At the end of the Revolutionary War, congressional leaders couldn’t decide which city deserved to be the capital of the new nation; as such, in 1791, George Washington decided to create a brand new city from a ten-mile square largely made up of woods, farms, and marshes above the confluence of the Potomac and Eastern Branch Rivers. When French engineer Pierre L’Enfant heard about Washington’s decision, he wrote to the President and asked for the job of designing the capital. Washington already knew L’Enfant to be a gifted designer as well as a decorated war hero; he’d fought in the American revolution with the Marquis de Lafayette, with whom he shared an avid interest in the brand-new country.
In L’Enfant’s letter to Washington, he wrote, “No nation perhaps had ever before the opportunity offered them of deliberately deciding on the spot where their capital city should be fixed.” He told Washington that the “plan should be drawn to such a scale as to leave room for that aggrandizement and embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the nation will permit it to pursue at any period, however remote.” In other words, he wanted to make a plan that the country would never outgrow. As America’s fortunes improved, as he believed they surely would, the grand plan would be filled in with museums and monuments. Washington shared these visions of the future, and L’Enfant was hired for the job.
After studying the contours of the land, L’Enfant drew his magnificent plan. Even the map is beautiful to look at, its grid of streets overlaid by geometrically correct circles, squares, and grand avenues fanning out from the focus points. All these squares and circles were placeholders for the eventual monuments and tributes to future heroes that this new country would undoubtedly produce. The grandest avenue, which is now the National Mall, would be 400 feet wide and a mile long, lined with an allée of elms and “cultural buildings” running from the Capitol to the President’s house. When he finished the plan, he signed it with a flourish – and with the American version of his name, “Peter Charles L’Enfant.” Then, the transplanted Frenchman threw himself into the task of clearing land for the grand avenues of his monumental city.
Sad to say, L’Enfant’s work ended in failure and disgrace; at least, that’s what happened during his lifetime. Unfortunately, he was a man who did not work well with others. Imperious and quick-tempered, he ignored the three-person commission appointed by Washington to oversee his work. When an influential citizen built his mansion in the path of one of the plan’s key avenues, L’Enfant had his workmen tear the house down! So, less than a year after his appointment, Washington reluctantly fired him and the grand design was shelved.
For years after that, the avenues and squares stood empty and unadorned. When Charles Dickens visited the capital city of Washington, he called it the “City of Magnificent Intentions,” full of “spacious avenues that began in nothing and ended nowhere.” L’Enfant refused other jobs and spent his time haunting the halls of Congress, petitioning them for the payment which he thought he deserved: a staggering $95,500. Congress, on the other hand, offered him a mere $3,800. A prominent architect of the time, Benjamin Latrobe, said that, “Daily through the city stalks the picture of famine, L’Enfant and his dog…” L’Enfant might very well have starved had he not been taken in by his friends, the Digges family, who owned a large farm near Bladensburg, Maryland. It was there that he died in 1825, at the age of 70, penniless and quite forgotten.
Around 1900, Congress voted to finish L’Enfant’s plan. They dug it out of the archives, and set to building monuments to fill in the empty spaces. In 1909, the U.S. government decided to formally recognize the city’s original architect. L’Enfant’s remains were moved to Arlington cemetary, and the hillside in front of the Custis-Lee mansion. This was the same site that President John F. Kennedy later called the most beautiful vantage point in the city. Kennedy’s Eternal Flame is not far from L’Enfant’s tomb.
There lies the visionary, with the best view of a city that lived (for a while) only in his imagination. Out of the woods and wilderness, he created monumental spaces grand enough to symbolize the new country’s audacious dreams of freedom. As his plans prophesized, the nation’s capital is still growing into its design, propelled by the constant promise of an even better future just ahead.