The American Interest

Books, Film, and History

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L’Enfant’s Washington

The grand, strange and illuminating story of Washington, DC, and the eccentric genius of its designer. Also included, a photo tour of the city by the author.

Published on May 1, 2007
Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, DC
Scott W. Berg
(Pantheon Books, 2007), 352 pp., $25.L’Enfant’s Legacy: Public Open Spaces in Washington, DC
Michael Bednar
(Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 304 pp., $65.

Worthy of the Nation: Washington, DC, from L’Enfant to the National Capital Planning Commission, Second Edition
Frederick Gutheim and Antoinette J. Lee
(Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 440 pp., $65.

AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, DC, Fourth Edition
G. Martin Moeller, Jr., ed.
(Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006), 400 pp., $35.

Of the books that have affected the way that Americans think about cities, none has been more influential over the past two generations than Jane Jacobs’ The Death and Life of Great American Cities, first published in 1961. Jacobs, who passed away in April 2006, was the great anti-planner. She argued that vibrant cities were built around what she termed “social capital”, the dense networks of friends, families and acquaintances that made up neighborhoods like Boston’s predominantly Italian North End. Public safety, she argued, was the product not of heavy-handed police enforcement, but of neighbors watching over each other in mixed-use areas where there were constant “eyes on the street.” Social capital emerged spontaneously as people went about their everyday lives, and not because of top-down edicts from governments.

The great city planners like New York’s Robert Moses and the people who designed the public housing projects of the 1950s hated the apparent chaos of older neighborhoods like the North End. They replaced them with geometrical high-rise developments, parks and freeways shaped by an aesthetic sensibility that James Scott in Seeing Like a State labels “high modernism.” The problem was that the planners did not understand the organic nature of urban life and bulldozed not just tenements but social relationships, as well. The result was spare, forbidding cities like Brasilia, or worse, hell holes like Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes or Cabrini-Green, which were taken over by the drug gangs that hung out in their elevator shafts and playgrounds.

The bad outcomes to which Jacobs and Scott point, however, did not result from planning per se, but from bad planning that did not take account of a city’s sociology and economics. Ironically, perhaps, the New Urbanist school that developed out of Jacobs’ ideas has produced some of the most intensively planned communities in the world—Seaside, Florida, for example, which was the set for The Truman Show. What this shows is that the remedy for bad planning is not no planning, but good planning. After all, mixed-use American neighborhoods of fond memory will not spring up again on their own, given the realities of the automobile and the shopping mall.

Poor planning clearly isn’t the only way to mess up a city. A lack of planning can do so, as well. Left to market forces alone, with developers in control of the zoning process, ugly cities like Houston emerge, places with private wealth and elegance but no public face whatsoever. The Paris that everyone loves today came into being only because planners like André Le Notre and Baron Haussmann were given leave to tear down old, densely-packed organic neighborhoods and replace them with broad, open, public spaces.

The tension between a government promoting public purposes and the forces of the market has been present from the beginning of the American Republic. This is nowhere more evident than in the story of its capital, Washington, DC. That city was designed by a French engineer, Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who is the subject of a series of new books that give us the opportunity to revisit the perennial question of where we ought to draw the boundary between state and market, planning and spontaneity.

L’Enfant was born in Paris in 1754, the son of a court painter who specialized in dramatic military murals for the Bourbon kings. Trained at the Royal Academy, he became very familiar with the public architecture of Paris and Versailles before receiving a military commission and leaving for North America with a group French officers to help the American colonies in their fight with Britain. L’Enfant camped with the Continental Army at Valley Forge and was later wounded in battle. In the process, he came to know a number of American Founding Fathers, including Hamilton, Jefferson and, most importantly, George Washington himself. It was the latter who gave L’Enfant the commission to design a new capital city for the country on the banks of the Potomac River after passage of the Residence Act in 1791.

When L’Enfant laid out the new Federal District in 1791, one could scarcely have imagined the contemporary city of Washington. At that time, two small port cities, Alexandria and Georgetown, lay nearly opposite each other on the Virginia and Maryland sides of the Potomac. The rest of the area was either densely wooded, with few panoramic vantage points, or else a boggy wetland as the river widened south of Georgetown. L’Enfant’s great achievement was to imagine, despite these modest and unpropitious circumstances, a magnificent capital city, with a grand avenue flanked by embassies and ministries leading up to a plaza in front of Congress House atop what was then called Jenkins Hill—today known as Capitol Hill. A mile-long avenue was to link Congress House to the President’s House, forming the hypotenuse of a triangle at the city’s center. On top of the usual rectangular grid of streets that characterized existing American cities like Philadelphia and New York, L’Enfant placed a series of large, diagonal boulevards converging in public squares. His original plan envisioned providing one square to each of the 15 then-existing states, giving them an incentive to invest in the new city.

