In 1789, shortly after America became a nation, plans were underway to establish a capital city for the new republic. Charles L’Enfant, a well-known architect, engineer and urban designer wrote to George Washington requesting the commission. A pretty bold move which certainly paid off for L’Enfant as he was, after some delay, selected to design the capital city on a ten mile square grid along the Potomac River. His place in the history of the United States was secured.
L’Enfant, like most other newly minted Americans of the day, was not born on American soil but in France in 1754, he came to what would later become the United States to fight in the Revolutionary War, and eventually settled in New York City. His vision for the capital city was too grand for the tastes of some who had envisioned a small, simple federal town but was greeted with enthusiasm by President Washington and so became the design of our nation’s capital.
His design for the new capital was indeed an ambitious one based upon many of the great cites of Europe but incorporating new ideals that were uniquely American such as the equality of all men. One example of this is The National Mall, a central gathering place and building site of several monuments and museums which is open at the corners allowing people to come and go as they please as opposed to older closed square designs. A tip of the hat to the idea that all men are created equal and will be allowed to equally access the government.
Using the topography of the area as a part of the design important buildings were placed at differing elevations and along water ways. The House of Congress was placed on a high hill with view of the Potomac, this was contrary to traditional European design which reserved the grandest spot for the house of the leader. Capitol Hill, which was the site of the new capital building from which the government was to be run, was the center of the new city and diagonal avenues named after the states radiated out from it and cut across a grid street system. Wide boulevards allowed for easy transportation and good views of important buildings and squares. The design included intersections with public squares and parks to further the ideal of the public gathering together. Pennsylvania Avenue was designed to stretch from the Capitol to the White House in order to facilitate easy transport of officials and allow for further development as the nation grew. (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/a-brief-history-of-pierre-lenfant-and-washington-dc-39487784/?page=2)
L’Enfant understood that it was crucial to incorporate planning strategies encouraging construction if Washington D.C. was to grow and become the stately capital city he envisioned. He was so strong in this conviction and sure of his design that he often refused to compromise with city commissioners and wealthy residents, this led to frequent clashes and eventually cost him his position. He was dismissed in 1792 due his obstinacy. He later sent a bill for $95,500 for his design services to the government but was paid a sum of only $3,800 a fee that was seen as more than fair in those days. L’Enfant eventually died penniless and was buried at the estate of friends in Maryland. His body was however, later exhumed and buried at Arlington cemetery, a much more fitting final resting place for the designer of our capital city.
Some of L’Enfant’s more ambitious design elements were never enacted but overall his vision for the nation’s capital has been followed in the years since he created it.
L’Enfant and his grand vision no doubt are the reason we as Americans are able to take pride in the beautiful capital city that we enjoy today. And, there is much that we as planners can learn from him. He had vision that was far beyond those who were his contemporaries and was guided by passion to follow this vision. In the long run that is a very good thing as Washington, D.C. may have never evolved to make the unique statement it did regarding freedom and civil rights of the people had another been given the commission or had his plan been scraped following his dismissal.
However, his obstinacy and unyielding stubbornness cost him his job and his lively hood and he was never able to fully realize his vision. Each of these are a valuable take away for planners. We should always strive for as grand and long ranging plan as we possibly can when considering how our cities should be laid out. We cannot however, forget that there must be cooperation and it is important to listen to the voices of others when creating the cites of the future. L’ Enfant left this country a great legacy in the city of Washington, D.C. and left us as planners a great legacy in an example of vision and the importance of navigating the tricky waters of diplomacy when enacting your grand plans.