Pierre Charles L’Enfant - Creating Washington, DC

Pierre-Charles L’Enfant was a French-born engineer, architect and urban designer who created the basic plan for Washington, D.C.  He was recommended to George Washington by Marquis de Lafayette. We will talk about the close relationship of France and the US during our explorations of DC.

The key to L’Enfant’s plan to this day is still strikingly simple, elegant and beautiful. After over two centuries, it still withstands the test of time.


The physical center of the city is the capitol. From there the 4 quadrants can be identified. NW/NE-SE/SW.


North/South streets are numbered (1-2-3-4-5, etc.). East to West are lettered (A-B-C-D-E). Crossing this grid of NOrth/South/East/West streets are avenues are named after states. 


The layout of the city is also a brilliantly simple compass

It’s quite easy to remember your cardinal points. The U.S. Capitol is to the East. The Thomas Jefferson Memorial is to the SOuth. The Lincoln Memorial is to the West. The White House is to the North. The sun sets by Lincoln, and the sun rises by the U.S. Capitol.  As we travel through the streets, remember the city was designed back in 1792 by Monsieur L’Enfant before we even had cars, trucks and motorcoaches. This road systemworks well even today!

Note: It is a good presentation as you are driving in the city. It can be used as a filler.


L’Enfant studied art under his father at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris from 1771 to 1776, when he enlisted in the American Revolutionary Army.


Recognizing his services, Congress made him a major of engineers in 1783. In 1784, L’Enfant settled in New York City, where he gained recognition as a talented city planner, architect and engineer. 


George Washington formed a friendship with L’Enfant during the war, and recruited L’Enfant for the job of planning the nation’s new capital. At the time of his selection, L’Enfant was 36 years old. He arrived in what would be Washington D.C., in March of 1791 to begin his preliminary survey. His work would be like “turning a savage wilderness into a Garden of Eden,” he wrote.


L’Enfant’s plan for Washington is universally considered America’s most notable achievement in municipal planning. However, at the time, his astonishing work was not seen as extraordinary. The concept of the planned city was not new in Colonial America, and European and American examples were well known to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and many other of L’Enfant’s contemporaries.


Although L’Enfant himself was acquainted with the plans for the American cities of Annapolis, Savannah, Williamsburg, Philadelphia and New York, and was influenced by the baroque style of the era, he did not closely follow any specific model. Instead he created a new and original plan. 


One of L’Enfant’s first decisions was to place the future “Congress House” (what would become the Capitol) on the high ground called Jenkins Hill, which had a commanding view of the Potomac River. Extending along the western axis at the foot of the Capitol was to be a 400-foot-wide “Grand Avenue” (now the National Mall), which he intended to be lined with elegant foreign ministries and cultural institutions.


At the end of the avenue would be an equestrian statue of George Washington, which would be connected to the “President’s House” on an axis to the north. This mansion would in turn be linked back to the Capitol via a mile-long diagonal commercial corridor (now Pennsylvania Avenue).


Beyond this monumental core, L’Enfant laid out the rest of the city in a grid pattern of streets intersected by broad diagonal avenues at “round points.” These circles were to be the focus of residential neighborhoods. Logan Circle, at the intersection of Vermont Avenue and 13th Street, is today a pristine example of what L’Enfant had in mind. The overlay of diagonal streets is the reason Washington has so many large traffic circles.


The L’Enfant plan was monumental in every sense of the the word. Its basic outlines were developed in a remarkably short time. In June 1791, after only a few months on the job, the planner showed President Washington a sketch of his ideas. Washington was quite pleased and they worked together to refine the plan. It was not long, however, before serious problems arose.


Washington found himself in the middle of a series of disputes between L’Enfant and the district commissioners who had been appointed to oversee the city’s development. One of them was Thomas Jefferson, then serving as Secretary of State. As might have been expected from a man of his architectural knowledge and accomplishment, as well as ego, Jefferson had his own ideas about how the city should look. 


Because L’Enfant was fired so suddenly, his plans were left incomplete. But his descriptions and notes (which are now in the Library of Congress), documented the grand scope of his aims. President Washington turned to Andrew Ellicott, the original city surveyor, to prepare a usable city map based on the L’Enfant plan. In 1792 and 1793, Ellicott and his assistant, Benjamin Banneker, produced two maps. They basically adhered to L’Enfant’s plan. A few diagonal avenues were omitted and a few others straightened, but Ellicott’s version of the L’Enfant Plan is what later designers have followed and it is the template for today’s capital city. What is the size of the district in square miles?  100 square miles