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Latrobe's: Virginia Penitentiary
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Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820). Elevations and Drawings for the Virginia "Penitentiary House." Ink and watercolor on paper, 1797. "Elevation of the South Front," etc., 19 7/8 x 14 3/4 inches; "View in Perspective of the Gate," 19 7/8 x 14 3/4 inches.

Benjamin Henry Latrobe was one of America's first and most significant architects and engineers. The Bank of Pennsylvania, the Philadelphia Waterworks, the United States Capitol, and the Roman Catholic Cathedral of Baltimore stand as the most prominent examples of his genius. Latrobe arrived in the United States from Europe early in 1796 and spent several years in Virginia.

The Virginia State Penitentiary, since demolished, was Latrobe's first major public commission in America and a monument to the era's penal reform movement. Latrobe's elevations of the south front of the proposed prison building show an entryway and a "keeper's house" at the center of the ranges of cells. The plan reflects the Enlightenment's reliance on solitary confinement and surveillance as a means to reform prisoners. Throughout most of the eighteenth century, the reform of criminals was thought impossible, and thus public ostracism and severe punishments were routine. The reformers hoped that criminals could redeem themselves through penitence and solitary reflection. Latrobe's plan also called for the separation of male and female prisoners, a practice seldom followed in earlier jails. In completing his View in Perspective of the prison's solemn and imposing main entrance, Latrobe adapted elements from English architect George Dance's design for Newgate Prison, especially the stark festoons of chains bracketing the inscription over the passageway. The design detail was, however, not included in the construction of the building, completed by Major John Clarke after Latrobe left Virginia in 1798. Only seven sheets of Latrobe's design for the Virginia prison survive.

Location: Department of Corrections Collection, Record Group 42