Special Report

A Brief History of Pierre L’Enfant and Washington, D.C.

How one Frenchman’s vision became our capital city

View of the National Mall (Courtesy of the National Park Service)

(Continued from page 1)

Eventually, the city's surveyor, Andrew Ellicott, produced an engraved map that provided details for lot sales. It was very similar to L'Enfant's plan (with practical changes suggested by officials), but the Frenchman got no credit for it. L'Enfant, now furious, resigned at the urging of Thomas Jefferson. When L'Enfant died in 1825 he had never received payment for his work on the capital and the city was still a backwater (due partly to L'Enfant's rejected development and funding proposals).

Through the 1800s to the McMillan Commission
A century after L'Enfant conceived an elegant capital, Washington was still far from complete.

In the 1800s, cows grazed on the Mall, which was then an irregularly shaped, tree-covered park with winding paths. Trains passing through a railroad station on the Mall interrupted debate in Congress. Visitors ridiculed the city for its idealistic pretensions in a bumpkin setting and there was even talk after the Civil War of moving the capital to Philadelphia or the Midwest.

In 1901, the Senate formed the McMillan Commission, a team of architects and planners who updated the capital based largely on L'Enfant's original framework. They planned an extensive park system, and the Mall was cleared and straightened. Reclaimed land dredged from the river expanded the park to the west and south, making room for the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. The Commission's work finally created the famous green center and plentiful monuments of today's Washington.

L'Enfant and Washington Today
Some of L'Enfant's plans, including a huge waterfall cascading down Capitol Hill, were never realized. But the National Mall has been a great success, used for everything from picnics to protests. "The American people really took to the Mall in the 20th century and turned it into this great civic stage," Feldman says. "That was something that Pierre L'Enfant never envisioned ... a place for us to speak to our national leaders in the spotlight." It has become so popular that officials say it is "terribly overused," as evidenced by worn grass and bare patches of earth.

John Cogbill, chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission which oversees development in the city, says the Commission strives to fulfill L'Enfant's original vision while meeting the demands of a growing region. "We take [L'Enfant's plan] into account for virtually everything we do," he says. "I think he would be pleasantly surprised if he could see the city today. I don't think any city in the world can say that the plan has been followed so carefully as it has been in Washington."


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus