New Book | Building America: The Life of Benjamin Henry Latrobe

Posted in books by Editor on November 5, 2020

From Oxford UP:

Jean Baker, Building America: The Life of Benjamin Henry Latrobe (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), 304 pages, ISBN: 978-0190696450, $35.

Building America: The Life of Benjamin Henry Latrobe is a biography of America’s first professionally trained architect and engineer. Born in 1764, Latrobe was raised in Moravian communities in England and Germany. His parents expected him to follow his father and brother into the ministry, but he rebelled against the church. Moved to London, he studied architecture and engineering. In 1795 he emigrated to the United States and became part of the period’s Transatlantic Exchange. Latrobe soon was famous for his neoclassical architecture, designing important buildings, including the US Capitol and Baltimore Basilica as well as private homes. Carpenters and millwrights who built structures more cheaply and less permanently than Latrobe challenged his efforts to establish architecture as a profession. Rarely during his twenty-five years in the United States was he financially secure, and when he was, he speculated on risky ventures that lost money. He declared bankruptcy in 1817 and moved to New Orleans, the sixth American city that he lived in, hoping to recoup his finances by installing a municipal water system. He died there of yellow fever in 1820. The themes that emerge in this biography are the critical role Latrobe played in the culture of the early republic through his buildings and his genius in neoclassical design. Like the nation’s political founders, Latrobe was committed to creating an exceptional nation, expressed in his case by buildings and internal improvements. Additionally, given the extensive primary sources available for this biography, an examination of his life reveals early American attitudes toward class, family, and religion.

Jean H. Baker is Bennett-Harwood Professor of History Emerita at Goucher College. An eminent political historian and biographer, she is the author of Margaret Sanger: A Life of Passion, Sisters: The Lives of America’s Suffragists, James Buchanan, and Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography, among other titles.



1  Itching Ears
2  This New American
3  Capital Projects
4  Beloved Mary and the Little Folks
5  Breaking Points
6  Final Beginnings


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