LATROBE, Benjamin Henry, (1764-1820), Architect, engineer. Autograph letter signed ("B.H. Latrobe") TO DOLLEY PAYNE MADISON, Washington, D.C., 8 September 1809. 7 pages, 4to (9 7/8 x 8½ in.), a few minor marginal defects.
LATROBE TO THE FIRST LADY ON FURNITURE AND CARPETING FOR THE NEW WHITE HOUSE AND CHIMNEY-PIECES FOR THE CAPITOL
A very lengthy letter in which Latrobe, principal architect of the U.S. Capitol, also in charge of the decoration and furnishing of the White House, describes the progress of various projects and expresses dismay at rumors that the First Lady is unhappy with his work. President Madison and the First Lady had moved into the Executive Mansion just after the inauguration in March 1809. Their predecessor, Thomas Jefferson, had furnished the President's house sparsely with his own furniture, borrowed from Monticello, but Congress voted the Madisons a modest appropriation for furniture and decoration. In addition to operating on a budget, the First Lady and Latrobe were careful to set the proper Republican tone: appointments were to be elegant and well-made, but not overly ornate nor emulative of French empire or English Royal taste. American artisans were employed wherever possible. Here, while the President and his wife are away, Latrobe describes his recent work: "I went to the President's house [the White House] in order to forward every part of the work before your return." He tells Dolley that he has "bought the two Chimney pieces intended for the dining room, for the Capitol, and immediately after the departure of the President, after his short visit to the city, I set our people to work:"
"Parlor. The Marble Chimney piece is set, and in few days the papering of the room will be finished.
The Chamberdoor, ordered on the North side is opened.
The Kitchen stair under the great stairs leading to the turning closet, are in great forwardness.
The Coach houses are finished.
The Pump may be put into the Well on that side of the house in a few days."
"So far I could proceed boldly as surveyor of the public Buildings. But in my other capacity of upholsterer, as I am called in the Newspapers,--I found that I could not be as useful as I wished." As instructed, he had arranged for a Mrs. Sweeny to inspect and clean the curtains: "that is all that required Washing, or belonged to bed chambers which were in use, & would harbor bugs." But, his directions were not carried out, and Mrs. Sweeny, when summoned, "told me that you are so displeased with my conduct especially with my long absence in February and April that you intended I should do nothing more for you." As it came from a servant, "I thought to presume it was false. It was completely contradicted by yourself in the whole of your conduct towards me, --and it would be an insult to you to suppose it possible that such intelligence would be conveyed to a man of character, and a public officer, at second hand, by a servant." But, having heard other rumors to that effect, Latrobe has "not presumed to interfere beyond my duties as purveyor of the public buildings, and have refrained from going into the house more than that duty required." In that capacity, though, Latrobe explains, he has "ordered the repairs to be done in the kitchen," and "such other things as your steward thought necessary."
He reports frustrating delays with some of "the furniture of the drawing room." While Mr. Rae of Philadelphia has completed his work, "Mr. Findlay of Baltimore who has the Chairs & sofas in hand, appears not to be equally attentive. I therefore went to Baltimore in July, and found all the Chairs ready, but the sofas were unfinished." After efforts to speed Findlay, he has arranged for Rae "to come on immediately with his part of the furniture and to stop at Baltimore for Findlay's. I now expect Rae within a week," but he will not install any furniture "until just before your arrival, otherwise the crowd of visitor who will press to see them, will give great trouble & perhaps do injury."
In Philadelphia, he reports, there is a carpet "for which I gave directions in London...It would exactly suit in style & color the Curtains of your drawing room" and Mr. Rae will bring a sample when he comes. In a personal postscript he again voices his perturbation at rumors Mrs. Madison is unhappy with his work: "I cannot possibly suppose the information I have received to be correct"; although he admits "you have reason to be dissatisfied with your carriage," but "I am more than sufficiently punished already by my misfortune in employing a man of universally good character, but who deceived me; and I hope you have pardoned me in that error." His absence in Philadelphia, he contends, has had no effect on his work in the capital: "When you see the Marble colonnade of the Senate Chamber alone,--you will agree that in six weeks, I must have been very industrious to have design'd it, and got the whole of it into the hands of the Workmen." Also "I had to design, & lay out in the frame, the whole of the furniture of your drawing room, also a public concern" The "workmen require constant watching," he laments, and he should be entitled to a three-week absence once a year. It is untrue that he has been devoting much time to the design of "my splendid buildings" (fine private residences). "I leave my cause in your hands," he concludes, though "it is humiliating " to have to defend his conduct.
Only five years later, in August 1814, British troops set fire to the White House, and it is largely by the last-minute exertions of Dolley Madison that the Presidential silver, important documents, a Gilbert Stuart portrait of Washington and the mansion's famous red curtains (no doubt those mentioned by Latrobe) were rescued.