The Man with the Plan

L'Enfant

Here is a drawing from our homeschooling Local History and Geography book, in honor of Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754-1825), whose birthday it is today. Because of other obligations I cannot give him the lengthy post he deserves, but I hope to do him justice in 2011.

L’Enfant, an artist and son of an artist, came from France with the Marquis de Lafayette, as most Washingtonians probably know, to fight alongside the American colonists for independence, and later, having impressed the General with his battlefield sketches, was appointed by George Washington to design the United States’ new capital, Washington, DC. He created a a plan which was unfulfilled during his lifetime and has been only incompletely followed since, but which nevertheless gives us today this lovely and unusual city.

L’Enfant examined a quiet, hilly site of woodland, meadow, and marsh, uninhabited but for a handful of farms and the tiny port of Georgetown, and visualized an orderly grid overlaid by wide diagonal avenues allowing for long vistas, designed to incorporate stately public buildings, canals, bridges, squares, parks, and monuments: not simply a new bureaucratic center, but a Grand Capital for a young, energetic New Nation.

He had also a number of sensible, intelligent ideas as to how construction of the new city might have been financed, which were unfortunately never followed. Reading about the snail-like early development of the city, its wrangling political factions, its stodgy unimaginative Commissioners, and its greedy unscrupulous speculators, would make your hair stand on end. It also sounds uncomfortably familiar.

In the midst of it L’Enfant and Washington kept before them the vision of a finished work. Along the way L’Enfant, a hot-headed and demonstrative fellow, offended any number of people by vehemently defending his plans against unattractive provincial alterations (like any artist worth his salt) to the point of knocking down a new house that intruded on one of the proposed avenues. Not the way to keep your job. Which he finally lost after an exasperated Washington could no longer defend him against his many critics. L’Enfant remained bitter about his treatment—he was never paid for his work, although others made considerable sums through its implementation—and spent his remaining years as the poverty-stricken guest of a kind friend in rural Maryland, to be buried finally in their garden.

He has since been removed to a more honorable site in Arlington Cemetery, overlooking the city that finally rose to meet his expectations. Happy Birthday, Pierre, and I hope you are enjoying the view.

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