When thousands make the annual pilgrimage to Washington next month to see the magnificent cherry blossoms, they will be the beneficiaries of the urban vision of one man Pierre Charles L'Enfant. While L'Enfant himself couldn't have envisioned the Japanese trees, much less the presidential monuments or war memorials that we have come to associate with our nation's capital, they are now part of a whole that never would have been if not for the French-born architect's farsighted dream and single-minded determination. Indeed, as Scott W. Berg tells it in Grand Avenues, L'Enfant's plan for a great city worthy of the American experiment, with broad boulevards and sweeping vistas, met with a lukewarm response from many of the founding fathers; Thomas Jefferson even supplied his own more pedestrian blueprint for the federal city.
But L'Enfant had an essential ally in no less a personage than George Washington, under whom he had served during the War for Independence. It was our first president, exerting his already iconic influence, who decided the new capital should be situated just a few miles from his beloved Mount Vernon home (many thought Philadelphia the more logical choice), and it was Washington who chose L'Enfant to design it and supervise construction. Having the ear of a president renowned for his level-headed, conciliatory ways, though, would often prove not enough as L'Enfant struggled to see his vision realized. In a drama that has played out many times since, the architect clashed with those who signed the checks, leading to what Berg describes as a spreading contagion of distrust and disorder. After reading this illuminating account of the planning and building of Washington, it seems remarkable that any of L'Enfant's ideas survived intact.
Pierre L'Enfant was born in Paris in the middle of the 18th century, before the French capital underwent its own transformation as a city of boulevards and monuments. His father was a painter in service to the king and a teacher at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. L'Enfant fils became a student at the Academy himself, but it was clear he would never rise to the level of such fellow students as Jacques-Louis David, so at 21 he became a military engineer, and was soon after en route to the American colonies to take part in the brewing revolution. Accustomed to the French system of royal patronage, L'Enfant sought his own patron, and found an American equivalent in General Washington. Like any visionary, L'Enfant could be imperious, unyielding and duplicitous when necessary, and these qualities got him into trouble throughout the course of his work on the new capital city. Right at the start, he alienated the commissioners to whom he was supposed to be accountable by having a house that was under construction dismantled because it was in path of the diagonal street that would become New Jersey Avenue. Unfortunately, the house belonged to the scion of a powerful family, cousin to one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence, as well as to the Bishop of Baltimore and founder of Georgetown University. This rash action presaged the continuing conflict that was in store for the uncompromising planner. The president stood by him, though: Washington was well aware that for all his intractability, L'Enfant was the irreplaceable cornerstone of the project.
L'Enfant's scheme for his grand avenues, for Capitol Hill, the White House and the Mall, has endured, and as Berg so meticulously documents, the Frenchman deserves much of the credit for giving the United States a worthy place to house our seat of government. With its roots in Versailles and Paris, his was nonetheless a plan wholly new, an unprecedented design carved out of nothing but wilderness. Sadly, L'Enfant spent his last years bitterly petitioning the U.S. government for recognition and recompense for his contribution. It wasn't until 1909 that his remains were exhumed and reburied at Arlington National Cemetery, where his gravesite overlooks his masterpiece across the Potomac. Berg's evenhanded, sympathetic portrait should do much to restore L'Enfant to his deserved place in our national story. Robert Weibezahl is the author of the novel The Wicked and the Dead.