Pierre Charles L'Enfant
Major, United States Army
Designer Of Washington, D.C.
Of A Capital Idea
Friday July 21, 2006
Twenty-two-year-old Pierre Charles L'Enfant was stirred. He'd watched American colonists declare their independence from England and fight for freedom. Now, he decided, it was time for him to act. Led by the same democratic spirit that inspired the colonists, L'Enfant became one of the first French volunteers to enlist in the Continental Army in 1776.
Then a student at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris, L'Enfant (1752-1825) possessed an artistic sensibility, plus the passion, boldness and vision that would leave an indelible mark on the U.S. -- a mark that's grown more vivid with time.
L'Enfant's 1791 design for the new capital city -- to be located where only forests and plantations stood -- embodied the democratic ideals and the great aspirations of the new nation. The design also represented power radiating from several central sources. Yet the nation would only come to appreciate his genius more than a century later.
"Certainly in its magnitude, its clever fitting of a generally symmetrical design to irregular topography and its generous provision for a variety of open spaces, the plan for Washington must stand as one of the great city planning efforts of all time," said John Reps in "The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States."
Building a new capital was an undertaking of unprecedented scope, and fraught with political risk, wrote Reps. Some wanted the capital in Philadelphia. Others doubted a suitable city could be created.
President George Washington decided to entrust the monumental task of creating a plan for this new city to L'Enfant, who he said was "better qualified than anyone who had come within my knowledge in this country or indeed in any other."
L'Enfant earned this high praise through his dedication to the American cause and by setting the highest standards in his design and architecture work after the war.
L'Enfant served under Washington at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, during the winter of 1777-78 and became known for his pencil portraits of officers, including Washington.
L'Enfant actively seized opportunity and, if necessary, was willing to sing his own praises.
In a 1782 letter to Washington seeking military promotion, L'Enfant wrote, "I have sought every opportunity and neglected none that offered to distinguish myself by love for the service." L'Enfant explained that when military action ceased in the north, he joined the Army in the south. He later was wounded in Savannah, Ga., in one of the bloodiest battles of the war, and taken prisoner in Charleston, South Carolinia.
Washington replied: "Your zeal and active services are such as reflect the highest honor on yourself. I have no doubt they will have their due weight with Congress in any future promotion in your corps."
The Frenchman was awarded the rank of major in the Corps of Engineers in 1783.
Master Of Detail
L'Enfant paid the closest attention to detail in his work.
The new Society of the Cincinnati, founded to advance the principles of the Revolutionary War, turned to L'Enfant to develop its insignia. After developing two possible designs, he reported back:
"A medal is a monument to be transmitted to posterity, and consequently it is necessary that it be executed to the highest degree of perfection possible. As there is not here either a press proper for this work, nor people who can make a good die, I would willingly undertake to recommend the execution ... to such persons in Paris as are capable of executing it to perfection."
After establishing himself as an architect in New York City, L'Enfant enhanced his reputation for creativity and excellence in renovating the city hall as the new Federal Hall where Congress would meet.
When L'Enfant wanted something, he went after it. A year before Washington awarded L'Enfant with the job of planning the new capital, the Frenchman wrote to the general "to solicit the favor of being employed in this business. No nation perhaps had ever before the opportunity offered them of deliberately deciding on the spot where their capital city should be fixed."
He preferred to take the long view, and said so. In the same letter, he advised that 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."
It's dificult to imagine the District of Columbia without the vast Mall. But Thomas Jefferson did. Jefferson's plan for the new capital "shows a modest town" with "public walks" connecting the presidential house and the Capitol, wrote Richard Stephenson in "A Plan Wholly New: Pierre Charles L'Enfant's Plan of the City of Washington."
L'Enfant's vision was "on a much grander scale and with the nation's two principal government buildings joined by a 'well improved field' (i.e., Mall) and a 'Grand Avenue 400 feet in breadth,'" Stephenson wrote.
