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Michael Bednar
“L’Enfant’s Legacy”
The Colonnade Club
University of Virginia
March 13, 2007

When they asked Edmund Hillary, who was the first man to climb Mt. Everest, why he did it, his answer was because it’s there and so when people ask me why I wrote a book about Washington, being somewhat of a flippant person, I usually answer in the same way—because it’s there, but there’s more to it than just the flippant answer.  It is there and for us who live in Charlottesville, it is the big city that we most go to.  Some of us live there vicariously watching the television stations and reading the Washington Post and sometimes even cheering for the Redskins.  We go there to see the museums and the restaurants and so there’s a bit of truth to the fact that it’s because it’s there. 

Over the years here I have sponsored any number of student studio projects in Washington, research projects and so forth, but the real serious answer about why the book about Washington is not only the wonder of this plan that L’Enfant created but because it was the first designed national capital in a democratic state.  All the other capitals in Europe were placed in existing cities, so this was a unique moment for this country when a new urban plan could be created to celebrate its potential and its democratic ideals.

Now, most people think that the hallmark of this plan are the monuments, the buildings that are there, but I think the hallmark of the plan is the public open space system and that’s what I have focused on in terms of my research in the last decade and that’s what this book focuses on, because public spaces in America serve a democratic role, to enable citizens to express their constitutional freedoms and civil rights as elucidated in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  The Founders knew this and so when acting with L’Enfant, namely George Washington and Thomas Jefferson primarily who were instrumental in this, they made sure that there were adequate public spaces to carry out these democratic ideals, so what I have been doing is trying to figure out what has happened to the L’Enfant Plan in the last two centuries, how has it evolved and how well has it served these democratic ideals for which it was first created.
The Residence Act of 1797 established that there would be a new capital, that Congress would meet there in 1800, that it would be located on the Potomac River and that George Washington would select the site.  He selected the site at the intersection of the Potomac and the Anacostia Rivers and the site was a series of farms as you can see in this graphic that has underneath it the actual L’Enfant Plan of Washington. 

Thomas Jefferson, of course, had to have a say in this.  He was very interested in this and so in March of 1791, he comes up with his own version of what he thinks the capital scheme should be.  He locates it at the intersection of the Tiber and the Potomac.  It is a gridded system of streets.  Understand that this is just a sketch, but what is really interesting, that will come to pass later on, is that the Capitol is located here and the president’s house is here and there’s some public space that connects them that is not unlike the Mall.  He gives this to George Washington who gives it to L’Enfant and L’Enfant immediately dismisses it saying that the gridded street system would not be the appropriate thing for this kind of topography, (a); and (b), L’Enfant has this vision for a much grander place, this great city that’s going to become the capital of the new nation.  So how did L’Enfant come up with this plan?

Well, that is kind of a mystery.  He was born in France.  He lived in Versailles which you see here.  I think if you look at this, you’ll see some resemblances to the kind of diagonal street system that you see in Washington.  His father taught art and then he studied art in Paris.  He knew Richmond where there was a state capital, an acropolis on the hill not unlike the capital in Washington that he placed there.  He had been to Philadelphia.  He knew about William Penn’s Green Country Towne and the squares and the gridded street system and he had been to Savannah.  Very significant because Savannah has this system of neighborhoods with squares in the center.

He also asked Jefferson to borrow some European city plans and those are enumerated.  Whether he used them or not is not exactly clear, so he came up with this incredible scheme that is a system of orthogonal streets—the grid—connected by diagonal avenues surrounding the monumental Mall.  The location for the capital was on Jenkins Hill which was the highest point and then the White House was placed on another low hill at this location, the whole connected together by the Mall, and this is then the L’Enfant Plan that he created in August of 1791, some six months after Washington asked him to do it.

