Architect Benjamin Latrobe’s written observations of New Orleans in 1819-20 provide an invaluable glimpse of building traditions in the newly Americanized Creole city.
When Benjamin Latrobe, commonly known as “the father of American architecture,” first arrived at the New Orleans port in January 1819, he was immediately struck by the city’s unique appearance.¹ “Everything had an odd look,” he wrote in his illustrated journal.² “It was impossible not to stare at a sight wholly new even to one who has traveled much in Europe & America.”³ Latrobe’s recorded observations of his short time in New Orleans (January 1819–August 1820) provide rare insight into the culture of the newly Americanized Creole city and into its existing and new building traditions. Local preservation architect Samuel Wilson Jr. published Latrobe’s journal, Impressions Respecting New Orleans, in 1951.
Latrobe emigrated from England to Virginia in 1795, and as chief engineer of the US Navy he designed projects for Louisiana as early as 1804.⁴ In 1811, his son Henry came to New Orleans to promote a municipal waterworks project, but six years later Henry succumbed to yellow fever, and Latrobe moved to the city to complete his son’s contract.⁵ From the moment he arrived, Latrobe used his architect’s eye to record his experiences in remarkable detail, including floor plan sketches of the Presbytère and of Tremoulet’s Hotel (demolished), “a building of excellent effect” that served as his initial accommodation, and a watercolor drawing of the view from his hotel room.⁶ Latrobe admired certain aspects of local building methods, particularly the climatically well-suited Creole cottages with overhangs that allowed him to stay dry while walking in even the heaviest downpour.⁷ However, he was also concerned that the buildings he saw would not withstand the test of time in what he called “a floating city.”⁸ Indeed, his own 1807 design for the city’s US Custom House was demolished just over a decade after it was built due to a poor foundation and other structural issues.⁹ On February 19, 1819, he wrote that “[i]t would be worth while, & if I can find time I will try to do something of the sort, to make a series of drawings representing the city as it is now, for it would be a safe wager that in 100 years not a vestige will remain of the buildings as they now stand.”¹⁰ Although this dire prediction did not prove entirely correct, Latrobe’s glimpses of early nineteenth-century New Orleans provide one of the few architecture-focused accounts of the Vieux Carré available to researchers today.
1. Michael MacRae, “Benjamin Henry Latrobe: Biography,” asme.org.
2. Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe, Impressions Respecting New Orleans: Diary and Sketches, 1818-1820, edited by Samuel Wilson Jr. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1951), 19.
4. Robert Cangelosi, Jr., “Benjamin Latrobe,” in KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson. Article published January 31, 2011.
6. Latrobe, 25, 95.
7. Latrobe, 105.
8. Latrobe, 67.
10. Latrobe, 40.
Suggestions for Additional Reading and Research
Fazio, Michael W., and Patrick A. Snadon. The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe. Chicago: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006.
Hamlin, Talbot. Benjamin Henry Latrobe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955.