Washington, D.C., as anyone who’s tried to navigate it knows, is sensibly if idiosyncratically laid out. Some reasons for that emerge in this life of its designer.
Pierre L’Enfant had little practical experience when he came to America as a 22-year-old with a commission in the Continental Army. As an artist, he was, however, “in possession of the most advanced professional training available in Europe,” writes Berg (Creative Writing/George Mason Univ.), and it was his artistic skill that brought him to George Washington’s attention. Even before the American victory, there was much talk of where the national capital was to be, with Philadelphia doing temporary duty and serious consideration given to Trenton, N.J. Washington the man brought L’Enfant in to survey the future city of Washington in the spring of 1791, instructing two prominent landowners in the area to acquire as much land as they could in their own names, “free of legal baggage or disputed boundary lines,” land that would then be quietly transferred to the federal government without the need for messy and expensive eminent domain settlements. The survey was begun away from the established community of Georgetown so that its residents would sell land cheaper, thinking it distant from the future city; thus L’Enfant first set about plotting the stately rise called Jenkins Hill, which he thought “a pedestal waiting for a superstructure.” Alas, events turned: Thomas Jefferson had ideas of his own about what a suitably republican city ought to look like, while speculators ate up tight acquisitions budgets and L’Enfant managed to alienate would-be supporters with his conviction that his was the only way. In the end, although he is now acknowledged as the city’s foremost early planner, L’Enfant was fired from the job, and he would bitterly blame everyone but himself—including President Washington—for the indignity.
A lively and literate view of Washington’s early history, with liberal dashes of intrigue for good measure.