Jefferson preferred the traditional gridiron city plan, but L'Enfant said "such a plan could only do on a level plain and, where no surrounding object being interesting, it becomes indifferent which way the opening of the streets may be directed."
He focused on the most critical elements first before turning his attention to smaller details.
L'Enfant began his plan for Washington, D.C., by placing the key buildings, connecting them with diagonal avenues and then laying a gridiron plan over his unique design for the nation's capital.
Stuck To His Plan
L'Enfant was passionate about his work -- some would say too passionate. He often disregarded instructions of the city commissioners who had authority to oversee his work. And when one citizen built out his property where a key avenue was supposed to run, L'Enfant had it torn down, setting off a controversy.
"Having the beauty and harmony of your plan only in view, you pursue it as if every person and thing was obliged to yield to it," Washington wrote to him.
With L'Enfant vowing never to submit to the authority of the commissioners, Washington had no choice but to dismiss him.
To the end of his life, L'Enfant never stopped insisting that his plan was correct. His death was barely noted, and his design for D.C. wouldn't be fully realized for more than a century. When Charles Dickens visited in the 1840s, he called it the City of Magnificent Intentions, with "spacious avenues, that begin in nothing, and lead nowhere."
L'Enfant's vision was disregarded, and a railroad station marred what is now the National Mall. But his plan was dusted off at the end of the 19th century when Congress prepared for the city's centennial as the federal government's seat.
A report from the Senate Park Commission responsible for beautifying the city explains how D.C. came to appreciate L'Enfant's plan: "The more the commission studied the first plans of the Federal City, the more they became convinced that the greatest service they could perform would be done by carrying to a legitimate conclusion the comprehensive, intelligent and yet simple and straightforward scheme."
L'Enfant was honored with a ceremony at the
Capitol in 1909, and his grave was relocated to Arlington National Cemetery.
In 1908 the Board of Commissioners of the City of Washington requested the secretary of War to make available a suitable burial site in Arlington Cemetery. On December 17, 1908, Secretary of War Luke E. Wright advised the Board of Commissioners of his approval for a site in Arlington Cemetery for the reinternment of the remains of Pierre Charles L'Enfant. The site was selected by the Board of Commissioners with the assistance of Army Capt. A. B. Shattuck, who was in charge of National Cemeteries.
The final site approved by the depot quartermaster, Washington, D.C., was between the General Sheridan Monument and the flagstaff fronting the mansion at Arlington, approximately 6 feet from the north line of General Sheridan's lot and on line with the flagstaff and the Sheridan Monument. On April 19, 1909, the adjutant general of the War Department directed the quartermaster general to arrange for the disinterment of the remains of Pierre Charles L'Enfant buried at Green Hill, Maryland, on 24 hours notice by the commissioners of the District of Columbia. The remains were moved in a hearse to a vault at Mount Olivet Cemetery, a location designated by the commissioners.
On April 22, 1909, the remains of Pierre Charles L'Enfant were disinterred from the Digges Farm by Depot Quartermaster D.H. Rhodes, with the commissioners of the District of Columbia present. The remains were placed in a metal-lined casket, covered with the American flag and moved to Mount Olivet Cemetery on Bladensburg Road, Washington D.C. They remained there until the morning of April 28, 1909. On that date a military escort conveyed the remains to the U.S. Capitol where they lay in state from 9 a.m. until noon. They were then taken by military escort to Arlington National Cemetery. There they were reinterred at 4 p.m. in the site on the slope in front of the Mansion.
The removal of the remains from the Digges Farm and their subsequent reinterment was pursuant to a special act of Congress which was approved May 27, 1908. The act also provided for the erection of a monument at the grave. A sum of $1,000 was appropriated to accomplish the tasks.
At 4 p.m. May 22, 1911, the monument marking the grave of Pierre Charles L'Enfant was dedicated. The service was conducted on the portico of the Arlington House, where chairs had been arranged to make a miniature open-air theater facing the city. The monument was draped with the American flag.
