The Capitol Dome

Winter 2015-16

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21 From Roman Republicanism to Greek Democracy: Benjamin Henry Latrobe's Capitol by Pamela Scott T he burning of the Capitol on August 24, 1814 was more a reprieve than a disaster for Benjamin Henry Latrobe. He now had the unexpected opportunity to repair some of his Capitol's interiors and rebuild others into exemplars of Greek Revival architecture. During his first tenure as the Capi- tol's architect (1803-1812) (fig. 1) Latrobe was constrained by William Thornton's 1792 winning design for the exterior shell and Stephen Hallet's for the interiors. Hallet partially built the two-story Senate in wood; aer January 1795 a succession of short-term architects finished much of the north wing for the Senate. e Capitol Latrobe inherited was that enclosed wing and the "oven," the brick walls and temporary roof of the hall for the House of Representatives built in 1801. ese designs were a fusion of eighteenth-century Neoclassicism derived from the Roman and Renaissance architecture interpreted by Italian, French, and English sources as well as ancient ones. Latrobe soon found himself both supported and bedeviled in his collaboration with President omas Jefferson who had been involved with designs for the Capitol since 1791. 1 In May 1807, while in battle with Jefferson over the vaulting of the House chamber, Latrobe wrote the president: "My principles of good taste are rigid. In Grecian architecture, I am a bigoted Greek, to the condemnation of the roman architecture of Bal- ba, Palmyra, Spalatro, all of the buildings erected subsequent to Hadrian's reign." He admired the "bold plans and arrangements" of early Roman architecture "but think their decorations and details absurd beyond tolerance." He expressed his fundamental architectural credo at this critical juncture of the Capitol's design when he was rebuilding the North Wing and caught in the dilemma of how to erect a dome over the hippodrome-shaped House cham- ber designed by Hallet and sanctioned by George Washington. 2 Wherever therefore the Grecian style can be copied without impropriety I love to be a mere, I would say a slavish copyist, but the forms, and the distribution of the Roman and Greek buildings which remain, are in general inapplicable to the objects and uses of our public build- ings. [O]ur government, our legislative assemblies, and our courts of Justice buildings [are based on] entirely different principles from their basilica's; and our amuse- ments could not possibly be performed in their eatres or amphitheatres. Yet despite his caveats, Latrobe went on to infuse the Capitol's rebuilt interiors and his new ones with direct references to Greek architectural forms, architectural orders, and sculptural decora- tions. He adapted them, however, to his own purposes as he integrated them with other historical traditions. He had pio- neered the revival of Greek architecture in America in 1798 with his design for the Bank of Pennsylvania and educated two impor- tant American architects (Robert Mills and William Strickland) in that style during the next decade. He even took it upon himself to educate congressmen about correct taste in architecture in order to convince them to approve and fund what was an increasingly expensive enterprise. 3 In November 1816, when he was well into his second ten- ure (1815-1817) as the Capitol's architect (fig. 2), Latrobe penned a diatribe against those American architects who, in claiming they were building in the "Grecian taste, the idea sug- gested is, that it unites the most elegant proportions with the most severe simplicity." He condemned them for instead being

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