TODAY IS PIERRE CHARLES L'Enfant's birthday. He would be 233 years old, which is about how long it seems to take for the typical traffic tie-up around Dupont Circle to clear out.
L'Enfant's stint as a city planner began in March 1791 when George Washington appointed him to plan the federal city. L'Enfant, an arrogant, brilliant Frenchman, had a penchant for wide avenues, sweeping vistas, traffic circles and planning on the scale of Versailles -- all of which got him into trouble almost immediately in the new capital.
Washington wanted the sale of city lots to pay for building the Capitol and White House. L'Enfant wanted a million-dollar loan to finance public buildings, keeping private developers out until they were completed. His plan for the city required more than half the land to be used for highways and parks, a portion for government buildings and the remainder -- disappointingly small to the developers -- to be subdivided and sold.
Then, L'Enfant refused even to turn over his plan so it could be distributed to prospective buyers of the lots, and the sale was a failure. At the time, Washington wrote to Thomas Jefferson, "The conduct of Major L'Enfant . . . astonished me beyond measure!"
In September 1791, one of the richest men in Washington and its largest landowner, Daniel Carroll, tried to build a new house. When L'Enfant saw where Carroll was building his new manor, he ordered his men to tear down Carroll's uncompleted house, lest it mar the vista from the yet-unbuilt Capitol and the yet-uncut New Jersey Avenue SE.
The city commissioners then sent one of L'Enfant's demolition experts to jail and both sides appealed to the president. In February 1792 Washington fired L'Enfant, offering him $2,500 for services rendered and a $300 lot near the White House. L'Enfant told Washington to keep his money and also refused the land.
He died penniless in nearby Prince George's County in 1825. As his letters reveal, his sad life was a true Washington story, the result of an artistic genius trying to work with uncreative pols.