The dedication ceremony was opened by the Reverend Father Russell, pastor of Saint Patrick's Catholic Church, offering the invocation. At its conclusion Elanora Carroll Morgan, great granddaughter of William Dudley Digges, L'Enfant's closest friend and benefactor in life and on whose farm he died, left her place among the guests of honor and approached the monument. She was escorted by Glenn Brown, of the National Arts Commission; Commissioner Judson and Dr. James D. Morgan who composed the executive committee for the dedication. Miss Morgan untied the silken ribbons that held the flag in place. Then as the band played the national anthem, two soldiers from the Engineer Corps drew the flag aloft.
President William Howard Taft made the dedication address. He was followed by Ambassador Jusserand of France. The concluding address was made by Senator Elihu Root.
More than 350 people attended the ceremony.
Many notables attended including the chief justice and justices of the
Supreme Court, many senators and members of Congress, high-ranking military,
city officials, diplomatic corps and Washington socialites.
The monument marking the grave of Pierre Charles L'Enfant was erected under the direction of the commissioners of the District of Columbia who chose the design in addition to selecting the site in Arlington National Cemetery. It is made of white marble (very rough due to weather erosion) consisting of four slabs, the top slab is supported on six marble posts. The base is 10 feet 10 inches by 6 feet 11 1/2 inches by 11 inches deep.
On top of the base is a slab 8 feet 4 inches by 4 feet 4 1/2 inches by 7 inches deep. The upper three inches of this slab are beveled for five inches to form a top 7 feet 6 inches by 3 feet 7 inches. On each corner is an oak leaf. Resting on this is the third slab 7 feet 4 inches by 3 feet 5 inches by 5 inches deep. This slab is offset 2 1/2 inches from the bottom by 6 inches along each side.
On the corners of the recessed area and in the center along the long axis rest six marble posts which support, horizontally, the top slab. The posts are 1 foot 8 1/2 inches tall and are 6 inches in diameter at the widest point. From the recessed area the third slab has a 1 1/2-inch bevel in 4 inches to form a 6 feet 2 inch by 1 foot 2 1/2 inch top. In bold relief on this top is a 4-foot-long broadsword with a floral piece entwined at the hilt. The top slab, overall, is 7 feet 6 1/4 inches by 3 feet 7 1/4 inches by 6 inches deep. There is an oak leaf at each corner and a 4-inch scalloped design around the edge.
On the east end (the design facing the Arlington House) is a circle, 2 feet 7 inches in diameter, inclosing the plan of the City of Washington laid out by L'Enfant.
Below the circle is the inscription:
PIERRE CHARLES L'ENFANT ENGINEER - ARTIST - SOLDIER UNDER THE DIRECTION OF GEORGE WASHINGTON DESIGNED THE PLAN FOR THE FEDERAL CITY * MAJOR U.S. ENGINEER CORPS 1789 CHARTER MEMBER OF THE SOCIETY OF THE CINCINNATI DESIGNED ITS CERTIFICATE & INSIGNIA * BORN IN PARIS, FRANCE AUGUST 2, 1755 DIED JUNE 14, 1825 WHILE RESIDING AT CHILHAM CASTLE MANOR PRINCE GEORGE'S CO MARYLAND AND WAS INTERRED THERE REINTERRED AT ARLINGTON APRIL 28, 1909
On April 23, 1931, a bronze marker was placed on the top of the base (east end) by the Daughters of the American Revolution. The inscription on the marker reads:
REVOLUTIONARY SOLDIER 1775 (DAR INSIGNIA) 1783 PLACED BY THE NATIONAL SOCIETY DAUGHTERS AMERICAN REVOLUTION
* Note--the inscription on the monument shows the rank of major, U.S. Engineer Corps. The records show he was a captain in the U.S. Engineers, and held the temporary rank of brevet major, U.S. Army Revolutionary War. Discrepancies were not noted until the completion of the monument. They were not changed for fear of disfiguring the monument. L'Enfant was born in 1754, not 1755.
