The Fulneck man who built Washington DC

On 24 August 1814, British troops stormed Washington DC and set about destroying the city in retaliation for American raids on British possessions in Canada. They set fire to government buildings including the White House and the Capitol Building.

The following day, a torrential downpour accompanied by a tornado drove the British back to their ships and extinguished the fires – the so-called ‘Storm that saved Washington’ (although, in reality, the storm-force winds compounded the fire damage).

In the aftermath of the attack, President Madison turned to the Father of American Architecture, Benjamin Latrobe, to oversee the reconstruction of the city.

Latrobe was born into the Moravian community at Fulneck, Pudsey on 1 May 1764, and educated at Fulneck school.  At the age of 12, he was sent away to a Moravian school in Prussia and, in his late teens, served briefly in both the Royal Prussian Army and Austrian Imperial Army.

He returned to England in 1784 and became apprenticed to Leeds-born engineer, John Smeaton, before qualifying as an architect. He made his name as the designer of Ashdown House, which is now famous for being the prep school attended by Boris Johnson.

Latrobe’s life was turned upside down in 1793 when his wife died in childbirth and, after suffering a nervous breakdown, he set sail to begin a new life in America in 1795. He arrived in March 1796 after a terrible four-month Atlantic crossing during which he nearly starved to death.

His fortunes, however, soon began to revive after gaining the patronage of influential figures, such as future president Thomas Jefferson during his work on the design of the State Penitentiary in Richmond, Virginia, which was one of Jefferson’s pet projects.

In 1803, Jefferson appointed Latrobe to oversee the construction of the Capitol Building and the White House portico but construction work was halted in 1812, when tensions between America and Great Britain led to the outbreak of war and the subsequent destruction wrought by the British. Latrobe fled the capital for Pittsburgh.

It was from Pittsburgh that President Madison summoned Latrobe to repair the damage done by the British and to complete the projects he had begun in 1803. By this time, however, Latrobe was involved in numerous projects in several states and had to resign from his position in 1817. Nevertheless, his influence on the design of two of America’s most famous buildings can still be seen, not least the famous White House portico.

Three years later, in 1820, Latrobe contracted yellow fever and died. It was a cruel irony because another of Latrobe’s great American achievements was the creation of a fresh water supply to Philadelphia which did much to relieve the suffering caused there by yellow fever.

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