He was a visionary.
And he was a pain in the neck.
Both impressions of L’Enfant, the man responsible for designing much of Washington, leap off the yellowed pages of a 220-year-old letter set to be auctioned Friday in New York by Christie’s. It is written in the unmistakable hand of George Washington, two pages of exquisitely shaped script tilting hard to the right, as if some unseen force was trying to flatten each word.
By the time Washington put quill to paper on that 30th day of November 1792, L’Enfant was already a source of controversy. Even though he’d drafted an impressive plan for the federal city, he’d been shoved aside amid bickering with the commission established to oversee construction.
Washington addressed his letter to David Stuart, one of three members of the commission. The first president tells Stuart that this is a “private” communication, even underlining the word, so that he may speak “more freely.” That his private musings would, inevitably, become public is evidence of that present-day truism of the town they’d make together — nothing that gets written down stays secret!
In the letter, Washington nudges Stuart to get on with the task of selecting a capital architect to move along the much-delayed project, preferably a man of “fertile genius & comprehensive ideas.” That’s when the letter gets dishy.
Washington, as if thinking aloud, tells Stuart that L’Enfant might be a good candidate — “if he could have been restrained within proper bounds and his temper was less untoward.”
But Washington then pivots, noting that L’Enfant is “the only person with whose turn to matters of this sort I am acquainted, that I think fit for it.”
There, in the space of a few words, Washington disses and praises L’Enfant. He’s a bad, bad boy, but he might be the best man for the job.
Chris Coover, a senior specialist in rare books and manuscripts at Christie’s, reads in the letter an American president “conflicted” over the designing genius. Impressed with his work, annoyed by his temperament, for, after all, L’Enfant was “very arrogant . . . very full of himself.”
“You can read his anxiety,” Coover says of Washington. In his cautiously worded way, Washington seems to be expressing “regret” that L’Enfant wasn’t in charge anymore, Coover says.
But Coover sees other narratives laced into the text. Not just a president peeved by an architect, but a president fed up with process. An early case of capital gridlock.
“If you read between the lines, you can tell he’s frustrated that the work has stalled,” Coover says.
Christie’s can’t trace the provenance of the letter back to Washington. Somewhere along the way, it became the property of collectors, but it hasn’t been sold for decades, Coover says.
Instead, it has been one of those treasures, quietly held by a collector in New York, a gatherer of old things whose name is not being disclosed.
The letter is expected to go for as much as $400,000. The seller, Coover says, parts with it amid “mixed feelings.”