Washington knew L’Enfant because he had come over to support the revolutionary cause and at one point, he actually drew a portrait of General Washington so they were known to each other.  They were in New York together and Washington simply thought that this person would be the right person to carry out this plan.  In the plan references, he explains how he came up with the plan.  He talks about the widths of the streets and the heights of the buildings, but understand that in his mind, this was a sketch plan.  He did it in six months.  He thought he was going to get a chance to work on it some more, but he didn’t.  He was dismissed by Washington because, now remember back, the Residence Act said there shall be a capital in 10 years but by the way, we’re not going to give you any money to build this capital.

So, Washington’s scheme was that he was going to get this plan created.  He was going to trade lots in the new city for the farm land and that’s how he was going to pay for it and he wanted to get this plan printed so that he could start selling these lots.  L’Enfant didn’t want it to be printed because he wasn’t ready for it to be printed and so Washington really probably did not have much choice except to dismiss him and put the job then in charge of Andrew Ellicott who was a surveyor along with a freed slave named Benjamin Banneker and they then came up with the plan.  The plan of Washington that we see today is really not the L’Enfant Plan.  It is the Ellicott Plan because the Ellicott Plan is the one that is closest to the one that was built. 

Ellicott did a series of little things, nothing great.  The biggest thing he did was probably to straighten out Massachusetts Avenue here.  He eliminated some of these squares that you see in the previous plan and some of the short avenues, but substantially, it wasn’t really changed that much.

Now, the thing that really piqued my interest to begin this research project was the fact that L’Enfant numbered 15 of these squares, colored yellow, and in those plan references, he says that they should be given over to each of the 15 states at the time and that those states should place monuments and memorials to their heroes and that these would become the centers of neighborhoods and that the whole thing would get filled in in time so it was a kind of a nodal growth system, a system for being able to develop a large expanse of land in a very short time.

There was, of course, also the Mall, the Capitol, the kind of Capitol Square here, the Mall with what he refers to as embassies along the way here, and then the White House, Lafayette Square there, and the White House grounds and note also that the Potomac River was very close here.  This gets filled in a little bit later on.

One other thing I might note is there are some red squares which L’Enfant deemed to be for churches and colleges.  He thought or indicated that the city hall should be down here where Garfield Park is now and this is where the Supreme Court would be at Judiciary Square.  We all know that that never took place so I’m interested in this open space system.  It’s not just the series of squares and circles in the Mall but it’s their integration.  He had a system whereby the constituent city would surround the federal city and support it and they would be integrated because these streets go through the Mall and integrate the whole system so that you can go freely and easily between the federal city and the constituent city.

Washington grew very slowly. L’Enfant thought or wanted the downtown of Washington to be around the Capitol up here on Capitol Hill but what in fact happened is that the growth took place between the two poles of the Capitol and the White House here along Pennsylvania Avenue as seen in this 1861 survey map by Albert Boschke. 

A century later things had happened that did not follow the L’Enfant Plan, notably there was a train station on the Mall with tracks crossing it.  Andrew Jackson Downing had created a scheme—we’ll see it in an image in a little while—of a picturesque kind of landscape and so the Senate Park Commission was created, headed by James McMillan who with a series of notable architects, came up with this McMillan Plan that was to redirect the course of the Mall in particular.  It says that all of the legislative functions shall take place around the Capitol here forming a Capitol Square.  The executive functions shall take place here around Lafayette Square and surrounding the White House, that the Mall should get extended then to locate the Lincoln Memorial to the west and this would be infilled here and then to the south, there would be another memorial.  At the time, they didn’t say Jefferson Memorial, but in fact that’s what eventually took place.

So, I have been studying the evolution of these spaces which finally came down to be 28 in number and if you bear with me, I’ll go through them.  The Mall, of course, the Monument grounds, West Potomac Park, Capitol Square,  Lafayette Square, the White House grounds.  Judiciary Square there.  Mt. Vernon Square up here.  Farragut Square and McPherson there north of the White House.  Franklin Square in here.  Rollins Park over here west of the White House.  Gompers Burke Park, Scott Circle and Thomas Circle located along Massachusetts Avenue.  Logan Circle up here.  DuPont Circle, Washington Circle -- those are down in this part of the city.