Born in France in 1755, he came to America with Lafayette and entered the Continental Army as an engineer in 1777. He was made a Captain in February 1778, was severely wounded at the seige of Savannah in 1779, served under the immediate command of George Washington afterwards, and was made a Major in May 1783. He designed the Order, or jewel, of the Society of the Cincinnati. He was also the author of the plan of the city of Washington, D.C. In 1812 he was appointed professor of engineering at West Point but declined. He died at Prince Georges County, Maryland, June 14, 1825.
From a contemporary news report:
"Washington - March 25, 1909: For the first
time since the assassination of President William McKinley, Congress today
granted the use of the Rotunda of the Capitol in which to lie in State
the body of a distinguished man. The honor it to the memory of Major Pierre
Charles L'Enfant, soldier in the Revolutionary War, friend of the first
President and planner of the city of Washington, D.C. He died in 1825,
and his body had rested in a grave, practically unmarked, on the Digges
Farm in Prince Georges County. It is to be transferred to the National
Cemetery at Arlington. Senator Raynor's resolution that the body lie in
State in the Rotunda of the Capitol was passed unanimously."
His memorial, which is located directly in
front of the Custis-Lee Mansion, was designed by Welles Bosworth and its
top features an engraving of L'Enfant's design for the City of Washington.
It is technically in Section 2 of Arlington National Cemetery.
To put it simply, the man was exasperating. Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant, military engineer turned city planner was self-righteous, hot-headed, imperious, unreasonable, arrogant, scornful of authority and quick to take offense.
It took a century to make clear he was also a genius.
As chief designer of the new national capital, L'Enfant quickly antagonized the three commissioners in charge of making sure the place got built. When they complained, he alienated his principal supporters, including George Washington, who reluctantly fired him.
He spent the rest of his life dunning Congress for back pay, as lean and ragged as the dog that trailed him through the streets.
When L'Enfant died in poverty in 1825 his obituary called him "an interesting but eccentric gentleman."
Most people supposed that was the end of Pierre L'Enfant.
Born in Paris into a family of artists, L'Enfant arrived in America in 1777, the year he turned 23. After service in the Revolutionary War as an engineer, he attracted the attention of the new country's leaders by designing Federal Hall in New York City. And when a design was needed for an entirely new federal city to be built in a 10-mile square on the banks of the Potomac River, L'Enfant was ready.
He had a vision of what an American capital could be, a forerunner to the motto, "Make no little plans."
"No nation perhaps had ever before the opportunity offered them of deliberately deciding on the spot where their capital city should be fixed ...," L'Enfant wrote President Washington in 1789.
"And altho' the means now within the power of the country are not such as to pursue the design to any great extent it will be obvious that 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."
That translated to a radiating sweep of broad avenues intersected by a grid of north-south streets and punctuated by circles and squares ready to accept the monuments of future national heroes.
The vision was as poetic as architectural. L'Enfant placed the Capitol on prosaically named Jenkins Hill, finding in its shape "a pedestal awaiting a monument."
He connected the Capitol to the President's House by a mile-long avenue, leaving plenty of room for parkland and cascades of water.
Washington was confident "that for projecting public works and carrying them into effect he was better qualified than anyone who had come within my knowledge in this country, or indeed in any other."
The problem, the president said, was that L'Enfant would brook no interference with his ideas, accept no alteration of his plans.
So when Daniel Carroll, one of the largest and most influential landowners in the new District of Columbia started to take his orders from the commissioners, L'Enfant repeatedly made clear he would not do it.
In the end, the city went on without him, generally following the plan he had made.
With his plans rolled under his arms for instant display, L'Enfant fruitlessly lobbied Congress for redress of ancient wrongs.
When he died, living on the charity of friends, his personal effects were valued at $44.
Some people started calling the city L'Enfant had designed as "the city of magnificent distances." When Charles Dickens visited in 1844 he amended that to "the city of magnificent intentions" marked by "spacious avenues that begin in nothing, and lead nowhere." It was designed, he noted, "by an aspiring Frenchman."
