Now back to the saga of Versailles.
About the only thing that the Versailles of Louis XIV, XV, and XVI had in common, at first, with the new “Great Columbian Federal City” in 1791 was that they were both located partly on a swamp. But thanks to a Frenchman, they would soon be much more alike.
Charles Pierre L’Enfant was born in 1754 and grew up outside the chateau at Versailles. Like his father, an official court painter to Louis XV, L’Enfant trained at the Royal Academy. But times were changing when he came of age and, instead of settling down to a government career, he shipped out to the American colonies in 1777 to fight with the revolutionaries.
Assigned to Inspector General Friedrich von Steuben, he worked as a mapmaker and illustrator, and was soon promoted to captain of engineers. L’Enfant went to the front lines during the siege of Savannah, seeking to distinguish himself, but was badly wounded in the leg. From there he transferred to Valley Forge, and his countryman the marquis de Lafayette commissioned a portrait of Washington. Soon the General discovered that Major L’Enfant also had a remarkable talent for staging fêtes and parades, and for designing buildings. And thus began his American career.
Fast forward to 1789. The capital had roamed from northern city to northern city all these years. Virginians wanted it to finally settle down in their neighborhood, just between Virginia and Maryland. And New Yorker (and super rock star) Alexander Hamilton, mentee of Washington and good friend of L’Enfant, was pushing for the federal government to pay off the states’ debts (still dragging along from the Revolution). So it was that these two seemingly unrelated issues came together in the Compromise of 1790. Which, according to historian Jacob E. Cooke, quoted in Wikipedia, ‘is generally regarded as one of the more important bargains in American history.’
The Compromise led to the Residence Act, signed by Washington that same year, authorizing the construction of a permanent capital city along the banks of the Potomac. And thus the new Federal City site was chosen, and the states’ debts settled.
Charles Peter (he’d Anglicized his name) had established himself as a designer of note by this time, and had offered his services to Washington in designing the new Federal City in September 1789, just two months after the taking of the Bastille prison back in Paris. Washington had great faith in him, and so he received the commission.
More than 200 years before Daniel Burnham may have said, “Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood” L’Enfant was thinking big. The plans, he wrote to the General, “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.” (quoted in “Washington’s Gamble, L’Enfant’s Dream: Politics, Design, and the Founding of the National Capital” by C.M Harris in The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 56, No. 3, July 1999))
And so L’Enfant drew up a rough draft of a plan for a spacious city, with broad avenues lined with formal and elegant buildings. It borrowed heavily from the Versailles layout that the architect remembered from his youth. Just as the citizens of France were beginning their own revolution toppling an absolute monarch and his court at Versailles, the fledgling Republic of the United States of America was borrowing the landscape design. Yet, it was anything but a simple copy. It integrated similar formal spatial organization and expansiveness into the topography of the unbuilt space along the Potomac.
If you look closely at the heart of L’Enfant’s plan, you’ll notice how the major organizing axis begins east of the capitol building (whose footprint itself is very like the shape of the chateau at Versailles). The axis then penetrates the building and continues west to the Potomac River. Six avenues radiate in an expanded patte d’oie, with a grid of streets superimposed. A rectangular formal park, now the National Mall, leads west towards the river. The surrounding city, based on the same point-radiating diagonal avenues, could in theory extend into infinity. Very grand, indeed.
But while monarchs like Louis XIV (Versailles) and emperors like Napoleon III (Paris in the 1850s) could make unilateral planning decisions, the first American president could not—and had no wish to—do likewise.
Next time we’ll look at roadblocks to implementing L’Enfant’s plan, and see how things turned out for the Federal City.
Charles Pierre L’Enfant portrait, http://freemasonry.bcy.ca
Others retrieved from public domain
Copyright Barbara Geiger 2016. All rights reserved.