Benjamin H. Latrobe’s Pennsylvania-German Family Connections

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Baltimore, MD – On Nov. 4, 2006, a colorful ceremony was held to mark the restoration and reopening of the 200-year-old Baltimore Basilica-America’s first Roman Catholic Cathedral. [1] It was designed by the architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, the same man who designed the U.S. Capitol. There were speakers galore, music, an historical reenactment, and even a presentation by Fort McHenry’s “Regimental Guard,” accompanied by a sharply attired Fife and Drum Corps of the “U.S. Army Old Guard.” [2] The setting for the event was the intersection of Cathedral and Mulberry Streets, just in front of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, which faces the Basilica on Cathedral St. The site itself brings back memories for me, since my old high school, Calvert Hall, a Christian Brothers’ institution, was once located nearby.

Mark J. Potter acted as master of ceremony for the affair. He’s the executive director of the Basilica’s Historical Trust, and he’s done a terrific job in that capacity. Potter remarked to an overflowing audience: “Latrobe was born in England and emigrated to America in 1795.” He was right on both counts. However, I think he left out some very interesting and relevant information about the brilliant Latrobe, who was not only America’s first professional architect, but also a distinguished public works engineer. He omitted Latrobe’s important Pennsylvania-German family connections. [3]

Latrobe’s mother was an American! Her name was Anna Margaretta Antes. She originally hailed from Friederichstown, aka Frederick Township, PA, (now known as Upper Frederick), which is about 30 miles northwest of Philadelphia. As a young women, she moved to England to attend school. While she was there, she met Benjamin Latrobe, a Moravian missionary. They fell in love and were married in Herrnhut, Saxony, in 1756. Their second son, Benjamin Henry, the architect-to-be, was born in Fulneck, England, on May 1, 1764. [4]

Anna Margaretta Antes, Latrobe’s mother, was one of eleven children of Christina Elizabetha Dewees (1702-1782) and John Henry Antes (1701-1755). Her father, the family’s patriarch, was born in Freinsheim, Germany, in the Rhenish Palatinate. He emigrated to Pennsylvania, in 1720, and soon became a partner in business with William Dewees. Together, they established the “second paper mill in the nation.” [5] On Feb. 2, 1726, he married Dewees’ daughter, Christina Elizabetha, who was then living in Germantown, PA. The Dewees clan was well connected, with ties in other budding enterprises with another mover and shaker in colonial Pennsylvania, William Rittenhouse. Christina’s father, William Dewees, was also the Sheriff of Philadelphia County. [6] Another member of the clan, Col. William Dewees, Jr., [spelled sometimes as “DeWeese”], her brother, was the co-owner of Valley Forge at the time of the American Revolution. [7]

From where, you might ask, did Benjamin Henry Latrobe’s get his great talent for architecture? Let me suggest, it was from his maternal grandfather, the German-born, John Henry Antes. Besides being given the middle name, “Henry,” in honor of his grandfather, I think he also inherited a genius for building things from him, too–edifices that would last the test of time. It is no accident, that the ancestral home of Latrobe’s maternal grandparents was placed on the National Historic Register on April 27, 1992. That landmark residence was built by John Henry Antes in 1736. It’s on the national register, not only because of its age, and its style, but also because it was used as the first integrated school in America–and this happened in 1745, 30 years before the famous “shot heard round the world” was fired at Concord in 1775. Latrobe’s grandfather also played a significant role in the founding of Moravian settlements in the towns of Bethania and Bethabara, “near present day Winston-Salem, North Carolina.” [8]

On the authority of the Goschenhoppen Historians, Inc., John Henry Antes, Latrobe’s maternal grandfather, was considered among “the greatest master builders of the early colonial period and was responsible for the construction of many of the early Moravian buildings and mills in Bethlehem, PA.” He was also esteemed as “one of the most important religious/political leaders in the middle colonies in the 18th century.” The Goschenhoppen Historians spearheaded the restoration of the Antes Home and its use as “a living history museum.” Its work began in 1974 with the purchase of the house, “plus 1.2 acres of land” on which it is situated. [9]

