The French Heart Of Washington

Reviewed by Benjamin Forgey
Sunday, April 1, 2007


The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C.

By Scott W. Berg

Pantheon. 336 pp. $25

On the rainy evening in March of 1791 when Maj. Pierre Charles L'Enfant arrived in the lively little port of Georgetown, few people besides the 36-year-old major himself had an inkling of the visionary enterprise he was about to undertake.

L'Enfant's instructions were limited. He was to make drawings of the territory selected two months earlier by President George Washington as a site for the new nation's capital city. But to say that L'Enfant interpreted this limited mandate broadly is to greatly understate the case.

Setting to the arduous work the very next day and continuing without letup into the summer, the veteran of America's Revolutionary War proceeded to lay out a city that was ambitious in scale, boldly imaginative in form and rich in symbolic reach. The city L'Enfant foresaw was, in effect, a complex, spacious urban stage upon which the promise of the new democracy could be born.

L'Enfant early on gained the impassioned support of Washington, for his plan reflected the first president's Federalist penchant for making the capital a bold embodiment of a strong central government. But the transplanted Frenchman, who preferred the Anglicized Peter to his given name Pierre, made many more enemies than friends during his brief stay on the national stage, including local landowners and the three commissioners Washington appointed to oversee the capital's development. Nor was Thomas Jefferson a fan of L'Enfant or his plan -- he distrusted big cities and had his own, more modest ideas about what the capital should be.

In the end, not even George Washington's support could save L'Enfant from the political entanglements of his time, and he received scant credit during his lifetime. He was pretty well forgotten by the time he died, in 1825, an impecunious 70-year-old guest at a Prince George's County plantation.

The story of the city's founding and its great plan -- disillusioning and inspirational by turns -- is a riveting tale that has been told before. But the life of L'Enfant has long needed a lively, thorough, fair-minded accounting, and this is precisely what it gets in Grand Avenues. Scott W. Berg, who teaches writing at George Mason University, has gifts for narrative exposition and vivid description, which serve him well throughout.

Early in the book, Berg is able to dismiss the tired myth of the federal district as a "swamp" without even using the word. "Wedged in the elbow of two rivers," he writes, "the undulating landscape offered considerable variety: fields of tobacco and corn, small forests of maple and black cherry and tulip poplar, waterside bluffs and patches of tidal marsh, all of it spotted with great Georgian homes made of brick and the smaller wooden structures of tenant farmers and slaves."

This, then, was the land that L'Enfant traveled day after day, his mind alive with the possibility of its transformation. How he got to such a point is a tale rich with improbability. He arrived on American soil in early 1777, one of many ambitious young Frenchmen who sought glory by coming to the aid of the rebellious American colonies. Though he was neither a soldier nor an engineer, he came here under both labels. Severely wounded during a brave if ill-advised assault on British fortifications in Savannah, he served seven largely undistinguished years in the Continental Army. But he had spent much of his youth in the vicinity of André Le Nôtre's dramatic royal gardens in Versailles, had been rigorously trained as an artist at the Royal Academy in Paris and had observed urban plans at work in that city. He also had the gift of making friends in high places -- most notably, the commanding general himself -- and was able to parlay these skills into a career so promising that, by the mid-1780s, he was sought out by the new nation's elite for many artistic and architectural commissions.

These years were preparation for the plan of the new capital city, the one indisputably great deed of L'Enfant's life. Washington chose L'Enfant for the job because he was uniquely qualified to do it, but the president was forced to accept the planner's resignation less than a year after the appointment. This is the core of Berg's story. He spends several chapters disentangling the "contagion of disorder and distrust" that enveloped L'Enfant and his plan. L'Enfant never was able to comprehend the political importance of the presidentially appointed commissioners, and he oversaw the dismantling of a house that intruded on the route of one of his grand avenues -- a house belonging to a wealthy, well-connected landowner.

More important, however, Berg leads us to understand just how basic the disagreements between L'Enfant and his antagonists were. L'Enfant spoke the language of a sophisticated, visionary urban planner in the European tradition. The commissioners simply did not understand this language. Furthermore, L'Enfant knew that only public expenditure -- entailing public borrowing -- could pay for what today we'd call the plan's infrastructure, thus assuring a healthy beginning for the capital. That idea, rooted in royalist Europe, ran against the grain in the politically disputatious and sectionally divided new republic.

But what glorious infrastructure! It took more than a century to build even a semblance of L'Enfant's brilliant dream, but the vision was strong enough -- and subtle enough -- to survive. Berg tells the story with appealing empathy and comes to a rousing -- and proper -- conclusion: L'Enfant's plan was "the first great artistic achievement that could truly be called 'American.' " ·

Benjamin Forgey is the former architecture critic of The Washington Post

© 2007 The Washington Post Company