Versailles: L’Enfant’s Dharma

L'Enfant cenotaph on old Digges family farm grounds

L’Enfant cenotaph on old Digges family farm grounds

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.

World's Columbian Exposition, 1893

World’s Columbian Exposition, 1893

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.

Dedication of L'Enfant tomb at Arlington National Cemetery, April 1909

Dedication of L’Enfant tomb at Arlington National Cemetery, April 1909

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:

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.

Working on the model of the McMillan Commission plan, 1902

Working on the model of the McMillan Commission plan, 1902

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.

Bird's-eye view of Washington after the McMillan plan

Bird’s-eye view of Washington after the McMillan plan

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, 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.

Versailles on the Prairie

General Marquis Calmes

General Marquis Calmes

The very name “Versailles”—pronounced in French, sort of, ‘vair-sigh’– conjures up a sense of opulence and extravagance. Even though the original Versailles outside of Paris is a rather blatant symbol of absolute monarchy, to many post-American revolution Americans it was emblematic of hero Marquis de Lafayette and of French support in general. And of course, strangely enough, Louis XVI had also helped bankroll our rebellion.

So, “After the termination of the war, having heard of the great fertility and boundless resources west of the Alleghanies, and filled with the spirit of adventure, Captain Marquis Calmes determined to seek a home in Kentucky, then the frontier county of Virginia.” When he settled on 1,000 acres in Woodford County, KY in about 1780, he called his property “Caneland” and named the new town “Versailles” in honor of his good friend the Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834). (General Marquis Calmes of “Caneland”, A Revolutionary Hero of Woodford Co., KY, John Steel, 1906)

Calmes was a French Huguenot descendant born in Shenandoah, VA in 1755,  and was a peer not only of Lafayette but also of Major Charles Pierre L’Enfant (1755-1825). Calmes, too, was himself a Revolutionary hero. He was educated in France and England, but his heart was American, and he came back to the colonies in October 1775 to fight for their independence. Calmes used his own personal wealth to train and equip a company of soldiers, and proved worthy of promotion to captain.

After he moved to Kentucky, he married a young woman named Priscilla Heale and fathered nine children. Calmes was active in local civic and political activities, but, at the age of 57, he stepped up to lead troops in the War of 1812. He distinguished himself once more and was promoted to General. He then retired to “Caneland” on the outskirts of Versailles, KY.

As his biographer wrote in 1906, “He wore his hair in a queue and neatly tied with a black ribbon…”, shades of things to come in the lyrics to “Frank Mills” from the 1968 musical Hair: “…he wears his hair tied in a small bow at the back…” Calmes’s clothes would probably have been a big hit in 1968, too: “a broad cocked hat, sweeping blue cloth coat, with metal buttons, velvet knee pants and stockings, and shoes with silver buckles. Thus equipped he would ride to Versailles to attend county court of which…he was for many years a valued member.”

But Calmes was a southerner of his times. “He owned a number of slaves and had them taught the various trades so necessary to farmers of the earlier times. He owned his sawyer, carpenter, blacksmith and shoemaker and brewed his own whisky and brandy, which he dispensed with a generous hospitality to his many friends and guests.”

Farmers in Versailles, KY visiting on a Sunday in the 1940s

Farmers in Versailles, KY visiting on a Sunday in the 1940s

Lafayette returned to America in 1825, the year Pierre L’Enfant died—do you suppose he called on L’Enfant?—and came west to visit Calmes in Versailles.  What might the French aristocrat have thought of the town’s name. The only record of the two old Revolutionary soldiers’ reunion is a snippet of a story about Calmes’s daughter Sarah and her “committee of young ladies strew[ing] flowers in the path of the old hero. Lafayette displayed his gallantry and greatness by walking around them instead of over them.”

Calmes's Revolutionary War pension ended with his death

Calmes’s Revolutionary War pension ended with his death

Marquis Calmes died nine years later, and was buried next to his wife in a rustic stone mausoleum on their estate. The town he named continues to be called Versailles, and as of 2010 boasted a population of 8568.

