16. L’Enfant’s Vision of a Distinctive Capitol City

Cover of "Grand Avenues" by Scott Berg.

French born American Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant served his adopted country as an Army engineer skilled in building fortifications.  Wounded in action during the Revolutionary War, he later designed the notable Federal Hall in New York City, where George Washington and John Adams took their oaths of office.  He found his life’s purpose, however in President Washington’s later commission to survey and then design the capital city.

L’Enfant’s creative mind made him a fortuitous choice for this major planning task, never before attempted in any country.  His grand avenues made a clean break with both the chaotic street patterns of European cities and the uninterrupted grids of William Penn’s Philadelphia, America’s first capital.  The seat of a great new empire,  L’Enfant determined, had to be distinctive, and grander, than any place that came before.

But he was also intellectually arrogant with a capacity to offend major landowners and public officials alike.  L’Enfant confined his loyalty, beyond his life’s task and his personal ambition, to President Washington alone.  He ended his life financially dependent, his achievements ignored, a tragic figure living just outside the city that he shaped.

Scott W. berg traces the rise and fall of this remarkable if flawed man in Grand Avenues: The Story of Pierre L’Enfant, the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, DC (Pantheon, 2007), offering fascinating details of the major’s early work and professional battles.  He rounds out the tale long after L’Enfant’s death with the efforts of the congressional commission appointed to bring to the capitol city into the 20th century by applying the new concepts of the City Beautiful Movement.  The McMillan Commission, led by Daniel Burnham and Fredrick Law Olmstead, rediscovered L’Enfant’s long-ignored and abused plan and embellished it to form the central Washington we enjoy today.

Berg is strong on the details.  He describes how L’Enfant immediately saw the planning opportunities of the selected site and sketching his city plan in the rain in his first day on the job.  Jenkins Hill was a “pedestal” on which to place the Congress House; a river view site was where the President’s house could be pleasantly located; avenues wider than any before would link these and other key locations; a series of plazas would be created, one for each state.  These last were casualties of L’Enfant’s lost control of the plan and the emerging power of the wealthy land speculators angling to make their fortunes here.

Other setbacks include the long delay by the printer commissioned to publish the plan, the omission of L’Enfant’s name as the designer, and the publication of a similar plan by rival Andrew Ellicott.  For a century, the capital vision was widely believed to have been his.

Communication between the planner and his client was slow and President Washington increasingly passed along L’Enfant’s letters to his Secretary of State for decisions.  Thomas Jefferson was in no hurry to respond and probably lacked the enthusiasm for L’Enfant’s ambitious plans.    Indeed, Jefferson had sketched his own vision of the new city, tiny by comparison with L’Enfant’s and dominated by grids, not grand avenues.

Berg’s account is a history-based page turner with rich details about the country’s first city planner, his work, and his relationships with the major figures of his time.  An honorary AICP would not be out of order for Pierre L’Enfant.

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