Like us on Facebook
Follow us on Instagram
 

The Peculiar Frenchman who Designed Washington D.C.

Samantha Flaum

The Statue of Liberty, believe it or not, is not the biggest nor the most impressive architectural contribution France has made to America. For much of Washington DC was in fact designed by a Frenchman.

Born in France in 1754, Pierre Charles L’Enfant grew up following in the footsteps of his famed painter father who was in the service of King Louis XV.

L’Enfant left his studies at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris, however, to go to America and fight on the rebellious colonials’ side in the Revolutionary War.

Pierre Charles L’Enfant

Pierre Charles L’Enfant

In 1777 he enlisted in the Continental Army under General Lafayette as a military engineer. He went on to serve under General Washington himself, forming a close relationship aided by his production of several portraits of the future first president.

After the war, L’Enfant set up a civil engineering firm in New York. He redesigned City Hall for the First Congress of the United States, providing the first example of the renowned Federal Style architecture for the country.

Certificate of Membership in the Society of Cincinnati

Certificate of Membership in the Society of Cincinnati

Introduced in 1789, the Constitution of the United States provided for the development of a new city that would act as the federal district of the nation. Later named after the first president himself, Washington D.C. was allotted up to 10 square miles. L’Enfant nominated himself to plan the city and George Washington accepted, officially appointing him to the task in 1791.

L’Enfant had grandiose ideas, taking inspiration from the architecture of his native France, wanting to reflect such palaces as the one at Versailles. In between the Potomac River and its Eastern Branch (today the Anacostia River), he developed a plan for the city that would compliment the contours of the land. L’Enfant’s biographer, Scott Berg, claims that, “The entire city was built around the idea that every citizen was equally important,” explaining why Congress was placed on the highest point overlooking the Potomac, traditionally an ideal location for the executive palace. In his Plan of the City […] L’Enfant described this location as “a pedestal awaiting a monument.”

L’Enfant’s Plan of Washington Superimposed on the Rectangular System from which he worked

L’Enfant’s Plan of Washington Superimposed on the Rectangular System from which he worked

The President’s House, or Executive Palace (today the White House), was meant to be five times its actual size. Many of L’Enfant’s plans didn’t come to fruition at the time, however, including his development of the federal city. Urged by Thomas Jefferson, L’Enfant ended up resigning his post.

Plan of the City of Washington, March 1792. Engraving on paper, Library of Congress record

Plan of the City of Washington, March 1792. Engraving on paper, Library of Congress record

Throughout the project, the temperamental French architect clashed regularly with city commissioners worried about the budget, local wealthy landowners whose residencies were demolished for the development of the city, and real estate firms looking to buy land which would impede L’Enfant’s vision.

The Frenchman gained a reputation for an inability to work well with others. He also left the project to develop Paterson, New Jersey as well as the construction of Fort Washington, being replaced by less stubborn visionaries. This pattern would continue throughout the rest of his life.

The White House ruins after the conflagration of August 24, 1814. Watercolor by George Munger, displayed at the White House

The White House ruins after the conflagration of August 24, 1814. Watercolor by George Munger, displayed at the White House

Washington D.C. remained incomplete 110 years after L’Enfant’s resignation. In 1901 the McMillan Commission was formed by the Senate to complete the city, whose development continued based on the original and disputed plans of L’Enfant.

The Commission saw to the completion of L’Enfants dream of the National Mall: an open-air space designed to be accessible, emphasizing the country’s democratic and egalitarian values. They were unable to, however, realize his plan for a waterfall on Capitol Hill.

Tomb of L’Enfant at Arlington National Cemetery. Photo by Tim Evanson CC BY-SA 2.0

Tomb of L’Enfant at Arlington National Cemetery. Photo by Tim Evanson CC BY-SA 2.0

Peter L’Enfant, having anglicized his name in honor of his adoptive country, died in poverty in 1825. Originally buried at Green Hill Farm in Maryland, his remains were exhumed in 1909 and relocated to the Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia. His final resting place overlooks the Potomac River and the United States capital that he designed.

Read another story from us: War of 1812: The Burning of Washington and how a Freak Storm Saved the Day

Today, the chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC), John Cogbill, asserts that the NCPC accommodates L’Enfants original plan into all their work in Washington D.C. These plans are today guarded by the United States Library of Congress.

We hope you are enjoying The Vintage News. Please consider helping us with our journey to bring popular historical content to everyone by becoming a supporter today. Thanks.

Become a Supporter