You can bet that there was more talk of fraternité than of freedom fries at Tuesday night’s state dinner for French President François Hollande. The fries thing was a whole decade ago, after all, when Gallic opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq irked some U.S. politicians, inspiring them to rewrite the menus in congressional cafeterias. What better way to insult the French and make them feel unwelcome than through the culinary arts?
But the French should feel right at home here in the capital of the country they helped create. That lofty view, espoused by such statesmen as Thomas Jefferson and John F. Kerry, sees France as America’s Founding Ally and the trans-Atlantic brotherhood as an idealistic bond, born of bloody revolutions. The French sacrificed troops, after all, to free the New World colonies from the “absolute Tyranny” of British rule. And fraternité has always flourished in the finer aspects of life. Even during a low period in relations between the two republics (the presidency of Charles de Gaulle), Jacqueline Kennedy turned to a French interior designer, Stéphane Boudin from the House of Jansen, to redecorate the White House. Hollande and his entourage need only stroll across Lafayette Square or gaze at the mansard roofs of the Executive Office Building to see the enduring French influence on the city they are visiting. Even parts of the city’s sewage system pay homage to Parisian ingenuity.
“President Hollande is a long way from home. But unlike many foreign capitals he visits, Washington has the same restrained scale as Paris, with a low-slung skyline, broad avenues, monuments and government buildings,” says Charles Trueheart, a former Washington Post journalist and director of the American Library in Paris, where he has lived since 1996.
By appointing Pierre Charles L’Enfant to draw up the plans, George Washington pretty much guaranteed the new capital would have a distinctly European feel. And in the early 20th century, when the McMillan Plan was conceived to reinvigorate Washington’s monument and park system, a group of commissioners visited Europe, seeking inspiration from the continent’s grand manors and urban landscapes.
The members of the traveling party checked into Paris’s Continental Hotel and looked out over the elegantly ordered landscape toward the Louvre and the Tuileries — a sight, one said, that remained fixed in their memories long after they returned to Washington.
Along with its building-height limitations and broad boulevards, Washington’s Beaux-Arts mansions continue to lend the city a familiar feel to European visitors, says Isabelle Gournay, professor of architectural history at the University of Maryland and coauthor of the book “Paris on the Potomac.” Large numbers of those elegant old townhouses have been preserved, some as embassies.
“In most of our cities, there are a few such buildings. Here in Washington, there are whole neighborhoods,” she says.
Many are the work of American architects who trained, like Gournay herself, at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Among them were Nathan Wyeth, who designed Pullman House (1125 16th St. NW), the current residence of the Russian ambassador; and Frederick Vernon Murphy, who designed many of Catholic University’s buildings, the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and the Shrine of the Sacred Heart in Mount Pleasant.
The fashion among the mansions’ owners, says Cynthia R. Field, adjunct professor at the University of Maryland and coauthor of “Paris on the Potomac,” was to outfit the public rooms — the salons and parlors — with grand 18th-century French furniture “in the style of the Louis.” Some collectors imported whole rooms, like the Salon Doré (or Gold Room) at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, a gift from William A. Clark, a self-made industrialist and a Democratic senator from Montana.
Much is made of L’Enfant’s contributions to the city, the subsequent architectural echoes and the elaborate interiors. But Trueheart and Gournay warn against taking the analogy too far.
“To the French, ‘Paris on the Potomac’ will sound about as plausible as ‘Washington on the Seine,’ ” Trueheart says.
The provincial nature of the city bothers many French visitors, including Gournay.
“I wish there would be some window-shopping,” she says. “Then things would be much better. And there are no flower shops!”
Another French contribution to the city goes beyond such superficial concerns.
“You can’t see it,” Field says knowingly. “But, boy, is it there.”
Field tells the story of Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s renovation of Paris in the mid to late 1800s. Haussmann was tasked by Louis-Napoleon, later Napoleon III, with improving the water supply and sewers (the famous “égouts de Paris,” which have become tourist attractions). After the Civil War, when the District briefly became a territory, the great goal was to make this town the equal of Paris, Field says.
Go down to the mall, and you’ll find a street where there once was a canal.
It may seem like a perfectly good street today, but as a canal, Field reveals, it was a terrible failure. It didn’t drain properly. It backed up. It flooded, often right below the White House where the National Museum of African American History and Culture is now under construction. And it was so full of refuse that it became a scandal. The secretary of the Smithsonian called it “mephitic,” so noxious was the stink.
Washington city planners decided that the only thing to do was to put the canal underground so the effluent could be controlled. On top of the canal, they built a street.
Constitution Avenue became a very important street to us, says Field. And the sewer below was a great gift to the hygiene of the city.
“It’s not the Salon Doré,” says Field, “but it was a direct imitation of what they were doing in Paris.”
And that’s an example of French influence for which everyone in Washington — including the diplomats and dignitaries who dined in state Tuesday night at the White House — should be grateful.