According to the Pottsgrove, PA Historical Society, the Antes’ residence, at Upper Frederick, not far from Pottstown, was also utilized as the headquarters for General George Washington between the battles of Brandywine and Germantown, from September 22-25, 1777. [10] Three of John Henry Antes’ sons were patriots and fought in the Revolutionary War. One of his siblings, Colonel Frederick Antes, a member of the Pennsylvania County Associators, was living in the house at the time of that great conflict. Frederick was credited with “helping to cast” the first cannon, a “4-lb”, at Worwick Furnace, in 1776, which was used by the gallant Continental Army. He was so valued a patriot, that the British General, William Howe, put a bounty on his head of 200 pounds. [11] Another of Antes sons, John, a Moravian missionary, was a noted musical composer. His works include “more than twenty-five anthems and twelve sacred chorales.” [12]

Getting back to the Basilica ceremony. One of the speakers was Alan M. Hantman, FAIA. He now holds the office of “Architect of the U.S. Capitol.” Mr. Hantman said of Latrobe and of his stunning Basilica achievement: “This building ranks first among his works of ecclesiastical architecture. It’s grace, it’s beauty are all the more remarkable when you consider it was designed at the same time he was fully engaged with his work at the United States Capitol.” [13]

Sadly, Latrobe’s life, so filled with achievement, was cut relatively short, when he contracted yellow fever in New Orleans. He died there, at age 56, on Sept. 3, 1820. His maternal grandfather would have been very proud of all his grandson’s significant accomplishments and of his lasting service to our Republic. Together, as far as I know, they are the only grandfather/grandson, in the history of our country, to have buildings that they have designed registered as a National Historic Landmark.

Finally, Latrobe’s roots spring from a number of familial sources, including his father’s old French Huguenots’ ties to Ireland beginning at the end of the 17th century. [14] Nevertheless, Latrobe’s German Pennsylvania connections, via his mother, Anna Margaretta Antes, and his maternal grandfather, John Henry Antes, a talented builder in his own right, undoubtedly, played a critical part in sourcing his journey into the vanguard of one of America’s, and the world’s, premier architects. It is so appropriate, too, that Latrobe, whose name is mostly associated, in the public mind, with his inspiring work on the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., would also have three maternal uncles who were patriots that fought for America’s freedom in the Revolutionary War (1775-83).

Notes:

[1]. The Basilica is now officially known as the “Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.”

[2]. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j-uewuGXiWg

[3]. http://www.hammerwood.mistral.co.uk/latrobe.htm and “A Freed Family History” by Joyce Wilson Graff & June Freed Wilcox.

[4]. http://home.netcom.com/~latrobe/b158.htm#P159

[5]. “Freed” at p. 51. and, “The Moravian Children’s School in Friederichstown: An Experience in Living Heritage” prepared by the Antes House, Inc., a Booklet, August, 1974; and, “Newsletter, Goschenhoppen Historians, Inc.,” Undated.

[6]. “Freed” at pp. 80-82; and “Battle of Paoli” by Thomas J. McGuire, at p. 55.

[7]. Ibid.

[8]. “Freed” at pp. 52-53; and “Newsletter.”

[9]. “Moravian Children’s” Booklet.

[10]. Ibid. and “Freed” at p. 66 ; “Battle of Paoli,” at p. 166; and
http://home.netcom.com/~latrobe/b158.htm#P159
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=riij4YgYUTI&
feature=PlayList&p=558F0956DD780024&index=3 – My wife, Ann Hege Hughes, is also a direct descendant of John Henry Antes and Christina Elizabetha Dewees. She takes under their son, “John Henry,” who obtained the rank of Lt. Col. of the Second Battalion of Northlumberland Associators and later served as Commander of Antes Fort. See, “Freed” at p. 58.

[11]. “Freed” at p. 59.

[12]. Ibid., at pp. 68-69. and “Moravian Children’s” Booklet.

[13]. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S10NvxktR1c

[14]. http://home.netcom.com/~latrobe/b158.htm#P159

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