Thomas Jefferson Papers

Benjamin Henry Latrobe to Thomas Jefferson, 5 November 1816

From Benjamin Henry Latrobe

Washington Novr 5t 1816

Dear Sir

When your letter of the 27t of Augt arrived, I was confined to my bed by a bilious fever. After my recovery two long absences from the city, and as much occupation as filled all my time, prevented my acknowledging the favor you have done me in communicating to me the very simple, & valuable invention it discribes. But what renders your letter more valuable, is the assurance it gives me of your continued kindness towards me.—

In respect to your Dial,—I can only say that its principles are so plain, & its construction so easy, that dials on Your construction might be brought into very general use, if once known & introduced. They could be made so cheap, that they might be1 sold at every turner’s, with a hole to be bored in the Nadir of the Latitude of the place at which they are wanted at the time of purchasing them. The only difficulty which an unskilful person would find would be to place them in the true Meridians. But a little instruction, which might be given by a bill delivered with the Dial, would enable any farmer to accomplish that object. Every common Almanack would enable him to convert Solar into common time.—

You have done my Capital much honor in making it the support of your Dial. The Columns & Capitals as executed, and standing in the Vestibule of the North wing of the Capitol on the Ground floor, were not much injured by the British, so little indeed that,—as I wish some part of the building to remain as they left it,—I do not propose to repair them, unless the president shall order it to be done. By the suggestion of the Senate, I devised a very material alteration of their accomodations; especially a great enlargement of the Chamber itself. The great Staircase must give way to this improvement. You probably recollect that, as a curious & difficult combination of admirably executed Stonework, it was one of the most remarkable parts of the Capitol. But it was much injured by the Lanthorn which being of wood, fell burning thro’ the opening of the Dome, & resting on the Stairs burst many of the principal Stones.—The Staircase has now another situation. It will be less curious, but have, I think, more beauty. The Area of the Stairs will be occupied by a Vestibule, in the Center of which a circular Colonnade will support a dome for the purpose of admitting light.—The Columns of this Rotunda, 16 in number, must be more slender than the Ionic order will admit, & ought not to be of the Corinthian, because the Chamber itself is only of the Ionic order. I have therefore composed a Capital of the Leaves & Flowers of the Tobacco plant, which has an intermediate effect approaching the character of the Corinthian order, & retaining the simplicity of the Attic Column of the Clepsydra, or Temple of the Winds. Below is a very hasty & imperfect Sketch of this Capital.

Iardella a Sculptor lately arrived, has made an admirable Model for execution, in which he has well preserved the botanical Character of the plant, altho’ it has been necessary to enlarge the proportion of the flowers to the Leaves, & to arrange them in clusters of three.

When we have done with the model, I will take the Liberty to forward it to You.—

I have neglected so long to answer your very kind letter, that I must entreat you to attribute my silence to any thing but the diminution of my respect & attachment. Believe me that it never can cease.

Yrs very respectfully

B Henry Latrobe

RC (DLC); edge trimmed, affecting one drawing; addressed: “Thomas Jefferson Esqr Monticello”; stamped; postmarked Washington, 7 Nov.; endorsed by TJ as received 21 Nov. 1816 and so recorded in SJL.

The temple of the winds in ancient Athens was a marble, octagonal tower that received its name from the sculpted images of the various winds that adorned it. It had sundials on its outer walls, a clepsydra inside, and a weather vane on top (W. H. Davenport Adams, Temples, Tombs, and Monuments of Ancient Greece and Rome [1871], 62–5). Francisco iardella was a native of Carrara, Italy, which was famed for its marble (Groce and Wallace, Dictionary of Artists description begins George C. Groce and David H. Wallace, The New-York Historical Society’s Dictionary of Artists in America 1564–1860, 1957 description ends , 338).

1Latrobe here canceled “made.”

Index Entries

  • Capitol, U.S.; and War of1812 search
  • Capitol, U.S.; B. H. Latrobe works on search
  • Capitol, U.S.; construction and repair of search
  • Capitol, U.S.; dome of search
  • Capitol, U.S.; sculptors at search
  • Capitol, U.S.; tobacco-leaf capitals for search
  • corn; cob capitals search
  • fevers; bilious search
  • Greece, ancient; Temple of the Winds search
  • health; fever search
  • Iardella, Francisco; as sculptor search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; and capitals (architectural) search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; and TJ’s sundial search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; health of search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; letters from search
  • Latrobe, Benjamin Henry; works on U.S. Capitol search
  • Monticello (TJ’s estate); sundial at search
  • Senate, U.S.; chamber of search
  • sundials; and corncob capital base search
  • sundials; at Monticello search
  • tobacco; leaf capitals search
  • War of1812; British destruction in Washington search
  • Washington, D.C.; British destruction in search