Now, we need to point out that unlike the English (think, for example of  Samhain pronunciation) and the French, we frugal Americans believe in getting our money’s worth out of every letter. If a letter is in a word, we (typically) pronounce it. And so it is with  Versailles, KY, and the other three US spots that share the name. It is pronounced “Verr-sayles”. Folks had studied their phonetics.

On to Versailles, Illinois. Lucinda Peters Casteen sorely missed her “old Kentucky home” in Versailles and named this new hamlet after it sometime in the early 1830s.

Versailles, IL today

Versailles, IL today

The first white settlers arrived here in 1824 when this was still very much Indian territory. Life must have been extremely difficult in the 1820s and 1830s for everyone in the vicinity 40º N and 90.5º W, just between the Illinois and Mississippi Rivers.

One day in 1825 a group of 20 Kickapoo braves surrounded the little settlement. They marched young and old, male and female, down to Camp Creek, then took the leader and his eldest son in canoes across to an island. They all returned shortly, and shared the news that an Indian male had been found dead.  The tribe suspected one of the settlers had murdered him. Eventually the Indian chief himself went to  investigate the scene, and he ascertained that the  man had died accidentally. He had been climbing an old vine up a very tall tree in pursuit of a squirrel. The vine snapped and broke, and the hunter fell and broke his neck. As Nelson McFarland (who was about seven at the time) remembered, “That Chief made a friend of us all right there and he never asked for a favor at our cabin after that day but what he got it.”  (A History of the First White Settlers in Versailles Township, Brown County, Ill., B.F. Bond, 1922/1959)

McFarland also recalled local man Hamilton Neighswonger,  who hung out more with the local Indians hunting and fishing than with his fellow whites. But when a newcomer needed help putting up a cabin, it was Neighswonger who share a piece of building wisdom with him: “Always put two doors in the cabin exactly opposite and you can drag up a big log to one door and by passing a rope or chain through from the opposite door,  hitch on the oxen. The log can be pulled into the house and easily rolled into the fireplace, a plan adopted in building all the cabins after that.”

View south-southwest of La Grange dam in Versailles, IL

View south-southwest of La Grange dam in Versailles, IL

Then, in February 1832, while the local whites were raising a barn for newcomer John Stone, a band of Indians from a nearby camp came to watch the work. Among them was the great Chief Black Hawk. Shortly they left, but the two would groups would  encounter each other again that April in Beardstown (about 10 miles up the Illinois River) for the first incursions of what is known as the Black Hawk War–a sad turning point in US history.

All the while, slowly, the little town of Versailles developed into a farming community. It was surveyed and platted in 1836 by Allen Persinger. He included a town square, but somehow that got broken into lots and sold. So much for early city planning.  Deadly cholera outbreaks occurred from the 1830s into the 1850s, adding to the pioneers’ difficulties.

Locks at La Grange dam

Locks at La Grange dam

The village hit its high point in 1920 with 620 residents; it’s the smallest of the  four Versailles at just 478 people in 2010. From 1936-1939 the Army Corps of Engineers built the La Grange locks and dam on the Illinois River at Versailles. Coincidentally enough, the Marquis de Lafayette’s ancestral estate in southern France was  called “La Grange” . . .

La Grange from the east

La Grange from the east

Bonus town in Illinois: Closer to Chicago is Marseilles, pronounced as you might have guessed, “mar-sayles”—founded and named in 1833 by Lovell Kimball, who intended the town become an industrial center like its namesake in France—but of course that is actually a seaport, so either Kimball didn’t know much about France, or he just imagined himself gallivanting about in a jaunty French sailor’s beret and striped shirt. Population here in 2010 was about 5000.

