe family, Washington, D.C. (unbuilt), c. 1798

Digital reconstruction of the second story rotunda of the Pope Villa, Lexington, KY

Digital reconstruction of the second story rotunda of the Pope Villa, Lexington, KY, 1811 (reconstructed from Latrobe’s drawings)

Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820) was the first professional architect of international stature in America. He trained and practiced in England, traveled extensively in Europe, then immigrated to the United States where he captured the attention of President Thomas Jefferson who commissioned him to complete the unfinished White House and the United States Capitol. Latrobe also designed other major buildings and engineering projects, such as the (recently restored) Baltimore Cathedral and the Philadelphia Waterworks. He ended his career in New Orleans, where he designed the State Bank of Louisiana (which survives) and the City water works.

In addition to his extensive public works, Latrobe combined his Enlightenment education, English practice and European experiences with a keen observation of American manners and climate to create an entirely new house type for the new republic. Latrobe’s “rational house,” as he called it, introduced radically new spatial distributions, interior decor and furniture designs which challenged standard American domestic planning and taste of the Federal period.

Latrobe disliked the raised basements, central halls and rear service wings of large American houses of the early 19th-century and strove to eradicate these features. Because he felt exterior stairs were dangerous in the American climate due to frequent rain, snow and ice, his ideal “rational house” contained a low, ground-level service story where family and visitors entered, virtually at-grade, with only one or two steps up. This first story also contained the kitchen and service rooms, hidden within the main block of the house (in the manner of French “degagement” or concealed, internal service spaces), which eliminated unsightly, rear service ell wings.

Latrobe then located the main entertaining rooms, including the drawing and dining rooms, on the second story, accessible by protected, internal stairs. He then frequently created an asymmetrical route from the entry up to the public spaces, enlivened with changing views, multiple room shapes, and surprising contrasts of light and color. He called these sequences “interior scenery” and based their compositional principles on those of English naturalistic, or picturesque landscapes.

Latrobe’s innovations elevate his domestic designs to a position of international significance within the neoclassical movement. In addition, he introduced new interior color schemes and furniture designs based upon those of ancient Greece, which connected the world’s most recent democracy with its storied classical counterpart. His interiors and furniture, custom-designed for wealthy clients, then influenced more popular taste and cabinet-making in America through the 1840s.

This lecture will show key examples of Latrobe’s houses, interiors and furniture, focusing on his surviving houses and incorporating much new information gleaned from recent restorations of them. His two extant English country houses, Hammerwood Park and Ashdown House (both 1790s) illustrate his early domestic designs, while his surviving American houses, including Adena (1805, Chillicothe, Ohio), the Pope Villa (1811-1813, Lexington, Kentucky), and Decatur House (1817, Washington, D.C.) show his range and the gradual development of his domestic design thinking. Lost houses such as Sedgeley and the Waln and Markoe Houses (Philadelphia) and his (vanished) White House interiors and Van Ness Mansion (Washington, D.C), round out the development of his domestic design thinking. With these houses, Latrobe intended to show the world how the citizens of a new, democratic republic might live.

Patrick Snadon simultaneously earned a bachelor’s of science degree in interior design and a bachelor of arts degree in art history from the University of Missouri. After obtaining a master’s degree in interior design from the University of Kentucky, he completed a doctorate in architecture from Cornell. He returned to the University of Kentucky to teach interior design, then taught at Mississippi State University’s School of Architecture. Dr. Snadon is now an associate professor of architecture and interior design at the University of Cincinnati.

Dr. Snadon’s publications include the guidebook 50 from the 50s: Modern Architecture and Interiors in Cincinnati with Udo Geniacher et al. (2008) and The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe with Michael Fazio (2006). He also contributed “Artist-Carvers and Connoisseur Clients: Art Carved Interiors of Cincinnati” with Walter Langsam to Cincinnati Art-Carved Furniture and Interiors (2003), edited by Jennifer Howe. (Jennifer Howe spoke to the Forum about “ ‘They took to their tools like ducks to water’: the Cincinnati Women Woodcarvers of the Aesthetic Movement” in September, 2009.)

Dr. Snadon has been retained as an architectural historian and/or historic restoration consultant for two Latrobe houses: Decatur House (1817) in Washington, D.C. and Pope Villa in Lexington, Kentucky (1811-1813). Other projects, as a consultant or volunteer, include the Second Presbyterian Church (1860s Gothic Revival); the Bodley-Bullock House (1815); and the Gaines Center for the Humanities (an 1870s building at the University of Kentucky), all in Lexington, Kentucky.

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Reach inside your wallet or purse for neoclassical objects and images in the form of bills or coins. The ideals of Rome and Greece have permeated our national culture , especially our decorative arts. Look for a column (Doric, Ionic or Corinthian), anthemion, laurel wreath, fasces or a Greek key fret. These symbols are transfer-printed on pottery, molded in glass and metal, and neoclassical dress is depicted in early paintings. Or bring an architectural image that is almost certain to contain neoclassical elements.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.