Following my research on Richmond’s South Cathedral Place, I was assigned a topic that had led many previous researchers to dead end after dead end: a long-demolished Richmond structure attributed to our country’s first professionally trained architect and first Architect of the Capitol, B. Henry Latrobe. Latrobe could be considered an architectural historian’s “rock god” for his heavy influence on Thomas Jefferson’s designs (University of Virginia), and his own contribution to many of our nation’s landmarks (rebuilding of the U.S. Capitol, the White House) as well as numerous surviving and lost neoclassical structures, both public and private.
“Clifton” is a long gone neoclassical villa turned hotel, turned hospital. The design of Clifton (built in the early 1800s and demolished in 1903) has always been attributed to Latrobe due to it’s striking resemblance to one of his perspectives that show a villa nearly identically positioned on a Richmond site. However, the connection of the built structure to Latrobe has always been shrouded in mystery because there is no reference to the project or it’s first owner in any of Latrobe’s immaculate journals, let alone anything on public record. The question for me was: how did Latrobe’s design result in this built structure? No historian has been able to propose a strong scenario of events… until now.
This was by far the most exciting and rewarding research quest I have experienced. It took me from on-site walks with some of our locally recognized history knowledge banks to private research appointments at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. It took me from long periods thinking there was just nothing here to uncover, to pivoting to a floodgate of connecting the dots.
This research was conducted under the direction of nationally recognized historian and authority on the architecture of Thomas Jefferson and B. Henry Latrobe, Dr. Charles Brownell. The final paper was presented at VCU’s 18th Symposium on Architectural History and the Decorative Arts, held at the Virginia Historical Society in November 2010.
The Biography and Design of Latrobe’s “Clifton”, Richmond, Virginia