Versailles, OH, courtesy of

Versailles, OH, courtesy of

Then there’s Versailles, Ohio,  originally called Jacksonville but renamed in 1837 supposedly for all the French descendants in the area. France has lots of towns–Paris and Lyons to name just two–but Versayles got the honor. 2589 inhabitants in 2000.

Restoration plans for Busching covered bridge in Versailles, IN

Restoration plans for Busching covered bridge in Versailles, IN

And to finish up, there’s Versailles, Indiana, so named as early as 1819, when the town was founded. Also kind of vague as to why, but one source suggests it had to do with a local Frenchman named John DePauw (the university in Indiana with the same name was so-called for Washington DePauw’s generous contribution in 1870). 2113 resident souls in 2010.

General Lafayette in 1820

General Lafayette in 1820

No glitter or monarchs at these Versailles of the prairie. They are outshone by the towns and counties named for Lafayette: Lafayette, LA, pop. 125,000; Lafayette, IN, pop. 70,000; Lafayette, CO, pop. 25,000; and Lafayette Counties in Mississippi, Missouri, and Wisconsin. Not to mention innumerable streets throughout the country.

No towns named for Pierre L’Enfant–but there is of course a central plaza in Washington DC. For the fifth and final installment of our Versailles series, we’ll go back there and see where the major’s dharma led in the late 19th century.

Aerial view of Versailles, IL from Google Maps; all other images in public domain at Library of Congress unless otherwise noted.

Copyright Barbara Geiger 2017. All rights reserved.

Winter Solstice Solace

The Winter Girl by Percy Moran, 1895

The Winter Girl by Percy Moran, 1895

What a turning point! Winter is just beginning, but the next day, December 22, the days will start to get longer again. Unless you’re in the southern hemisphere, where you are instead experiencing the summer solstice and shortening of days.

The winter solstice was a big deal in early cultures, quite understandably. Every year must have seemed like a miracle, a reprieve, as the days started to lengthen again. Stonehenge in Wiltshire, England is the most outstanding example of a solstice event–whatever the actual ceremony or event that took place there (still somewhat in dispute), the stones do indeed focus right on the winter solstice sunset (as opposed to sunrise)—obviously very intentional. Stonehenge’s dolmen (upright stones) align with a number of other celestial happenings, at least 12 solar and lunar events, according to astro-archaeologist Gerald Hawkins.

Stonehenge in 1890

Stonehenge in 1890

If you’re astronomically inclined (but not terribly techy), here’s a good explanation of what is happening in the sky:

And a fun sunrise/sunset calculator you can personalize for your location (turns out than on December 21, 2016, Chicago will have more than nine hours of daylight):

514px-chambers_yule_logWith their short winter days, Scandinavian cultures have traditionally been avid celebrators of the winter solstice—Oslo, for example, will have just 5:53:55 hours of daylight on December 21. And our alternate Christmas time term, ‘Yuletide’, comes from this part of the world. The Feast of Juul marked the solstice with the burning of a Yule log to honor the god Thor, before the advent of Christianity.

Niagra in Winter by Edward Burrill, 1874

Niagra in Winter by Edward Burrill, 1874

So not surprising that holidays like Christmas, celebrating the coming of “the light of the world”, and Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights, occur right around the solstice. What is kind of surprising is the direction that Christmas has taken in our Western culture. Starting with “Black Friday”, the day after Thanksgiving, it’s more about buying and spending than about contemplating with awe the completely reliable lengthening of days after the solstice and reconnecting with the earth.

If you’d like to switch focus this holiday time, here’s a website that turns 180º away from the shopping frenzy (even if it doesn’t focus attention on the natural wonders of the season):

Winter Moonlight by Currier & Ives, 1866

Winter Moonlight by Currier & Ives, 1866

And a group that thinks the “American Dream” should be less about big houses, big cars, and lots of possessions is the Center for A New American Dream. You can download a booklet with ideas for de-commercializing your holidays here:

From the City of San Francisco, provides alternatives to non-recyclable giftwrap.

