DC Mythbusting: Pierre L’Enfant Planned DC

Photo courtesy of
‘L’Enfant’s Plan at Freedom Plaza’
courtesy of ‘CathyLovesDC’

Ask just about any Washingtonian who planned the city, and they’ll know it was some French guy, or maybe they’ll even come up with his name, Pierre L’Enfant.  But that wasn’t always the case– for years, Pierre L’Enfant never got credit for designing the city.  So while we all know this ‘myth’ is true, for decades it was just that: a myth. Wondering how this all came to be? Read on for the sad story (spoiler alert: there’s a happy ending!).

Back in 1791, George Washington announced the new nation’s capital would be constructed here at the confluence of the Potomac and Eastern Branch rivers, in a square that was to be ten miles on each side.  Pierre L’Enfant, a French artist/engineer, was a friend of Washington’s and asked to be a part of the planning of this new city.  Washington agreed, and L’Enfant was put on the job.

Over the next couple months, L’Enfant worked closely with two surveyors, Benjamin Banneker and Andrew Ellicott, in realizing his plan for the city. L’Enfant came up with the brilliant outline for the city– a series of grand avenues radiating out from the centers of power, with a grid street network on top of that, and a central green connecting it all. Here’s the thing: L’Enfant was really passionate about his work.  And with that passion came a bit of craziness.  He missed some deadlines, had frequent shouting matches, and pissed off some high-powered people.  In March of 1792, Washington was forced to dismiss him from the planning effort.

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘Barbara.K’

Banneker and Ellicott took over the planning then, with Banneker allegedly replicating L’Enfant’s plan from memory (it turns out this isn’t true– the timelines don’t match up, and draft versions of L’Enfant’s plan were still in the city).  Andrew Ellicott then took it upon himself to produce a final, engraved plan for DC that was strikingly similar to L’Enfant’s and present it as his own.  He got credit for designing the city, and L’Enfant became a crazy old man who hung out in the Capitol asking for payment for his work (which no one believed he did).  He died in 1825 with only $46 to his name, and with no recognition of his work.

Fast forward 75 years: in 1901, DC was struggling (no one wanted to live here, cows grazed on the Mall, it was all a mess).  The Senate formed the McMillan Commission, a team of planners and engineers who were told to fix it.  As part of their research into the history of DC, the McMillan Commission uncovered Pierre L’Enfant’s initial plans and realized that Ellicott got all of L’Enfant’s credit, and that the kooky old man who wanted his money actually had a point.  They also realized that the best thing they could do to fix the city was to implement more of L’Enfant’s design.

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘MichaelTRuhl’

Here’s your happy ending: In 1909, Congress decided to make things right.  L’Enfant’s remains were disinterred from a farm in Maryland, transported to the District, and laid in state on April 28, 1909.  Then the remains were taken from the Capitol to Arlington Cemetery, and now his grave overlooks the city the he was instrumental in planning.

L’Enfant was responsible for planning the city, that’s not a myth.  But it’s a shame that L’Enfant didn’t live to see recognition or appreciation for his plan for Washington, and that he died as a crazy old man who probably told far-fetched tales of planning DC that no one believed.  If only there had been a Mythbusting: Andrew Ellicott Planned DC back in the 1800s!

For further reading: Grand Avenues by Scott W. Berg is a fantastic biography about Pierre L’Enfant’s life and experiences in Washington.  It’s highly recommended if you find this stuff interesting.

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!

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