Documentary History of American Water-works

Introduction Historical Background Chronology Geography Biography Technology Ownership and Financing General Bibliography

Biography Benjamin Latrobe

Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe

Benjamin Henry Boneval Latrobe was born in Leeds, England on May 1, 1764.

A classically-trained architect, Latrobe established a significant reputation on works such as the United States Capital.  In a letter dated December 29, 1798, Latrobe proposed to build two steam engines, one to pump water from the Schuylkill River into a basin under the second engine at Centre Square, which would pump it into an elevated reservoir containing about 17,094 ale gallons.  He stated that the works "must be in full operation before the end of July, 1799," and that the total cost of the initial project would be $75,000 for the engines and bringing water to center square, and an additional $52,000 for the initial distribution piping.  He dismissed proposals to bring water from a more distant point, as "to bring water in pipes of any description, a yard further than necessity requires, is very bad economy."  The works began operation on January 27, 1801, and by October of that year sixty-three houses, four breweries, and one sugar refinery were being supplied with water at a total cost that had reached $220,310, with large sums still necessary.

Latrobe's system proved to be too small, expensive to operate, and too unreliable, although the Centre Square pump house was considered by some to be an architectural masterpiece, while other criticized Latrobe's plan, including one who derided "the absurdity of supplying a future great city from a wash basin in the dome of a Grecian Temple."

On October 24, 1811, the councils directed the Watering Committee to find a better method of supplying the city.  By this point the city had spent $250,000 on the pumping plants and $260,000 on the distribution network.  Annual revenues from water rents covered less than half the cost of keeping the two engines running.

Latrobe died of yellow fever on September 3, 1820 while building the New Orleans water works.

Benjamin Latrobe's Water Works Experience
City State Years Projects
Philadelphia PA 1799-1801 Designed and built water works to proved of marginal utility, and were abandoned in 1815.
New Orleans LA 1811-1820 Designed and built water works, which were incomplete when he died.


1859 The Lives of Eminent Philadelphians, Now Deceased, by Henry Simpson
Pages 634-638: Benjamin Latrobe.

2006 The Domestic Architecture of Benjamin Henry Latrobe, by Michael W Fazio, and Patrick A. Snadon

2013 Engineering Philadelphia: the Sellers family and the industrial metropolis, by Domenic Vitiello. | also here (subscription required) |
Page 26:  He [Nathan Sellers] opposed the engineer Benjamin Latrobe’s plan for a new waterworks since it would block High Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, and, in Escol’s [George Escol Sellers] words, because of “the absurdity of supplying a future great city from a wash basin in the dome of a Grecian Temple.” Nathan also disputed the plan, since it would draw water from the Schuylkill River’s tidal basin where human and animal waste washed up daily. Instead, he advocated a tunnel through which cleaner water from upstream could supply the city, and called for the city to purchase the hills along the river for future reservoirs. Latrobe’s “temple” rose on High Street as planned, though two decades later an aged Nathan paid one of his last visits to Philadelphia to witness its demolition.

2015 "Benjamin H. Latrobe's Philadelphia waterworks of 1801: Instrument and expression of American equilibrium," by Catherine Bonier, Doctoral Dissertation in Architecture, University of Pennsylvania. (2015) | Abstract | This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 License.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe (Wikipedia)

© 2018 Morris A. Pierce