Then we jump up to Capitol Hill with Lincoln Square here, Stanton Square, Seward Square, Eastern Market Square, Folgers Square, all clustered down here.  Marion Park, Garfield Park, Union Station Plaza, Freedom Plaza and Pershing Park there and finally, Market Square.  Bet you didn’t know that there were so many of these.  They are all still out there because I only looked at the ones that were still there.  There were many more that disappeared during the course of the evolution.

So let’s start with Capitol Square and let me briefly go through some of these and show you what happened to them.  Here you have a view of Pennsylvania Avenue from the Capitol.  Here you see that Andrew Jackson Downing scheme for the Mall.  The other interesting thing is that the Washington Monument is sitting on the riverfront because this is before it was filled in and then you see this Tiber Canal which was part of the L’Enfant scheme to improve the commerce. L’Enfant wanted barge boats to come in and pick up goods, deliver goods and so forth and so there was a canal created along one side of the Mall.

This is a view from 1852.  The next one is from 1871, the same things I’m talking about here.  They’re both from the east side.  The east front of the Capitol was the important one, in his mind, because it’s the one that you could get to because it was flat.  The other side, there was a 70-foot hill and so it was hard to get to.  All the inaugurations took place on the east side of the Capitol until fairly recently.  In those references, L’Enfant says that around the Capitol Square there shall be arcaded shops, that those shall extend east along East Capitol Street all the way to Lincoln Square.  This was his idea that this would be the downtown of Washington which is not actually how it turned out.

The next one is the Olmsted Plan of 1874.  In order to give the Capitol a more dignified setting, in order to create handsome approaches to this building, and particularly, to deal with this side here where the hill was, creating the west terraces as they were.  This was basically executed as Olmsted had planned and Capitol Square was basically executed as the McMillan Commission had recommended.  We have the Senate buildings here on the north, the House of Representatives buildings here on the south.  The Library of Congress had already been there. 

The Supreme Court winds up here.  What’s wrong with this picture?  Our government has three equal branches.  The Capitol has a prominent position.  The White House has a prominent position.  What is the Supreme Court doing here on 1st Street?  Nobody quite knew where to put it.  City Hall wound up being built for Washington on Judiciary Square, so the Supreme Court still stands there.

The west terraces of the Capitol were closed after the 9/11 terrorist attack which is pretty significant because in our scheme of government, we hold it sacred that we can access our government, that we can go and see how the laws are made and influence them and speak to our legislators, our senators, our representatives, so not being able, be it symbolic—  In any case, not being able to go up the steps on the west terraces of the Capitol is a significant move.

The executive branch located around the White House grounds.  Here’s the White House, some of the executive buildings, Treasury, War and Navy.  Lafayette Square was a really interesting place.  There’s a wonderful book—I forget the author—but I cited her a great deal in my book, who goes through the social history of the people that lived there.  They were all the senators, cabinet members, even the vice president, because there was no vice president’s house at the time and they had a lot to do with each other and I cite this particular incident. 

Philip Barton Key in 1859 was murdered by Congressman Daniel Sickles because it seems that Philip Barton Key—this is the brother of the guy who wrote “The Star Spangled Banner” was having an affair with Sickle’s wife Teresa and she lived in this house and she would signal to him by waving a handkerchief, he was out in the park when the coast was clear and they could get together.  Well, everybody knew about this affair, of course, except for Sickles.  When Sickles found out, he was irate, confronted Key in the park, shot him three times and killed him.  But his lawyer, Edwin Stanton, got him off for pleading temporary insanity, so way back in 1859, you could get away with murder if you had a good lawyer.  That’s when the precedent was set.

The McMillan Commission wanted buildings to be identical around the square.  The only piece of it that was really built was the Treasury Annex; the Chamber of Commerce building is very similar as is this hotel but then when John and Jackie Kennedy came into the White House, they saw fit to preserve these old 18th and 19th century houses and instead came up with a scheme for placing large buildings, office buildings, related to the executive branch so that these houses could be preserved, so this is kind of the way it is today although these buildings are embedded in this plan here—the Treasury Building, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, the White House grounds.

