European Affairs

Washington: City and Symbol – or Neither?     Print

Reviewed by Kenneth Ringle

Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C.
by Scott W. Berg (NY, Pantheon, 336 pages, and in paperback from Vintage)

All it takes is being stuck in one really good Washington traffic jam to find oneself cursing the name of Pierre L’Enfant, the French-born architect who drew up the street plan for the place that would become the U.S. capital. His concept – diagonal avenues superimposed over a grid system – ensured that Washington would look, as intended, totally different than the old capitals of Europe.

 

If Washington seems disappointing as a modern urban center (and perhaps to some European visitors as a national capital), it is not all L’Enfant’s fault. In his fascinatingly vivid account of the city’s first planner and his modern legacy, Scott Berg, a Pulitzer prize-winning biographer and historian of the American heritage, shows that L’Enfant designed a substantially more livable national capital than the one the nation has ended up with. Whether it would have survived the automobile may be debatable, but the genius of his vision is certainly not. As Berg repeatedly makes clear, the struggle over that vision, indeed the clashes between the talented, temperamental Frenchman and his sponsors in the newly-born United States, amounted to a microcosm of the enduring cultural collision between the Franco-European view of urban gloire and the eminently American hustle for the quick buck. Developers, it seems, we have always had with us.

 

Actually, we’re fortunate to have as much of L’Enfant’s plan as we do, for the doughty little Frenchman somehow managed to talk himself into the job of designing “the federal city” despite a tendency to artistic tantrums and a lifelong failure to truly master the English language. His talent for urban design was all the more remarkable because the Paris of his birth was perilously far from the City of Light it would one day become. The broad boulevards and mansard roofs of Baron Haussmann were a half-century in the future. The 18th-century Paris of L’Enfant’s youth was largely an open cesspool of reeking alleyways and sagging slums.

L’Enfant’s father, a tapestry designer who specialized in battle scenes, got his son a place at France’s Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris: founded by the great centralizer Colbert, it taught urban design and military engineering. He frequently accompanied his father to the palace at Versailles, where young L’Enfant absorbed the concept of ordering both unruly nature and the activities of unruly man via elaborate geometric design. In Paris itself he watched the construction of the future Place de la Concorde and wondered at the elegant swath of the Champs-Elysées punching westward over the horizon – a noble avenue whose 160-foot width L’Enfant would later mimic to the foot in his design for the grandest avenue of the future American capital.

When he finished his studies, his father gave him a career start through his connection with Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the celebrated author of the comedy The Barber of Seville. Beaumarchais had cast his wealth and position behind the cause of the young American republic, including some help as an arms dealer. L’Enfant was soon seaborne across the Atlantic as a lieutenant of engineers. L’Enfant’s military skills were meager compared to those of the Marquis de la Fayette, another Frenchman who came to fight for the American cause. But L’Enfant was part of the historic band who survived the rebels’ low point in their encampment during the terrible winter at Valley Forge: he emerged as a friend of George Washington as the Continental Army went on to win independence. In the postwar era, he thrived on Washington’s patronage and became what today would be called an “event planner”. The first was an international fête in 1782, a year after American independence, to celebrate the war-winning French-American alliance. Staged in Philadelphia, then the leading city in the new American country, it was an affair of lamp-lit arbors, classic colonnades and elaborate tableaux, much lauded for its extravagant beauty by the dazzled local press. The second event was his impressive six-month transformation of New York’s city hall in 1789 to house both the new Congress of the United States and George Washington’s inauguration as the nation’s first president. L’Enfant’s work was the talk of the town. He overshot his budget by 40 percent, but so gorgeous was the result that it was paid off without question by wealthy backers, including Alexander Hamilton, another Valley Forge veteran, who was to become the first secretary of the treasury.

When Congress a year later finally authorized the establishment of “a federal city” as the nation’s capital, it was inevitable that L’Enfant should petition President Washington for a chance to design it. Whether the country could afford immediately to build the entire city or not, he wrote, “the plan should be drawn on 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.”

Washington and Congress agreed with him, at least in theory, and after much regional politicking the District of Columbia was situated on Washington’s beloved Potomac River. The “district of Columbia” (named for Christopher Columbus) was delineated to be 10 miles by 10 miles, and it included the city-to-be “Washington” along with two existing towns: Georgetown and Alexandria which was located across the river in a part of the District that was later ceded back to Virginia. But there the agreement ended, or rather the disagreement began.

Hamilton and his fellow Northern Federalists saw the new nation’s capital as both the seat and symbol of a strong national government. L’Enfant, born and schooled in a royalist tradition, had a similarly grand vision born of his boyhood visits to Versailles. But Washington’s secretary of state, Thomas Jefferson, and most of his fellow Southern Republicans, distrusted centralized power. They had agreed to a federal capital and were happy to have it in the South. But they were in no mood to promote and finance its development beyond the modest urban designs they knew.

When L’Enfant arrived in Georgetown on the cold, rainy night of March 9, 1791, all he had in the way of credentials was a letter from Jefferson. It said nothing about designing a city. It merely instructed him to survey the designated area along the Potomac so that some section of it could be transformed into a permanent seat of government.

