When we left Captain L’Enfant, he had died in 1825 in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave on William Dudley Digges’s farm in Green Hill, Maryland. The Great Federal City of Washington continued to languish also, as the “pestiferous, brambly eyesore…a miasmal bog” loathed by foreign diplomats.
But things started to look up when the area was consolidated as the District of Columbia in1871. A flurry of public works projects followed: streets were paved, sewers and drainage improved, and cleaner city water attended to. Wealthy people began to build homes there and DC became a political and social hub. And then (to condense history a bit) there was the tremendous success of the World’s Columbian Exposition (WCE) of 1893 in Chicago. Voila—100 years after President Washington and the district committee approved L’Enfant’s initial drawings, everyone was excited about city planning.
Maybe L’Enfant was prescient; maybe he just had such strong dharma that even death couldn’t stop his plans from being realized, although it took other people, a century later, to complete them.
For example, two of the notable aspects of the WCE were the uniform cornice height and uniform set-backs of the major buildings around the Grand Basin at the heart of the fair. A hundred years before, L’Enfant had suggested to George Washington that those be regulations for the building of the new Federal city, as they were in Paris.
He had also told his commander-in-chief that the new capital “should be drawn on such a scale as to leave room for that aggrandizement and embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the Nation will permit it to pursue at any period however remote.” Snatched from the spheres in 1910 as Daniel Burnham’s pithy axiom, “Make no little plans”.
Burnham didn’t plan the fairgrounds alone, of course, but as Director of Works, he sure pulled it all together and is rightly lauded for the success of the fair. He was immediately deluged with requests to develop plans for towns throughout the country. (He had an easier personality than M. L’Enfant.) But it wasn’t until the government asked him to head the McMillan Commission in 1901 that he stepped up. This was a remarkable opportunity to finally complete the unfinished but somewhat bunged-up realization of L’Enfant’s original plan.
A resurgence of interest in L’Enfant the man and his plan was prompted or fueled by a series of talks before the Columbia Historical Society in February 1895, including one titled, “The Unhonored and Unrewarded Engineer.” This touching paean evolved into a drive to reinter L’Enfant in a place of honor. Finally, the Sundry Civic Bill of 1908 stipulated “One thousand dollars is made available for the Commissioners of the District of Columbia to remove and render accessible to the public the grave of Major Pierre Charles L ‘Enfant.”
And so it was that with a grand official flourish the great planner’s remains were exhumed from the farm in April 1909 and, within the next few weeks, reinterred next to the Lee Mansion on the hilltop at Arlington Cemetery. Dignitaries including Elihu Root, who won the Nobel Peace Prize two years later, and the French ambassador Jean-Jules Jusserand, who was later honored with his own monument in DC, addressed the audience of 350. They extolled the significance of L’Enfant’s visionary plan, of his intention to create an orderly city of beauty and elegance where there was just a swamp.
Digges’s great-granddaughter untied the ribbons of the American flag that covered the simple neo-classical monument of marble. (If your inner stonemason is wondering about specific dimensions of this marble monument, you’ll find them here: http://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore/Notable-Graves/Prominent-Military-Figures/Pierre-Charles-LEnfant)
However, the elegant tombstone had been inscribed with the wrong birth year (1855 instead of 1854), and titled him major when in fact he was a captain. But despite these glitches, the great honor of the ceremony carried the day, and no one remembered L’Enfant’s years of ignominy any more.
Perhaps the even more fitting memorial was the work of Burnahm and the McMillan Commission to complete L’Enfant’s plan. Burnham, fellow architect Charles McKim, and landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., took a seven-week tour of the great European capitals “to look at examples of urban design. On shipboard outbound and returning the group worked out preliminary plans for reshaping the monumental core of Washington in what they believed to be the spirit of the original L’Enfant plan of 1791.” They visited Paris, Versailles, Rome, Venice, Vienna, Budapest, London, and Oxford; sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens, the fourth committee member, stayed home. (Report of the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia on the Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia, 1902.)
But Time had intervened and in order to adhere to the plan of 1791, it was necessary to change up some elements, reconfigure spaces, and reorient views and vistas and emphases. Significantly, Burnham was able to convince railroad companies to remove train track that ran down the National Mall! As the restoration slowly progressed, L’Enfant’s vision came back to life.
His grave has a direct view along the National Mall to the Capitol. Probably a better view to Captain Pierre Charles L’Enfant than Versailles itself.
Photo of L’Enfant cenotaph at allenbrowne.blogspot.com, as well as many more fascinating details about the reburial.
All other photos in public domain at Library of Congress.
Copyright Barbara Geiger 2017. All rights reserved.