Benjamin H. Latrobe's Philadelphia waterworks of 1801: Instrument and expression of American equilibrium

Catherine Bonier, University of Pennsylvania


This study interprets Benjamin H. Latrobe's Philadelphia waterworks of 1801 as a uniquely American architecture based on a designed equilibrium between the infrastructural production of public health, the architectural construction of civic landscape, and the republican cultivation of democratic society. This research produces an interdisciplinary reconsideration of Latrobe's waterworks as a public health intervention which incorporated ancient ideas concerning environment, interwoven with contemporary theories of equilibrium in politics, technology, nature, and art. This study demonstrates that the waterworks was designed to restore balance to the city on three scales of registration: System – The steam engine and reservoir at the heart of the system were placed inside a perfect marble cylinder within the Centre Square, beyond the settled parts of the city. Latrobe’s plan responded more strongly to the urban grid than to hydrological conditions, topography, distribution of settlement, capacity of steam engines, or engineering precedent. Environment – Latrobe, an active member of early republican scientific and political circles, crafted the neoclassical engine house to calm the city’s inflamed climate, to combat recurring yellow fever epidemics. The marble rotunda was designed to supply adequate water so that, in Latrobe’s words, “the whole city may be alternately cleansed and cooled.” Image – Latrobe attempted to invent a beauty appropriate to American democracy and civic utility. He intended to integrate his industrial intrusion within a cultivated balance of architecture and landscape, so that it might be “an ornament to the city.” It was his belief that a balanced integration of art and nature could directly improve the character of the citizens of a democratic republic. Latrobe’s design froze in stone the most important elements of early republican thought. These theories of natural law, human sensation, and common equilibrium would so radically alter the nation that the design soon seemed unintelligible, or insensible. An analysis of the writings and drawings surrounding its design reveals that Benjamin Latrobe’s Philadelphia waterworks was an essential pivot in the history of American infrastructure, urbanism, and ideas. This unique steam-powered pavilion marks a transition from ancient theories of cultivation and environment to the modern technical management of the industrial city.

Subject Area

American studies|Environmental philosophy|Architecture

Recommended Citation

Bonier, Catherine, "Benjamin H. Latrobe's Philadelphia waterworks of 1801: Instrument and expression of American equilibrium" (2015). Dissertations available from ProQuest. AAI3722817.