By the time the 20th century neared it was clear that the city did not match the achievements and aspirations of the country.
But when architects and engineers and artists went to work to transform Washington into "the city beautiful," they found their guide and inspiration already spelled out in the plans L'Enfant had drawn a century before.
L'Enfant's stock was high. A movement started to give the major national recognition.
In the spring of 1909 L'Enfant's remains were removed from the garden of the house in Maryland where they had rested since 1825. They were reinterred with military honors on the hillside at Arlington National Cemetery overlooking the radiating avenues and circles and squares L'Enfant had designed.
"Few men can afford to wait a hundred years to be remembered," Secretary of State Elihu Root said when a permanent memorial was dedicated two years later.
"It is not a change in L'Enfant that brings
us here," he said. "It is we who have changed, who have become able to
appreciate his work. And our tribute to him should be to continue his work."
Everybody knows who designed the new American nation's capital city back in 1791. It was Major Peter Charles L'Enfant, of course.
Peter, not Pierre.
Does that sound a little strange? You bet. We've been referring to the great man as Pierre for the better part of a century. Peter became Pierre, more or less officially, on April 28, 1909.
That was the day L'Enfant's remains were moved from an obscure grave to lie in state for half a day in the Capitol Rotunda, and then were reinterred at that marble tomb high in Arlington National Cemetery, overlooking the beautiful city he conceived.
But Peter is the name the French-born Pierre preferred during most of his long life in the United States, according to historian Kenneth R. Bowling, who has written a lively little book on L'Enfant. It's not the authoritative, full-scale biography L'Enfant needs and deserves, but it's feisty and informative, and it makes an excellent case for the name Peter.
It'll take some getting used to, this "new" name. It means we'll have to make a subtle if telling attitude adjustment, thinking of L'Enfant not as a Frenchman who did brilliant work in America but as a brilliant American who was born in France.
Bowling got interested in the issue years ago, he writes in his preface, when he discovered that L'Enfant used the appellation "Peter" on official documents in October 1791, certifying his purchase of a plot of land in the new federal district.
Further research, Bowling continues, "quickly" established that L'Enfant stopped using his French given name soon after arriving in the United States to serve as an officer in the Revolutionary Army. That was in 1777, when L'Enfant was 22.
"It is likely that he planned to return to France at the end of the festivities," Bowling writes. "But that was not to be the course of his difficult life, and by the end of the Revolutionary War he had anglicized his name and committed his talents to enhancing (in L'Enfant's own words) the 'glory and interest of these United States.' " L'Enfant died, impoverished and almost forgotten, at age 70 in Prince George's County.
L'Enfant is justly celebrated for his audacious Washington plan. Bowling doesn't dwell on this oft-told story in his 79-page book, but even his summary version rekindles our appreciation for the accomplishment. In just a few months of intense mental and physical labor early in 1791, L'Enfant conceived a magnificent, sophisticated city, to be superimposed on the near wilderness alongside the Potomac River.
With its broad diagonal boulevards, symbolic vistas and strategically placed public buildings and open spaces, L'Enfant's plan demonstrates his familiarity with baroque European sources. But he put European patterns to memorable, highly original use, sanctifying the values of the new American democracy.
If the Washington plan were L'Enfant's sole achievement, that alone would bring great honor to his name -- it is a stunning exercise of creative imagination and a truly notable contribution to his adopted country. But Bowling's book reminds us that, in the early years especially, L'Enfant's varied talents were put to many good uses.
He was, for instance, a courageous soldier, seriously wounded in a valorous attempt to set fire to British fortifications during the siege of Savannah, Ga., in 1779. His military service "earned him the lifelong respect of the Continental Army officer corps" -- an honor and no small advantage to a young man making a start in a new nation.
Trained in the fine arts under his father, a painter, at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris, L'Enfant was a skilled architect at a time when there were few to be found on this side of the Atlantic. His 1789 remodeling of Federal Hall in New York -- the first U.S. capitol, torn down in 1812 -- brought a new elegance and sophistication to American classical architecture.