Now, probably the second favorite place to conduct a protest used to be in front of the White House here on Pennsylvania Avenue.  To make your case here in front of the president’s house has a certain kind of significance to it as does putting up these posters on the street opposite the president’s house, the idea being that he or she would see it and influence the chief executive in some way.  There are now just a few of these.  The National Park Service finally wrote some rules because people got upset about their enjoyment of the park and so this has been severely diminished, so that this idea of being able to use this space in a democratic way has certainly been diminished in recent years due to the events in this country and National Park Service rules.  But still, this area in front of the White House is one of the favorite places to go, just this idea of being able to walk up and down in front of the house where the president lives has a certain kind of American poignancy about it.

The Mall itself—  I’ve shown you the picture from the other side.  Here’s the picturesque plan again.  The Washington Monument was essentially built as recommended by the McMillan Commission.  The Smithsonian had been built a long time before that and so it sticks out into the Mall and they saw fit not to tear it down.  For this part, they recommended this series of museum buildings that would line it on both sides which is the case except for the Department of Agriculture which snuck in here.  It was there also before the McMillan Commission Plan.  Then they had a very grand scheme for the area around the Washington Monument which did not come to pass.  They were going to dig down and create terraces and so forth and after they investigated further, found that the soil wasn’t very good there and that they couldn’t do that and they might undermine the Monument itself so they didn’t want to do that.

Then this became filled in with the Reflecting Pool here, the new World War II Memorial is right there, and the Lincoln Memorial was created here and then eventually the Jefferson Memorial was created here on the side of the Tidal Basin, so the Mall itself is the place of choice to make your case for whatever movement you are interested in. 

This is the Civil Rights March on Washington of 1963 and that kind of notion of gathering a lot of people on the Mall and giving speeches either from the steps of the Capitol or the Lincoln Memorial has been a tremendous democratic use of this particular space.

So, I read through you this litany of all of these spaces.  Let me show you a couple of these and briefly recount their history.  Many of them before the Civil War probably looked like this.  This is Franklin Square.  It’s actually a 1907 photograph that has this Downing kind of landscape scheme with the curving pathways, mature trees, extensive foliage, a fountain in the center and many of them had a school on one side and the children used the park then as their playground.  Many of these also have churches located on them.

Logan Circle is the last remaining totally residential circle surrounded by these handsome Victorian houses which have now been all restored, but something interesting began to happen after the Civil War.  One by one, every one of these squares and circles, almost all of them, received monuments and memorials to Union generals or naval heroes so Logan Square got its statue of General John Logan in 1901.  It is even higher than most of them because it has a bronze base but the bronze base is sitting up on top of a granite base.  This changed the complexion of all of these spaces.  These things sitting in the center are somehow rather ominous.  They push the socialization to the perimeter.  In spite of them, most of them remain in the kind of vision of L’Enfant being neighborhood social spaces for passive recreation, children playing and so forth.

So, I go back to Savannah because I dearly love Savannah.  The Savannah plan has 24 squares, little squares in the center of little neighborhoods that had all deteriorated much as some of the Washington squares and circles have deteriorated along with the housing stock surrounding it and beginning in 1960, they started restoring these and preserving them.  Twenty-one of them have been handsomely preserved and restored as are the houses surrounding them so I say to the people of Washington, you know, you have all these squares and circles, too.  You ought to start paying attention to them and that’s what this book is about, that the legacy of L’Enfant that we’ve had for two centuries needs to be guarded because it’s continuously under attack by developers and traffic engineers and by negligence by the National Park Service and so L’Enfant’s legacy I think must be vigilantly guarded and supported to ensure the opportunities for democracy that our founders wanted us to have.

Thank you.

Maintained by Brittany Brown
Last Modified:
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