Washington, D.C. has long embodied the spirit and strength of the United States. What might surprise you, however, is that the nation’s capital is indebted to the vision of a French war veteran named Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Here’s the story of L’Enfant’s plans for America’s federal city—and its many subsequent revisions.
L’Enfant—Artist and Visionary
Pierre Charles L’Enfant was an artist by training, having studied at Paris’s Royal Academy. In the Continental Army, he became a military engineer, first under the Marquis de Lafayette, and later under George Washington, himself, when Washington formed the Army Corps of Engineers. Knowing L’Enfant’s work well, Washington entrusted him with the design of the new federal city.
L’Enfant worked out of a popular tavern called Fountain Inn, or sometimes called Suter’s Tavern after its owner, John Suter. Unfortunately, that building is now gone, and we’re not even sure where it was, except that it was somewhere in Georgetown, which now occupies the western edge of the District. L’Enfant’s job, in essence, was to determine the best place to build the legislature building and the so-called “president’s mansion.”
Thomas Jefferson, in true Jeffersonian fashion, had sketched out a small, simple plan for L’Enfant to work from. In Jefferson’s plan, all the federal buildings would occupy the small neighborhood of Hamburg, just east of Georgetown, roughly where the Foggy Bottom neighborhood is today.
But L’Enfant had a different vision.
Washington, D.C.—Circles and Diagonals
When L’Enfant presented his design to Washington on June 22, 1791, it not only contained plans for the placement of the two buildings, but it also included a design plan for the entire city. He laid out exact locations and widths of the streets, both major and minor, and the boundaries of each, individual parcel of land—more than 1,100 of them, all told. The smaller streets were laid out in a perfect north-south and east-west grid. These were intersected by broad diagonal boulevards. Where diagonals met, L’Enfant placed a public square or circle.
L’Enfant’s plan did not specify names for the streets, but eventually the east-west streets were named for the letters of the alphabet, and the north-south streets were numbered. His broad diagonal avenues are each named after a state.
L’Enfant placed the capitol building on what was then called Jenkins Hill. (We know it today as Capitol Hill.) Although it was only about 100 feet high, it was one of the highest points in the district and stood out in the mostly flat landscape. Incidentally, this hill is about two miles east of the district’s north-south meridian, which is why the origin point for D.C.’s grid of streets is somewhat off-center.
L’Enfant also selected a site to the west for the president’s house. He placed it overlooking the Potomac River, near the mouth of Tiber Creek, which would be re-engineered into a canal connecting these two, important buildings.
L’Enfant Designs the National Mall
L’Enfant’s plan drew its ideas from several of the great cities of Europe, including Christopher Wren’s plan for the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire of 1666. But his plan was also revolutionary in a number of ways. The first of these was his plan for the National Mall.
L’Enfant designed the area between the capitol building and the president’s house as a public garden, open to all. No gates, no barriers, no rules for admission. Everyone was welcome at the geographic center of the nation. Now, that doesn’t sound too revolutionary to us today, but at the time, it was a shockingly democratic idea, and it demonstrates how this Frenchman envisioned the promise of America.
The National Mall is the one place that almost every visitor to Washington, D.C. eventually winds up. It is somewhat different from the one L’Enfant envisioned. It’s a 146-acre green space stretching east to west between Constitution and Independence Avenues, from Capitol Hill to the Potomac River. The National Park Service estimates that 24 million people visit the Mall every year.
It is home to many of the city’s most recognized landmarks, including memorials, museums, government buildings, and some of the world’s most-renowned cherry trees. And yet, when L’Enfant presented his plan in 1792, a good portion of the land, popularly known as the National Mall today, wasn’t even land at all.
Today, if you stand at the base of the Washington Monument, which is visually and geographically at the center of the Mall, you’ll notice that it’s on a small hill. In fact, it’s only about 30 feet above sea level. But it’s a remnant of the original landscape. Between there and the White House—less than a mile to the north—was the Tiber Creek. It stretched from there most of the way to Capitol Hill, where it turned into a rocky, small stream. It was surrounded on both sides by wetlands, flowering trees, and meadows where the locals grazed their livestock.
L’Enfant’s vision left no room for this picturesque wilderness. He would replace it with geometry, symmetry, and neoclassic simplicity. Tiber Creek would be redirected into a canal due east to Capitol Hill and then south to the Anacostia River. The National Mall would lie south of the canal. L’Enfant envisioned it as a large green space. His plan describes it as a “Grand Avenue, 400 feet in breadth, and about a mile in length, bordered with gardens, ending in a slope from the houses on each side.” And at the west end of the Avenue, directly south of the president’s house, he designated a spot for “the equestrian figure of George Washington.”
To make the plan was one thing, to carry it out was another thing entirely.
Building the Washington Monument
L’Enfant’s plan for a monument to honor George Washington was a lot more successful, although once again, it didn’t turn out quite the way he envisioned. Though the Continental Congress had approved construction of a monument in 1783, the spot L’Enfant chose stood empty for decades.