Christmas Station by Thomas Nast, ca. 1889

Christmas Station by Thomas Nast, ca. 1889

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Simplify, simplify, simplify,” and Mies van der Rohe’s dictum was “Less is more”. Applying those suggestions to the Christmas season and taking it easier could provide peace and solace during the dark days of the winter solstice. Merry Christmas!

Public domain images from the Library of Congress and Wikipedia.

Copyright Barbara Geiger 2016. All rights reserved.

The Best Laid Plans . . .

Louis XVI in Paris, 1790

Louis XVI in Paris, 1790

George Washington had never been to Europe, so he’d never actually seen anything like what L’Enfant was proposing. Thomas Jefferson, of course, had lived in Paris from 1784 to 1789, as minister plenipotentiary (“a diplomatic agent ranking below an ambassador but possessing full power and authority”, according to, had formally met Louis XVI at Versailles, and, being a passionate autodidact, had studied architecture and gardens around Paris.

But Jefferson’s vision for the new United States of America was a nation of yeoman farmers, self-sufficient, well-read, versed in politics and philosophy, not of decadent and elite culture. The US would be powered by an agricultural economy, with industry serving as an adjunct to produce equipment and goods.

And Jefferson’s intention was that the capital city be a rather unpretentious affair, with modest brick buildings to house the necessary federal government offices, no more.  A city built after the pattern of great European centers would concentrate political power there, he thought, possibly leading to an American version of the French king’s court. That’s just how L’Enfant’s plan in particular looked to him.

Washington, on the other hand, was concerned that it was necessary to have a consolidated center of power to help keep the states glued together—the thirteen former colonies were a rather loose structure. And that’s why L’Enfant’s plan seemed like a fine idea to him.

city-of-washington-in-1800And so it was that, even though Jefferson as Secretary of State was officially responsible for the capital, L’Enfant was hired to survey the land,  to make a topographical map, and to design a city.

In keeping with its Versailles predecessor, the L’Enfant design integrated gardens and a cascade and sculpture into the city layout;  his grand boulevards formed sight lines to direct visitors’ views. It would be easy enough to shrug the major off as a good copy artist. But in fact he had to truly understand and synthesize the spaces of Versailles and Paris, and have a good grasp of the Federal City’s topography, in order to develop his plan.

road-along-the-potomac-1795Once he received the official commission from Washington, L’Enfant was eager to get started. So eager that, without the actual go-ahead from the District Commissioners, he began removing things that were in his way. That included the under-construction house of Daniel Carroll of Duddington, one of the biggest property owners in the District and nephew of Commissioner Daniel Carroll. Perhaps the first case of taking by eminent domain in the new nation; the house may have come down all right, but the incident did not go down well.

daniel-caroll-of-duddington-family(The Carrolls continued to live in the heart of Washington; this 1865 photo shows the family on their front porch at F Street and Second Street SE; Daniel had died in 1849. The original house was located at the southeast corner of what is now the National Mall, according to

L’Enfant felt constrained and insulted by the restrictions placed on him by the Commission, and wrote some awfully brusque memoranda to it,  to Washington, and to Jefferson. He also wrote to the President on 19 August 1791  that in order “to determine the accute angles & intersect lines with exactness on points given at great distances . . . much difficulties was encountered on account of the great encumbering of timber cut down in every direction, the which the proprietor are avare to preserve and unwilling to remove . . . I am well convinced will in the end cause me the regret of falling much short from what I proposed and what is indeed most essentiel to performe . . . [Founders Online, National Archives]

The major further blamed the setbacks on “the passion and weakness of [the city’s] most esteemed supporters” and “the infatuation” of those who wished “to have the seat of government stand a mere contemptible hamlet,” (not to mention any names).

washington-as-painted-by-gilbert-stuart-in-1797Washington truly believed that L’Enfant was the only one qualified to do this job, and sincerely defended him to Congress, advisers, and the Commission, men who already thought the grand scheme way out of bounds. In December 1791, though, Washington gave two draft versions of L’Enfant’s plan—framed and ready to hang—to Congress. A description of the plan was published in the Gazette of the United States in early January.  L’Enfant took heart and proceeded to create a five-year construction budget. He directed his workers to go ahead and dig clay for brick, and to install landscape improvements over the winter–in clear disobedience to the Commission.