The actual outlines of the diamond-shaped District of Columbia were already being surveyed, partly through the efforts of 60-year-old Benjamin Banneker, a remarkably self-educated free black astronomer, who spent most nights with a telescope taking meridian measurements by the stars. But L’Enfant’s task was different: Jefferson’s letter ordered him to provide “drawings of the particular grounds most likely to be approved for the site of the federal town and buildings,” and the Frenchman set out through the continuing rain the morning after his arrival to get an early start on the job. The lowlands through which he rode varied from tidal marsh to tobacco and corn fields to small forests.

“But nothing would turn out… more important to L’Enfant’s thinking and the city’s future,” Berg writes, “than the spot one and a half miles east of the Potomac where [a local creek] narrowed to become a series of springs falling from a wide, prominent rise in the land.” This rise was to become Capitol Hill. L’Enfant considered it “a pedestal waiting for a superstructure,” a central focal point from which wide avenues could radiate to all points of the city. He wanted to avoid creating a city like Philadelphia or New York of indistinguishable street corners, Berg writes: “The former Parisian had seen his native city opening new and dramatic corridors during his childhood, and knew firsthand the value of monumental views in juxtaposition with intimate spaces… of experiencing both awe and small delights in the same casual walk across town.” He envisaged a grand design that married topography to utility and broad boulevards with monumental vistas.

Everything depended on conveying his vision to his most prominent patron, so what he laid before Washington three weeks later was not a detailed plan but basically a concept-a sketch fleshed out with a memo. This contrasted with Jefferson’s order for a minimalist federal village and also with the views of three commissioners named by Congress to govern the federal city: they were concerned with maximizing their profits from land sales. L’Enfant asked Washington, in effect, to look to the future and authorize a city worthy of the country’s ringing humanistic ideals: a single inspirational plan that would not only meet the needs of its residents and the nation, but embody their hopes and ideals as well. Washington bought the general idea, and authorized L’Enfant to lay out the 5,000 acres. Only one-tenth the size of today’s District of Columbia, the 5,000 acres was a vast area for the time –larger than New York, Boston and Philadelphia combined. To bring along local landowners, he offered an ingenious deal: they would cede the entire acreage to the public on the condition that, after L’Enfant had laid out the city, the landowners would retain every other lot and be free to profit from their increased value as the city grew around them.

It took L’Enfant less than two months to provide a detailed plan. It had the Capitol building on the highest point of land and the “President’s House” (later named the White House) on the next highest. Between them and beyond them lay a grid work of broad streets radiating from a great number of squares, each visible from the next at a half-mile distance. These squares were the heart of the plan. For while the commissioners and landowners expected the auction block to dictate settlement patterns in the new city, L’Enfant had a bolder and more ingenious idea. Each of these squares, he told Washington, was to be, in effect, the center of a little village. All these villages should be settled simultaneously to encourage the city to fill in between them. And one such “village” should be allotted to each state to help attract investors from those states. That way each state would have a presence, symbolic as well as financial, in the new federal city, and engage in prideful competition to settle and expand its stake.

Such a visionary idea might have gone a long way toward selling the notion of federalism to those still wary of an imposing national capital. But that aspect of the plan was apparently never seriously considered. (Instead, this strip became Pennsylvania Avenue, a power lane rather than an artery of urban life.) The commissioners and the landowners wanted to start auctioning lots almost immediately, and they wanted lots designed, as Jefferson wrote L’Enfant, “to make them more convenient to the purchasers and more profitable to the sellers.” This pay-as-you-go concept did not sit well with L’Enfant. He urged Washington to borrow enough money to jump-start his master plan at once rather than throwing its fate piecemeal to the marketplace.

In the end, stung by interference from the dollar-hungry commissioners and landowners, L’Enfant walked away from the building of Washington. He felt particularly betrayed when, after numerous delays in providing a version of his plan suitable for engraving, the authorities went forward with land sales on the basis of a bastardized version of his plan engraved with another surveyor’s name. He ended his days a sad, hermitlike guest of indulgent Virginia estate-owners, forever petitioning Congress for compensation.

Washington, D.C. would stumble along as a glorified sheep-walk augmented by a few grand federal buildings until the Civil War, when the city experienced an explosion of population largely related to a 19th-century military-industrial complex centered on the nation’s capital. The city’s sewers were piped, its streets paved in the 1870s. But it was not until 1900 when L’Enfant’s name and vision were resurrected by architect Frederick Law Olmstead, the leading landscape architect of the post-Civil War period. He revived the idea of making Washington a place of beauty. His attention gave impetus to L’Enfant’s notion of a national Mall – the great central place in Washington that remains today the world’s largest planned urban open space, symbolizing the American psyche and destiny of perpetual becoming. This concept, contrasting with the European tradition of monuments celebrating past triumphs, has become increasingly blurred in recent decades as this tabula rasa has been encroached on with modern “memorials” of questionable aesthetic merit. (Even the acclaimed Vietnam Memorial, a starkly harrowing trench, had to be dumbed down with literalistic figures representing the four armed services.)

What Washington has yet to become is what lay at the heart of L’Enfant’s vision: a great city whose majesty, like that of Paris, London or Rome, lies not just in the governmental apparatus it houses but in the beauty and delight of its architecture, the magnetism of its living spaces and the humanity of its scale. Will there ever be a constituency to re-imagine the entire District of Columbia as L’Enfant did, as a living emblem of America’s pride?

Ken Ringle is a correspondent of The Washington Post who has a long-standing interest in the place.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 9, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2008.