No other city has a love-hate relationship with its engineers and architects quite like our District’s bond to Pierre Charles L’Enfant. We proclaim proudly to our tourists that the city was designed by a French officer, but curse his name when trying to break through traffic in Dupont Circle. He left us with vast avenues, panoramic views, a neoclassical vision of a Federal City, and an absolute nightmare of a town to drive through. However, it’s impossible to place all of the blame on L’Enfant; he was only one of a handful of planners who each contributed in their own way to the design and layout of the city.
D.C.’s very first sketch was drawn by Thomas Jefferson in 1791. The design is simple, functional, straightforward, and un-ornate. He favored leaving the main tributaries in tact, pushing the federal buildings farther inland from the water. Wider streets, he thought, would not only look nice, but also curb the spread of infectious disease. The sketch reflects Jefferson’s wish for an egalitarian future, with men living in respect of nature, and in respect of each other. (Except slaves and women, because they didn’t count.)
Obviously, L’Enfant’s plan came from a very different vision. Jefferson fancied himself a farmer, and L’Enfant came from the French aristocracy. His father was a painter, who worked through private commissions in the court of Louis XV. He afforded his son the opportunity to study at l’Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, only to watch him drop out at age 23 to join the rebelling American colonies. Pierre changed his name to Peter, and left for war.
He arrived in 1777, at the age of 23, and was sent almost immediately to work as an engineer on General George Washington’s staff at Valley Forge. L’Enfant brought some levity to the frozen front lines by drawing pencil portraits of Washington, the officers, and the camps. He also demonstrated his capabilities in engineering and mapmaking, which later got him sent to Savannah during the Georgia campaign. After being gravely wounded and escaping to safety, he was taken prisoner of war during the fall of Charleston.
In 1791, at the age of 36, he felt confident enough, and maybe a little entitled, to directly ask President Washington for the responsibility of building the future capital. Washington agreed, and appointed L’Enfant to plan the Federal City.
The plan submitted to Congress features a simple grid system, overlaid with diagonal avenues, segmented at their longest stretches by a series of squares, which were later converted into circles. The squares allow for angles to be introduced to the avenues, bending them around blocks, and keeping the at least the appearance of a perfectly straight boulevard.
The squares were expensive to build, though. So was the rest of his plan. L’Enfant burned through his budget quickly, using more resources than Congress originally approved, and making a few enemies in the process. He invoked eminent domain to demolish a mansion under construction, because it’s corner stuck out seven feet into the proposed New Jersey Avenue SE. He also neglected to get his plans engraved; By the time building was to begin, several plans of the city existed, with no one but L’Enfant to decipher them.
While L’Enfant drew the plans, secured the stone quarries, and negotiated land deals with local jurisdictions, it was the engineers like Benjamin Banneker and Andrew Ellicott who did the legwork. Ellicott conducted the first survey of the land, and designated the points of the boundary stones. Jefferson, who was already fed up with L’Enfant, quietly requested Ellicott to make a set of plans that could finally be engraved. L’Enfant was moved off the project by Washington himself.
The final result is a plan clearly drawn by an Army Corps of Engineers-trained surveyor, not a French art school dropout. Ellicott’s revised 1792 plan feature a number of changes to L’Enfant’s design, most notably the reorganization or outright removal of a few squares. This plan finally fit within the federal budget, and was allowed to move forward.
Square No. 15, placed at the intersection of 7th, R, and Rhode Island, was a casualty of Ellicott’s edits, and was wiped clear off the plans. As a snide reference to L’Enfant’s sacking, and Jefferson’s personal victory over the plans, the planners jokingly referred to the absent square as “Randolph Square,” naming it after Jefferson’s mother, Jane Randolph Jefferson. It is now the site of the Shaw/Howard Metro stop, and the Watha T. Daniel Shaw Neighborhood Library.
It is impossible to say how different the District would have looked had L’Enfant been allowed to continue. While some elements of Enlightenment-era thinking clash with modern needs (like cars, voting, gun control, etc.), L’Enfant’s idea of public space is strikingly similar to contemporary urban renewal movements the world over. There might be more room for designs like L’Enfant’s now than ever.