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As part of the Year in Art Effort, every week Washington Project for The Arts and BYT will come together to give you a tidbit of the (some may say surprisingly?) colorful DC Art History. Be ready to be a cocktail party conversation star:

Everyone knows that Pierre Charles L’Enfant designed Washington DC because we are normally cursing him on our daily commute between the traffic circles, odd, jutting roads and not enough parking. But, now you can’t just blame him.

Pierre L’Enfant came to the area in March 1791, and he was instructed to put a city together between the Potomac River and the Anacostia River. This French man went on to design The White House (executive mansion) and  The House of Congress (the Capital) and he considered the new country’s democracy and made legislative house and the president’s house line up exactly on the Washington meridian.

Even though this Frenchman was very excited about the US democracy, the design of the city is purely European, with it constantly circling the Capitol, the National Mall and The White House (executive mansion).

The majority of the roads are laid out in a grid format, diagonal roads would be named after states and then rectangular spaces would open up areas for memorial or just for open spaces. L’Enfant also imagined the White House to have public lawns, be five times as large as it is now and for huge sculptures to litter the lawn. The National Mall would be the president’s personal drive way to see Congress (which is now Pennsylvania Ave). But this idea of having buildings at book ends of long lavish lawns or paths is very European and the baroque architecture of these buildings hint back to their true origin.L'Enfant Plans

But little do most people know, L’Enfant was ousted from the city planning project before it was ever finished,  due to his outrageous continental temper and some good lobbying by Andrew Elliot, and George Washington’s annoyance with the French.

However, L’Enfant was never one to give up easily and he packed up and took the city plans with him back to France. Luckily Andrew Elliot and George Washington had a lucky bullet in their back pocket: Benjamin Banneker. He was the African American assistant commissioner to the city project, but he had memorized every part of the plan that L’Enfant took with him, making it possible for the plans to be completed. As the story is told, Banneker spent (just!) two days reconstructing the bulk of the city’s plan from his seemingly photographic memory. According to the story, the plans that Banneker purportedly drew from memory provided the basis for the final construction of the federal capital city, never confirming just how much they exactly matched up with L’enfant’s original plans.

Banneker also “made astronomical calculations and implementations” that established points of significance in the capital city, including those of the “16th Street Meridian”, White House, the Capitol and the Treasury Building, with Banneker touted as “The Man Who Saved Washington” and “An Early American Hero”

revised L'Enfant plans by Andrew Elliot

Do note this is a topic that is sometimes debated because Andrew Elliot had a brother named Benjamin who was rumored to have showed up around the same time to help with the plans, it is an interesting myth that no one has an answer to.

The irony of this story of a French man designing the Capital of the United States and then being taken over by Americans who needed support from a very intelligent behind-the-scenes African American is not lost on anyone. But it is an interesting anecdote of the design of the city we live in.

wpa 35thWashington Project for the Arts is celebrating it’s 35th Birthday this Year. Learn more here: http://www.wpadc.org/

Previously on Art History in DC:

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