L'Enfant's expansive vision for the new republic, so evident in his Washington plan, was expressed as well in a 1784 message he sent to Congress, advocating a corps of engineers in the American military. This long missive "stands as a magnificent early American state paper," Bowling writes, showing L'Enfant to be well ahead of his time as an engineer, if typically out of touch with the realities of American politics.
Sublime haughtiness and a prickly sense of honor are part of the L'Enfant legend. While engaged in the planning of Washington, he famously ordered part of a house torn down because it protruded into space he had specified for one of his grand avenues. L'Enfant had good reason, of course. If you are going to plan a great city, you can't start by ignoring the plan.
But the uproar over the decision contributed to a falling-out between L'Enfant and the meddlesome commissioners who had legal authority over the fledgling city. Despite the best mediating efforts of President George Washington, the proud L'Enfant resigned in February 1792.
Bowling tells this story, and many others equally curious and sad. L'Enfant had the ability to alienate even his best friends and staunch allies. All the same, the portrait of the man that emerges from the book is complex and sympathetic. L'Enfant was brilliant, charming, trusting, honest and loyal, and he inspired loyalty and admiration in others.
In George Washington, for instance. During the crisis over the new city plan, Washington wrote in a letter that for "projecting public works, and carrying them into effect, he [L'Enfant] was better qualified than any one, who had come within my knowledge in this country."
In the same letter, however, the president also wrote "that it is much to be regretted -- however common the case is -- that men who possess talents which fit them for particular purposes should almost invariably be under the influence of untoward dispositions." One can sense both exasperation and sadness in the lines, but to his great credit the president never lost his belief in the plan he helped L'Enfant create.
L'Enfant's later years were consumed by his efforts to gain what he thought he was owed in money and credit for his work in Washington and other miscellaneous jobs. His situation was memorably summarized by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe in 1806: "Daily through the city stalks the picture of famine, L'Enfant and his dog. . . . [he] had the courage to undertake any public work whatever that was offered to him. He has not succeeded in any, but was always honest and is now miserably poor."
Bowling sheds much new light on these years, although his speculations on the lifelong bachelor's sexuality are a bit intrusive and, in any case, inconclusive. (The complete title of the book is "Peter Charles L'Enfant: Vision, Honor and Male Friendship in the Early American Republic.") "Even for his time, L'Enfant's life was unusually male-centric," Bowling tells us, but he observes "that we will probably never have smoking-gun proof as to whether any of L'Enfant's relationships with men had a sexual component."
More to the point of this column, the author informs us that in 1820, L'Enfant characterized himself to a federal census-taker as "a white male American citizen over the age of 40, rather than as a foreign resident." There is no evidence, however, that L'Enfant ever "took the necessary legal steps to become what he considered himself to be."
The name issue surfaced immediately after L'Enfant's death. He was called Pierre in the news account and Peter in the legal notice, both in the same newspaper on the same day. Thereafter the issue disappeared because the name disappeared: L'Enfant and his achievements were forgotten for nearly three quarters of a century until, in the 1890s, concern about the state of the capital city prompted people to look back at its beginnings.
L'Enfant had been rediscovered, and his plan became the basis for the dramatic makeover of the city's monumental core proposed in the famous McMillan Commission report of 1901. L'Enfant was resurrected as a Frenchman, Bowling believes, largely as the result of smart lobbying on the part of the French ambassador at the time, a fast friend of President Theodore Roosevelt.
However, the name on the manuscript map of the plan owned by the Library of Congress, the only extant copy from L'Enfant's hand, remains: Peter Charles L'Enfant.
Gravesite photo courtesy of Ron Williams
Updated: 6 December 2000 Updated: 20 May 2001 Updated: 22 May 2002 Updated: 21 December 2002 Updated: 30 August 2003 Updated: 15 July 2006 Updated: 21 July 2006