Thus it was in early February 1792 that Major L’Enfant resigned/was dismissed from his post, without so much as having designed a single building. Other architects were brought on, dissension continued, and it wasn’t until 1796 that the President’s House and the Capitol were finally underway.

Five years later all 130 federal employees were able to move into their new offices. But the Federal City was a far cry from the initial expansive  plan. Foreign ambassadors refused to live in the capital, described by contemporaries as “a pestiferous, brambly eyesore . . . a miasmal bog.”

washington-in-1800And what about Major L’Enfant himself? Washington the boss and Congress had agreed that he had done important work and should be “generously” rewarded. So they cut him a check for $2,500 (in a day when the average worker made about $440 a year). He returned it in a fury, without explanation. The bill he finally submitted in 1800 itemized $8,000 for one year of his labor; $37,500 for profits he thought he should receive for prints of his map; and $50,000 in unspecified benefits, for a total of $95,500. Congress did not concur.

Destitute, L’Enfant petitioned congress in 1804 for his original $2,500, which was approved. But his debts were such that all the money went to pay creditors. In 1810 he received another payment of $1,394.20. He lived for at least the last two years of his life on the charity of William Dudley Diggs at his farm in Prince George County, Maryland, until his death in June 1825. L’Enfant was buried on the farm and Diggs planted a red cedar as a memorial.

capitol-in-1800But Versailles, at least the name, didn’t die with him. It moved west to the frontier and also lay dormant in Washington for another 75 years.  And we’ll see how that worked out in the next post.


Images in public domain at the Library of Congress.

Copyright Barbara Geiger 2016. All rights reserved.

Versailles on the Potomac

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

Charles Pierre L’Enfant

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.

Yes, Washington DC in 1791, as sketched by Thomas Jefferson

Yes, Washington DC in 1791, as sketched by Thomas Jefferson

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.

L'Enfant's 1791 plan for the new capital

L’Enfant’s 1791 plan for the new capital

Versailles ca. 1710

Versailles ca. 1710

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.

Photo credits:
Charles Pierre L’Enfant portrait,
Others retrieved from public domain

Copyright Barbara Geiger 2016. All rights reserved.

Beyond Thankful for the Earth

earth_and_limb_m1199291564l_color_2stretch_mask_0How anyone can believe that human activity on the scale we’re doing things now doesn’t have a devastating and probably irreversible impact on our priceless planet, I cannot imagine. But even without believing, the ‘climate deniers’ might still express some gratitude for the incredible resource that is our world, and be courteous and  ‘conservative’ in stewarding earth’s bounty. Keeping the air, the water, the soil clean and renewable–habitat for all creatures, including humans–seems like simple good manners.

air-pollutionAnd could Stephen Hawking, generally considered to be one of the most brilliant humans on the planet, put his thinking powers to use solving the problem of our irresponsible species? Instead of prognosticating about how little time is left before we completely destroy the  earth, and urging us to find a new planet!  Because, of course, we’d only take our reprehensible habits with us.

farm-runoff-gulfIt’s a truism that how we treat other people  and how we treat animals and the environment is in fact a reflection of how we feel about ourselves. So at core, as societies all around the world, we must believe we’re expendable and of no intrinsic value beyond the economic. Stoking our egos by exploiting resources–human or otherwise– is the oldest trick in the book. Limiting ownership of and access to resources has been practiced in culture after culture throughout history. But now the stakes are enormous beyond imagining and there are way too many players. There are no more borders or boundaries to the devastation.


Americans are responding to this, powerfully. The excellent cartoonist Mike Luckovich weighs in.

