DC Mythbusting: Traffic Circles

Photo courtesy of
‘Sheridan Statue Hoof’
courtesy of ‘Mr. T in DC’

Welcome to another edition of DC Mythbusting!  Last week we discussed how, contrary to popular belief, the height limit wasn’t based on the Capitol or the Washington Monument.  This week I’m here to debunk the myth of the traffic circles in DC.   I have heard from a couple different sources that supposedly Pierre L’Enfant designed the traffic circles in Washington DC as artillery bases to defend the city.  It is said that cannons were placed in the center of the circles to defend against cavalry.  This myth has some traction out there– it can be found in transportation magazines, Washingtonian magazine, and even a book.

The fact is that the circles weren’t even originally envisioned as circles.  According to Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, DC, L’Enfant had planned for squares where the avenues intersected the grid.  In fact, L’Enfant’s plan for the squares was more of an economic development tool: he thought that each square should be settled by residents and Congressmen of a particular state, creating informal state ’embassies’, and that states would then encourage the development of that particular area of the city.  In this way, the squares would encourage both business and residents to locate near their home state square and foster community development.  His plan for the development of the city was to start developing at each of these nodes and connect the nodes with grand avenues.

So what should go in the squares themselves?  Well, according to Grand Avenues:

“Some would contain fountains and memorial columns.  Each square would be visible from the next along the city’s diagonal avenues; none was more than a half mile from its nearest counterpart, a distance L’Enfant knew… as the limit of visual comprehension.” (103)

Long story short: the squares (now circles) were initially envisioned as the focal points of the first neighborhoods in the Federal City, and they were intended to provide a sense of rhythm and organization to the layout of the city. However, a century later the McMillan plan didn’t promote L’Enfant’s scheme of state-focused squares; by the time the 1901 plan came about, there were 45 states, and the squares were mostly under private ownership.  But perhaps L’Enfant’s plan was realized in some sense: Michael Bednar’s book L’Enfant’s Legacy focuses on the history of public spaces in DC and the role of the squares/circles in establishing neighborhood and district identity.  After the Civil War, many of these squares and circles were chosen as locations for monuments and memorials to war heroes, and they were transformed from informal playgrounds to these more formal monuments that weren’t as welcoming.

Today, most of the squares and circles are public parks, and many continue to be focal points of Washington’s neighborhoods.  In fact, some of DC’s most vibrant neighborhoods are named after their parks: Dupont Circle, Logan Circle, and Mt. Vernon Square aren’t named after states, but they are home to congressmen, residents from all over the country, and the type of development that L’Enfant would be proud of.

Shannon grew up in the greater DC area/Maryland suburbs, went to Virginia for college and grad school (go Hoos!), and settled in DC in 2006. She’s an urban planner who loves transit (why yes, that is her dressed as a Metro pylon for Halloween), cities, and all things DC. Email her at Shannon (at) WeLoveDC.com!

15 thoughts on “DC Mythbusting: Traffic Circles

  1. I didn’t realize there was such a myth. It’s a fairly silly one; I’m not sure how artillery placed on squares in the middle of the city are supposed to defend against attacks from (presumably) outside the city. Peripheral fortifications would make more sense, if defense were the goal. It also clashes with the development of diagonal boulevards in other cities around the same time period.

  2. Agreed- as choke-points for defense, there’s some merit (not much), but then- as today- defending a city means using the mess of streets, alleyways, and congested sight-lines to make life hell on an invader. Open space- like at Dupont for example- can act more as a rallying point for an invader rather than a hindrance.

  3. shannon, you are a fountain of knowledge. you better believe i’m whipping that trivia out at bars and when i take my touristing friends around town.

  4. Actually this myth isn’t about defending from outside invaders, it’s from suppressing riots; a common problem during the 1790s. I remember first coming across it in high school Euro history (spread by our teacher, no less), and it was brought up in relation to how Napolean put down the riots of the Directory with a “whiff of grapeshot.”

    As pointed out, circles make natural focal points, and thus by putting artillery at such points, you can control the movement of riotous crowds; or so goes the myth. As I recall being told, only time any artillery was placed at any of the circles in the city was during the MLK riots of the 60s.

    So, for further myths, how about tackling the “Marine Core hand” on the Iwo Jima memorial?

  5. I’d actually heard that the traffic circles were placed where they were b/c they were where L’Enfant’s coffee rings were on his original plan. unlikely but amusing to share.

  6. According to George Washington, when he twittered @welovedc this morning, Thomas Jefferson just wanted a plain grid, and L’Enfant thought that was “insipid.” Washington supported L’Enfant’s plan.

  7. And people say that older generations can’t adopt new technology. You show ’em, George!

  8. I’ve perpetuated this myth! Oh no! So are the wide avenues still for marching armies, or suppressing riots, as Brian (above) and other have suggested?

  9. As far as I know, the avenues were designed primarily to the resemble Parisian boulevards that L’Enfant had known. Wide right-of-way, lower-scale buildings, and grand views.

    Nothing in my research showed a military/riot/army connection in the design of DC (this includes circles or avenues or the general layout).

    Thanks for the idea for the next myth, Brian!

  10. Paris had no boulevards like those planned for Washington….Baron Haussmann did not transform the mediaeval Parisian streetscape until the era of Napoleon III–1850s-1870s.

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  12. #10 is correct that Paris had not yet been transformed, but L’Enfant would have known of Versailles and other instances where the French/Baroque style of boulevards and allees with focal points had been applied.

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  15. Anyway the city plan looks like it could be defended reasonably well. I heard from I local resident that he had seen some old manuscript detailing ranging and calibration specs for artillery in the various circles.