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"The Privilege of a Man of Genius"
By : John G. Sharp

 

Etching of White House from 1800
Etching of 1800

 

"The Privilege of a Man of Genius"
Benjamin H. Latrobe Letter to Benjamin King re Thomas Jefferson's Water Closet
Dated August 5, 1804

 

Benjamin Henry Latrobe
circa 1804

 

 

Benjamin King
circa 1806

Introduction

In 1801, President Thomas Jefferson (1743 -1826), in a move to make his new home more livable, gave orders for the demolition of the outdoor wooden privy at the White House. The privy served along with chamber pots as the sole means of waste disposal at the White House. In place of the wooden privy, the President asked his Architect, Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764 -1820),1 to have two water closets installed upstairs; one on each end of the house.

Thomas Jefferson (our third President) had a life long love of new ideas and inventions.2 In the White House, Jefferson also had a wine cellar built just west of the house and called it an "icehouse." Additionally, Jefferson had Latrobe make changes to many of the fireplaces; including equipping the kitchen with its first iron range fitted to the existing firebox, and adding hob-grates for coal to several others. A call bell system was installed for summoning servants, and artificial light came in part from "patent" oil lamps that featured innovative Argand burners. On the outside of the building, lead and wood gutters were replaced with iron ones.3 Latrobe had Washington Navy Yard (WNY) Master Black Smith and Head Plummer, Benjamin King (1779-1837),4 build and do the actual installation of the new water closets and iron gutters.

Latrobe early in his acquaintance with Benjamin King perceived him as "a mechanic of uncommon merit." As he became more familiar with Benjamin King, Latrobe noted that the Master Black Smith was "not unacquainted with Belles Letters but his oddity renders him a troublesome Man to manage." In August 1804, Latrobe received a letter from John Lenthall (1762-1808), his assistant and Clerk of the Works for the U S. Capitol, informing Latrobe that the installation of plumbing on the White House and other projects which Benjamin King was responsible for were falling behind schedule and that President Jefferson was displeased. In his reply, Latrobe wrote Lenthall with candor:

"King is as you say a bag of wind as to promises. I have reason to know it. I saw him here a fortnight ago. He gave me an order for round iron, and we went to considerable trouble to prepare to manufacture it. Since then we have not heard a word as to the quantity or the dimensions. He is one of those who are good when necessity forces them to work and good for nothing when necessity ceases. It will do him good to receive a lecture from me on the subject of his neglects. I will write to him stating the dissatisfaction of the President U.S."5

The letter Latrobe wrote to Benjamin King is transcribed below for the first time. Latrobe's letter was written that same day as his letter to John Lenthall and gives some indication of Latrobe and King's working relationship. In his letter we also see how Latrobe attempted to cajole King to complete the presidential water closet. Latrobe's letter also provides a rare glimpse of how workmen from the Washington Navy Yard were temporarily reassigned to work at the U.S. Capitol and the White House, a practice that severely tried the patience of WNY's first Commandant, Commodore Thomas Tingey.6

Years later, President Jefferson, remembered Benjamin King's work at the White House and at the Washington Navy Yard with no apparent ill will.
http://www.genealogytrails.com/washdc/presidential/jeffersonletterstoking.html

Beyond Latrobe's letter there are neither surviving records nor depictions of the 1804 White House water closet; however it appears to have been eventually completed to President Jefferson's satisfaction.7

Over time, King and Latrobe's day to day working relationship continued to deteriorate. By 1811, Benjamin King appeared before a congressional committee and accused Latrobe of wasting government funds with his new steam engine at the Navy Yard. Latrobe responded to Congressman John Randolph who headed the Naval Committee, that Benjamin King was "more a fool then a rogue yet he is a dangerous man" and Latrobe unsuccessfully urged King be court marshaled.8

Benjamin King continued to work at the Navy Yard for the next three decades. Many of his contemporaries admired his skill and abilities but he remained "a troublesome Man to manage." Kings last years were not happy ones. His difficulty of getting on with his superiors and his inability to complete his work assignments as promised, led to his reduction to a non-supervisory tradesman job. Benjamin Latrobe also had problems, as the federal government continually cut his budget, he became frustrated with his own superiors in the District, left Washington, D.C. and moved on to other important architectural assignments as the United States first professional architect. He died in New Orleans in 1820.

 

Transcription

This transcription was made from the Microfilm Edition of the Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe edited by Thomas E. Jeffrey, Clifton, N.J. Letter to Benjamin King dated 5 August 1804LB (34/C4). In transcribing this letter I have striven to adhere as closely as possible to the original in spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and in abbreviation, including the retention of dashes found in the original. Benjamin Latrobe was a fine writer but when agitated or writing in haste his hand writing can be difficult to decipher. This transcription was made from the Latrobe"s letter book copy.

John G. Sharp       26 June 2008

 

Latobe Letter Aug. 5th 1804

Benj  King  Was.
	
						Philadelphia Aug. 5th 1804  
Dear Sir, 


	What is become of our order for round iron? Having been absent 
from Philadelphia for the last fortnight, I have not heard anything of it. 

	Let me also propose another question to you.  How shall I get the president of the 
United States into good humor with you about his Water Closet, & his side roof
 which you were to make? He complains bitterly of you using the privilege of a Man of Genius 
against him, - that is of being a little forgetful. - I so well know the goodness of your 
disposition, that I am determined, if possible, to want his quarrelling with you at all 
events about so dirty a business as a Water Closet.

	I hope to see you at Washington in a week or two.  Please have the goodness 
in the mean time to attend to the little comfort of the President, & have me most sincerely 
    	Yours 
		     [Signed]	 	B Henry Latrobe 

Benj King Navy Yard Washington 

 

Endnotes

1For more on Benjamin Henry Latrobe Architect of the Capitol and Department of the Navy Engineer see
http://www.genealogytrails.com/washdc/biographies/bio3.html#Benjamin_Henry_Latrobe

2Thomas Jefferson had previously constructed two brick privies at his estate at Poplar Forrest. These two out buildings were dry privies where President Jefferson's servants or slaves periodically placed sand or dirt over the waste. The Colonial Williamsburg foundation web site is one of the very few places that provides information on early privies or "necessary" as they were then known. This Williamsburg site also has a photo of Thomas Jefferson's Poplar Forest brick privy
http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/Autumn02/necessary.cfm

3William Seale, The President's House 90-91, 92, 100, 103, 114, 117, 126 and William Seale, The White House : The History of an American Idea, 94.

14For more on WNY Master Black Smith, Benjamin King, including a portrait see
http://www.genealogytrails.com/washdc/biographies/bio3.html#Benjamin_King

5The Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe Volume 1, 1784 -1804 edited by John C. Van Horne and Lee W. Formwalt Yale University Press , New Haven 1984 p.529

6In addition to Benjamin King, three other WNY employees, Patrick Farell, Brick Layer, Shadrach Davis, Carpenter, and John Davis of Abel, Black Smith worked at the White House. See above page 286-287 n.2

7Benjamin Henry Latrobe letter to Thomas Jefferson dated 6 July 1806, notes "everything relating to the water closet to be in perfect order" See Library of Congress The Thomas Jefferson Papers 1606 -1827
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/collections/jefferson_papers/

8The Journals of Benjamin Henry Latrobe 1799-1820: From Philadelphia to New Orleans, Yale University Press New Haven Conn 1980 edited by Edward G. Carter II, John C. Van Horne and Charles E. Brownnell p. 69


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