The Masonic influence in the city’s design is unmistakable, and indeed is still often denounced by conservative Christians as a satanic conspiracy. George Washington was of course a Freemason (as attested by the huge Masonic Memorial that stands in his honor in Alexandria, Virginia). He commissioned fellow Mason Andrew Ellicott to be America’s first Surveyor General. Together with the African-American tobacco grower and amateur astronomer Benjamin Banneker, Ellicott laid out the Federal District. The District is a perfect square ten miles on a side, but rotated 45 degrees so that it resembles the Masonic symbol of a square and compass. The city’s central north-south axis runs along 16th Street, NW, Lafayette Park, the White House and thence through what is now the Jefferson Memorial. L’Enfant planned a “grand avenue” running west from the Capitol to the Potomac River. The point at which it intersected the 16th Street axis was to be the zero mile marker for the United States, and the site of a proposed equestrian statue of Washington. Instead, the country ultimately decided to honor him on that spot with a gigantic Masonic obelisk, ultimately to be moved a few hundred feet to the east due to fears about building on soggy ground closer to the river.

The grandiosity of L’Enfant’s plan and the assumptions it made about the future wealth and power of the new nation are staggering. The Constitution (Article 1, Section Eight) called for a Federal District “not exceeding ten miles square”, and so the city laid out by Ellicott was ten miles on each side, yielding one hundred square miles. L’Enfant hoped that it would one day be populated, like the Paris or London of his day, by half a million people, at a time when America’s two largest cities, New York and Philadelphia, had 30,000 and 40,000 inhabitants, respectively. Philadelphia had wanted to remain the nation’s capital, and backers of the new Federal District like President Washington had to struggle to convince people that the new city wasn’t an insane pipe dream.

L’Enfant delivered his plan for the new city to President Washington on June 21, 1791, but the French engineer was soon removed from the project. His personal story is emblematic of the public-private tensions that have characterized American urban politics from the Republic’s founding up to the Supreme Court’s June 2005 Kelo decision giving municipalities the right to claim eminent domain on behalf of private developers.

One of the largest landowners in the new Federal District was Daniel Carroll of Duddington, scion of the powerful family for which contemporary Carroll County, Maryland, is named. Carroll, whose uncle was one of the three commissioners appointed to oversee the construction of the new capital, wanted to build a magnificent new house for his young family, and did so on a parcel that extended into one of L’Enfant’s proposed grand boulevards. Believing that he was acting on Washington’s authority, L’Enfant peremptorily ordered that the house be demolished just weeks after it had been constructed. In so doing, he angered one of the richest and most powerful men in the young United States and sealed his own fate as planner of the new capital. President Washington was determined not to spend public money on the new city, and therefore found himself hostage to what we would today call private developers, who were counted on to buy parcels in the new city and invest their own money there.

All of the disputes that characterized the debate over the new Constitution of the United States were reflected in a parallel fight over the future of Washington, DC. Thomas Jefferson, who envisioned America as an agrarian, decentralized democracy, had drawn up his own plan for the new capital, a very modest design that basically extended the existing city of Georgetown a few blocks to allow it to house some Federal offices. Jefferson accepted rejection of his own plan with good grace when L’Enfant’s grander one was chosen over his. But he never became a strong backer of the project, and he never returned to visit the capital once he left the presidency for Monticello in 1809. One of L’Enfant’s early backers was Alexander Hamilton, the Federalist proponent of a strong national government. In the Federalists’ dream of a more centralized nation, competitive in manufacturing and projecting its republican ideals to the rest of the world, was a monumental capital with striking resemblances to Paris and Versailles.

Scott Berg’s Grand Avenues, a biography of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, provides an account of his relationships with Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Ellicott and the commissioners who finally ended his career. His account is particularly useful in linking L’Enfant’s personal struggles to the larger political and constitutional issues to which they were related. Berg’s sympathetic biography treats L’Enfant as a proud and temperamental artist who failed to understand the commercial underpinnings of his adopted country. Berg paints a poignant story of L’Enfant’s decline following his dismissal. L’Enfant became an eccentric recluse, petitioning Congress every year for recognition of his service to the country before eventually dying in poverty in 1825.
L’Enfant’s Plan

Worthy of the Nation, a volume by Gutheim and Lee on behalf of the National Capital Planning Commission, tells the story of Washington, DC from L’Enfant’s time to the present in enormous detail. This account clearly makes the case that the city would never have emerged in its present (and strikingly beautiful) form without the strong hand of planners who were politically empowered to run roughshod over the desires of various commercial developers and private interests. This occurred in several waves.

