LATROBE, Benjamin Henry
(b. 1764, Fulneck, England, d. 1820, New Orleans)

Exterior view (east front)

Capitol, Washington D.C.

In the late 18th century, architecture assumed an eminent role in the northern states of the newly independent colony, the United States of America. Architecture was to demonstrate the pride and self-confidence of a young, democratic society. Today the Capitol and White House in Washington are the best-known symbols from this epoch, buildings that are synonymous with government and state power. American Neoclassicism became the flag-bearer for republican ideology; by both absorbing and adapting classical forms, it was able to give tangible form to the pragmatism of the "New World."

Competition for building a new seat of government in Washington was held in 1792. As a result, the design of the amateur architect was accepted. Thornton proposed a broad, domed building in the classical style. Because Thornton had no knowledge of building technology, the construction was initially supervised by the runner-up in the competition, Stephen Hallet. Hallet (c. 1760-1825) attempted to alter many of Thornton's plans and was quickly replaced, first by George Hadfield and later by James Hoban, the architect who designed the White House.

The north wing, containing the Senate chamber, was completed first, and Congress convened there in November 1800. The following year Jefferson became the first president to be inaugurated at the Capitol, a tradition that has been observed in all subsequent inaugurations. The remainder of the building was completed by Benjamin Latrobe, whom Jefferson appointed Surveyor of Public Buildings in 1803. Latrobe followed Thornton's conception of the exterior closely but used his own designs for the interior. Perhaps Latrobe's best-known additions were the unique Corinthian-style columns, whose capitals depicted tobacco leaves (symbolizing the nation's wealth) and corn cobs (symbolizing the country's bounty).

The south wing, containing the chamber of the House of Representatives, was completed in 1807. During the War of 1812 the Capitol was looted and burned by British troops, though rain prevented the building's complete devastation. Latrobe began reconstruction in 1815 but resigned two years later. By 1827 his successor, the distinguished Boston architect Charles Bulfinch, had joined the two wings and built the first copper-sheathed dome, again adhering to Thornton's original design.