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)

Today's Washington, D.C. owes much of its unique design to Pierre Charles L'Enfant, who came to America from France to fight in the Revolutionary War and rose from obscurity to become a trusted city planner for George Washington. L'Enfant designed the city from scratch, envisioning a grand capital of wide avenues, public squares and inspiring buildings in what was then a district of hills, forests, marshes and plantations.

The centerpiece of L'Enfant's plan was a great "public walk." Today's National Mall is a wide, straight strip of grass and trees that stretches for two miles, from Capitol Hill to the Potomac River. Smithsonian museums flank both sides and war memorials are embedded among the famous monuments to Lincoln, Washington and Jefferson.

L'Enfant and the Capital
Washington D.C. was established in 1790 when an act of Congress authorized a federal district along the Potomac River, a location offering an easy route to the western frontier (via the Potomac and Ohio River valleys) and conveniently situated between the northern and southern states.

President Washington chose an area of land measuring 100 square miles where the Eastern Branch (today's Anacostia River) met the Potomac just north of Mount Vernon, his Virginia home. The site already contained the lively port towns of Alexandria and Georgetown, but the new nation needed a federal center with space dedicated to government buildings.

Washington asked L'Enfant, by then an established architect, to survey the area and recommend locations for buildings and streets. The Frenchman arrived in Georgetown on a rainy night in March 1791 and immediately got to work. "He had this rolling landscape at the confluence of two great rivers," said Judy Scott Feldman, chairwoman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. "He essentially had a clean slate on which to design the city." Inspired by the topography, L'Enfant went beyond a simple survey and envisioned a city where important buildings would occupy strategic places based on changes in elevation and the contours of waterways.

While Thomas Jefferson had already sketched out a small and simple federal town, L'Enfant reported back to the president with a much more ambitious plan. For many, the thought of a metropolis rising out of a rural area seemed impractical for a fledgling nation, but L'Enfant won over an important ally. "Everything he said, a lot of people would have found it crazy back then, but Washington didn't," says L'Enfant biographer Scott Berg.

His design was based on European models translated to American ideals. "The entire city was built around the idea that every citizen was equally important," Berg says. "The Mall was designed as open to all comers, which would have been unheard of in France. It's a very sort of egalitarian idea."

L'Enfant placed Congress on a high point with a commanding view of the Potomac, instead of reserving the grandest spot for the leader's palace as was customary in Europe. Capitol Hill became the center of the city from which diagonal avenues named after the states radiated, cutting across a grid street system. These wide boulevards allowed for easy transportation across town and offered views of important buildings and common squares from great distances. Public squares and parks were evenly dispersed at intersections.

Pennsylvania Avenue stretched a mile west from the Capitol to the White House, and its use by officials ensured rapid development for the points in between. For the rural area to become a real city, L'Enfant knew it was crucial to incorporate planning strategies encouraging construction. But his refusal to compromise led to frequent clashes that eventually cost him his position.

City commissioners who were concerned with funding the project and appeasing the District's wealthy landowners didn't share L'Enfant's vision. The planner irked the commissioners when he demolished a powerful resident's house to make way for an important avenue and when he delayed producing a map for the sale of city lots (fearing real estate speculators would buy up land and leave the city vacant).


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