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.