First, following the enormous growth of the city during the Civil War, President Grant appointed Alexander Shepherd to run a newly created Board of Public Works that paved streets, built bridges and turned the malarial Tiber Canal into a sewer, so that present-day Constitution Avenue could be built over it along the north side of the Mall. It was in this period that engineers pushed back the Potomac River to a narrower channel and used the landfills to create the spaces on which the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials now stand.
A view of the U.S. Capitol from the White House roof, c. 1856 [credit: H. Wallis/Corbis]

The next big push to fulfill L’Enfant’s vision of a monumental, publicly oriented national capital was the McMillan Plan during the Administration of Theodore Roosevelt in the first decade of the 20th century. In 1900, the Mall in front of the Capitol was a complete mess. A train station and railroad tracks cut across it at Sixth Street, NW. Gardens, shops, Federal buildings and other random structures obstructed the line of sight that L’Enfant envisioned as Grand Avenue. At the urging of Frederick Law Olmstead and the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Federal government under the McMillan Plan reorganized the whole space into the National Mall that tourists know and love today. L’Enfant’s original plan was exhumed from the Archives to guide the work. L’Enfant’s body was subsequently exhumed in 1909 from a rural Maryland grave and reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery.

The area now known as Federal Triangle was then built in the 1930s in a separate project over what had been Washington’s red light district. (The word “hooker” comes from the fact that Union General Joseph Hooker, who lost to Lee at Chancellorsville, liked to frequent brothels in this neighborhood.) Today, it is home to the Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service. Where racily clad prostitutes used to congregate, dark-suited commuters now queue at slug lines for rides back to the Virginia suburbs.

The strict neoclassicism of Federal Triangle and the adjacent agencies and museums at times projects a kind of Stalinist façade, one that has drawn its share of critics over the years. But as the AIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington, DC indicates, the city overflows with buildings that go well beyond these clichés. Washington has its own distinctive styles of architecture, from the row houses with front porticoes (now often demolished to make way for luxury condominiums), to turreted affairs like Sears House or the Demonet Building, to whimsical fruitcake structures like the Old Executive Office Building (which Harry Truman declared “the greatest monstrosity in America”) or the Franklin School, to marvels of modern elegance like the National Permanent Building or the Inter-American Development Bank.

The remarkable thing about L’Enfant’s original plan is that it married imperial grandeur with a public orientation on a smaller scale, a marriage that makes the city much more livable than other imperial designs. L’Enfant’s plan, calling for states to own the squares at the intersections of the diagonal avenues with the rectilinear grid, never materialized. There were, among other problems, way too many states. But the resulting intersections—Dupont Circle, Washington Circle, Farragut Square, Logan Circle, Scott Circle, Franklin Park and the like—have become public-private interfaces around which the life of the city revolves. Michael Bednar’s Public Open Spaces of Washington, DC provides an historical chronicle of each one of these places, describing the struggles to preserve and to renovate, and the resulting clashes between public and private interests they reflected. While the details of these stories are probably of limited interest to anyone who doesn’t live in or want to visit Washington, it does suggest the way in which maintenance of public space has always been something of an uphill struggle in the United States, beginning with L’Enfant’s confrontation with Daniel Carroll of Duddington.

The planning process continues. The National Capital Planning Commission has put forward a future vision that would create in effect a second major mall radiating south from the Capitol, at the end of which would stand a new home for the Supreme Court near the site now occupied by Fort Lesley McNair. One criticism of L’Enfant’s plan was that it created special spaces only for the Legislative and Executive branches; the Supreme Court was tucked behind the Capitol as an afterthought. Realization of the NCPC’s plan would require demolishing a major freeway, numerous offices and private homes, and it would reorient much of the Federal Government toward what is now a poor and underserved part of the District along the Anacostia River. But this plan is no more ambitious than any other part of L’Enfant’s original dream.

Washington has been and remains a socially troubled city, with high rates of homicide and poverty among its black residents. The city began its life as the home of a large slave population, and the majority African-American District of Columbia remained segregated de facto up until the 1950s. Joseph de Maistre, the French arch-conservative, argued at the beginning of the 19th century that Washington would fail as a city because one cannot engineer a true community. He and other anti-planners like Jane Jacobs were right in a certain way. The strong hand of government cannot fix many entrenched urban social problems, and often makes them worse by its intervention. For much of its history Washington resembled a giant park, or at best a small provincial city that happened to be the seat of the U.S. government. It took almost two centuries for the city to become the center of a truly diverse and culturally and intellectually vibrant metropolitan area, with a regional economy dependent on something other than government salaries.

The Washington that resulted from all of this planning and Federal money is not a Jane Jacobs type of city. It reflects the vision of Alexander Hamilton, not Thomas Jefferson. It is an imperial capital, seat of the world’s hyperpower, a place where decisions affecting much of the rest of the world are made. Americans are very uncomfortable admitting this to themselves. The humbler Jeffersonian vision of what the nation was or should be still commands substantial support. Given their anti-statist political culture, Americans also have trouble admitting to themselves that this national greatness would not have come about but for the strong hand of the Federal government—an observation no less true in foreign and security policy than in the design of the country’s capital city.

Francis Fukuyama is professor of international political economy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC, and chairman of the editorial board of The American Interest.