What's all this talk about Pierre L'Enfant's plan for Washington?
The impassioned pleas to preserve this city's precious "vistas" came first from Robert Peck of the D.C. Preservation League "Whose Street Is It Anyway?" Close to Home, May 4 and then from Frederick Hart of the Fine Arts Commission "PortAmerica: How Tall Is Too Tall?" Close to Home, May 18 . Both are worried that developments in and around town will wreck the view L'Enfant supposedly intended.
This is L'Enfant's city, writes Peck, whose "sweeping vistas are readily recognized as symbols of democracy throughout the world." Mom, flag and apple pie! He argues that Eighth Street, the site of the Techworld construction, was to be a "most special street" and a "key cross-axis."
Frederick Hart agrees with all this and goes on to fault, also based on a misconception of the L'Enfant plan, the PortAmerica project in Prince George's County.
There is yet another similar controversy, which is just as fallacious, raging over the D.C. Stadium.
As an avowed preservationist, supporter of the D.C. Preservation League and a member of the Committee of 100, I find all these controversies particularly painful. My friends mean well. But unfortunately, most of them have never even seen the L'Enfant plan, much less studied it. I have.
The L'Enfant plan is kept securely in a cabinet within a locked vault at the Library of Congress. Between November 1966, when it was last exhibited, and 1985, when it was shown to about 20 interested citizens, perhaps no more than a dozen people saw the faded and by now mostly illegible document.
In the late 1970s, I was extended the honor of being allowed to work directly with the original and to photograph it with infrared and filtered photography. The results of that research, and the research of two other respected colleagues, were published by the Library of Congress in 1979.
The plan at the Library of Congress is attributed to Pierre L'Enfant solely on circumstantial evidence. It is the only plan in existence that conforms to his written comments. If this plan is not the L'Enfant plan of 1791, then we do not have his plan.
What does it say about 8th Street? Nothing at all.
Allusions to a L'Enfant-inspired "vista" along 8th Street are unsubstantiated. Pierre Charles L'Enfant neither drew nor wrote anything even remotely suggesting such an idea for Eighth Street. Furthermore, L'Enfant was quite explicit in the usage and dimensions of his major streets (which some might term "vista" streets), and Eighth Street does not conform to his criteria.
L'Enfant's avenues were to be 160 feet wide, while the secondary, but still major, streets were to be "those leading to public buildings or markets" with a width of 130 feet. The remaining city streets were to be more narrow neighborhood streets of the third and fourth rank with widths of 110 and 90 feet, respectively. L'Enfant termed these simply as "other" streets. L'Enfant's plan shows Eighth Street as one of the innumerable "other" narrow streets, and also shows it to be distinctly off-center between Seventh and Ninth streets.
Today Eighth Street varies in width from 100 feet to 85 feet and is even farther off center in the southern (85-foot) segment than it is in the northern 100-foot segment. This is an odd state of affairs for a street that some would argue is a "major" street with special "vistas." Common sense dictates otherwise.
The idea that Eighth Street is a "special" street has come about only in recent years, and it arose because portions of the Carnegie Library and the Old Patent Office can be seen from each other along Eighth Street. A similar situation exists to the south of the Old Patent Office, where a portion of the National Archives can be seen from another segment of Eighth Street. The fact of the matter is that the Carnegie Library, the Old Patent Office and the National Archives are all structures erected upon sites that L'Enfant dedicated for distinctly different purposes. They are, and will remain, off center of Eighth Street, which was never intended to connect such buildings along its axis.
This tempest in a teapot is all the more foolish when one realizes that L'Enfant's plan of 1791 is not the plan of this city. The plan approved by George Washington for the national capital is by James Dermott (plan dated 1796-97), which is a substantial alteration and correction of an earlier (1792) plan by Benjamin and Andrew Ellicott. When L'Enfant discovered the plan that the Ellicotts had drafted, he declared that his design and intentions were "most unmercifully spoiled and altered from the original plan to a degree indeed evidently tending to disgrace me and ridicule the very undertaking."
A careful comparison of the various plans, as well as the written documents, leads me to conclusions at variance with those of my friends. Most of the documents concerning the planning of Washington have never been published. The reason, I suspect, is that they do not conform with preconceived opinions of how the city should look.
To attribute motives to the defenseless, deceased L'Enfant, in an effort to extend credentials to something that he likely never intended, is unconscionable.
Eighth Street is not a "vista." It is only a street with three attractive buildings, each three blocks apart: the Carnegie Library, the Old Patent Office and the National Archives. These buildings are what we want to see. We will still see them if Techworld is built.
Peck and Hart are sincere individuals acting in good faith. But unfortunately they have been duped by a few individuals who take exception to anything not representing their own taste and who will petulantly advance any argument, no matter how specious, in order to force others to conform to their aesthetic judgment.