Bill McKibben in the op-ed pages of the Washington Post.

Shocking news in the Washington Post energy and environment section.

From  Myron Ebell has no scientific experience. He says global warming is a myth. He proudly calls himself a “climate criminal.” He would threaten the health and safety of all Americans.
The good news is that momentum is already building against him. The media has identified Ebell as one of Trump’s most controversial picks. With the transition in disarray, public outcry may be able to stop Ebell’s appointment.

Sign the petition:

And as Michael J. Copps says, “So let’s build on whatever we can find to build on.” Indeed.

And for some hope, drawing on deeper wells, the Spirit Earth Fall 2016 newsletter just published. Find encouragement where you can, take heart, and speak up! Even if all those darned scientists are wrong, really, with what’s at stake, isn’t it better to be safe than cataclysmically sorry?

Photo credits:
Earth seen from space,
Polluting smokestacks:
Fertilizer runoff in Gulf of Mexico at mouth of Mississippi River:
Light pollution in Hong Kong:

Copyright Barbara Geiger 2016. All rights reserved.



Gilt Without Guilt

1280px-chateau_versailles_galerie_des_glacesThe very name “Versailles”—pronounced in French, sort of, “vair-sigh”—is synonymous with opulence and extravagance. If that’s redundant, good. That’s Versailles. Gilt without guilt. Sexual abandon, sensual food and clothing, fabulous jewels and wigs–all juxtaposed with picayune etiquette protocol–and not a heck of a lot to do for the 10,000 aristocrats who assembled in Louis XIV’s court.

As well as expanding the original modest hunting lodge into a vast chateau, Louis extended the grounds to about 2,000 acres, the most extensive and tightly designed gardens in Western history. A fantastic place for lavish entertainments and for the 10,000 to wander. The architects, including the famous but little-known André Le Notre, probably had cast a glance at the great Italian Renaissance gardens, models of symmetry and formality. By taking these elements to their logical extremes, Le Notre created a sense of space and grandeur on an unprecedented scale.

2048px-versailles_plan_jean_delagriveAt Versailles, the Sun King himself served as the organizing principle—his rooms were situated at the very center of the chateau, the hub of the great axis that penetrated the grounds physically from the front court through the building—and Louis’s rooms—all the way through the gardens to the very end of the property.

chateau-de-versailles-rotondeBut Le Notre’s mastery of perspective and mathematics enabled him to continue that axis visually, beyond the chateau grounds and off to infinity itself. What could be a more powerful symbol of a self-styled “sun king’ whose motto was ‘l’etat, c’est moi’?

The design worked beautifully;  most other European monarchs  scrambled to create their own versions. But none of their landscape architects seemed to quite get the ‘infinity’ concept (and of course none of them had 2,000 acres.) Still, the organizing axis and the ‘pattes d’oie’ (goosefoot pattern of three or five  avenues radiating from one point) were replicated all over because they were an elegant means of framing views, moving large groups of people efficiently through the garden spaces, and offered a means of changing up the scenery.

piazza-delIn the urban planning business, Versailles is often referred to as the early modern example of city design. (Of course the XVIII century French architects may have considered how the city of Rome was reorganized under Pope Sixtus the Fifth in the mid XVI century–that’s the Piazza del Popolo patte d’oie you see there.)

a82f3c18-a464-8430-cba2-c2e0f358e938fileAnd, in fact, a Frenchman named Pierre Charles l’Enfant, who grew up right outside the chateau gates during the reign of Louis XV, would use it as a model when he created the first plan of Washington, DC in 1791.

We’ll take a look at Versailles in the US next time. It’s an odd choice for a new democratic republic to plan its capitol city after the extravagant landscape of an absolute monarch. But maybe good city/spatial planning knows no bounds.

Photo of Galerie des Glaces by Myrabella / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,; other photos public domain.

Copyright Barbara Geiger 2016. All rights reserved.