In 1832, Congress commissioned a statue from sculptor Horatio Greenough to mark the 100th anniversary of Washington’s birth. Greenough created “Enthroned Washington,” which depicted Washington as a Roman God. This statue was first placed in the Capitol Building, then on the East Lawn of the Capitol, and finally ending up in the Smithsonian’s collections.
At last, in 1836, a group of private citizens calling themselves the Washington National Monument Society took on the task of getting a monument of George Washington finalized. The project would be funded in part by Congress and in part by donations, and each donor would be honored with an engraved stone. There would eventually be 193 of these donor-financed stones. The cornerstone was placed in 1848. But that wasn’t the end of problems for the monument.
First, a conflict erupted within the monument society over one of those donor stones, the one donated by Pope Pius IX. Many of the society’s members were also members of the American Party, which was also known as the Know-Nothing Party. This anti-immigrant and specifically anti-Catholic political party objected to the pope’s donation. The fight came to the attention of Congress, which withdrew funding over the controversy, and construction halted in 1856.
In 1876, Congress quietly turned the project over to the Army Corps of Engineers for completion. The monument we see today—a simple, 555-foot obelisk—was the design of Lt. Col. Thomas L. Casey, and it was completed in 1885.
If you look at the monument today, you can see the point where construction halted for 20 years. The bottom third of the monument is a lighter color than the rest. The color difference is there because the Corps of Engineers purchased their stone from a different quarry than the original builders, and though the two types of stone looked very similar at first, they’ve weathered quite differently.
Andrew Downing Redesigns the Mall
By the turn of the 20th century, we had the White House and the Capitol Building, which were placed according to L’Enfant’s plan. We had a monument to George Washington in the place, if not in the style, that L’Enfant intended. The rest of the Mall had grown and changed more or less according to the needs of the moment and not according to any grand plan—L’Enfant’s or otherwise.
The Smithsonian Institution was founded in 1846, and in 1855, its headquarters, otherwise known as the Smithsonian Castle, became the first building on the Mall. Shortly after, President Millard Fillmore hired renowned New York landscape architect Andrew Jackson Downing to redesign the mall.
Under Downing, L’Enfant’s plan for a rectilinear, urban promenade was turned into what was called, the Smithsonian Pleasure Gardens—an area of flowering plants, tall trees, evergreens, and winding pathways. A remnant of that plan remains in the Enid A. Haupt Garden next to the Smithsonian Castle today. The urn in the center of the garden is a memorial to Downing.
Meanwhile, the Mall had acquired a Union Army encampment, an armory, a railroad yard at the foot of the Capitol, vegetable farms, a city dump, a hospital, and a market where enslaved people were sold. The Mall was prone to flooding and in summertime was infested with mosquitos, leading to regular city-wide outbreaks of malaria. L’Enfant’s Grand Avenue had become an eyesore, and Congress realized that something had to be done.
Between 1880 and 1900, engineers reshaped the landscape, creating Washington, DC’s modern coastline and waterways and adding 740 acres of dry land to the federal district. This area, to the west of the Washington Monument, is officially called Potomac Park; however, we tend to refer to all of this area as part of the National Mall.
McMillan’s New Plan for the Nation’s Capital
After all that land was reclaimed, largely from the Potomac River, the Senate Park Commission under Senator James McMillan of Michigan proposed what we now call the McMillan Plan, in 1902. This plan called for sweeping changes across the city: clearing slums, establishing new parks and new monuments, consolidating the railway system, and so on. Part of this plan was re-landscaping the Mall to create an uplifting natural and civic space, as well as a monument to a nation that had endured a brutal civil war and survived.
In the east, in front of the Capitol, would be a memorial to General Ulysses S. Grant; to the west, on the newly dredged riverbank, a memorial to Abraham Lincoln; and behind that monument, a bridge over the Potomac River to Arlington National Cemetery, which had once been a plantation belonging to General Robert E. Lee. Union and Confederacy would be united once again in peace.
The overgrown gardens and unsightly structures would be removed and L’Enfant’s tree-lined grand avenue would be realized at last, dotted with fountains and reflecting pools. The buildings around the Mall would house government departments and cultural institutions in buildings that would mimick the Neoclassical White House and Capitol building.
Finally, a north-south stretch of parkland was added, anchored by the White House to the north, and a park to the south. The plan suggested that the park was a good spot for a future memorial; decades later, a memorial to Thomas Jefferson was placed there.
Now, none of this was uncontroversial. The plan, as a whole, was actually never approved by Congress. Instead, the changes were made piecemeal, and some of the Commission’s proposals—like a terraced garden around the Washington Monument—were scrapped altogether.
The McMillan Plan, however, gave us the basic blueprint for the National Mall as we know it today. And the Mall we wound up with is consistent with what L’Enfant envisioned. It is not only the seat of government, but also a living and growing monument to the most important events and achievements in our nation’s history.