Mythbusting DC, The Features

DC Mythbusting: No J Street Because L’Enfant Held a Grudge

Photo courtesy of
‘DSC_0016.jpg’
courtesy of ‘Chris Rief aka Spodie Odie’

Here at DC Mythbusting we’ve covered a lot of myths, but the one I referenced in the first ever Mythbusting feature is one of the most persistent I’ve ever heard.  That myth attempts to explain the lack of a J Street in DC.  In all four quadrants of our fair city, the street that comes after I Street is K Street.  So what happened to J Street?

The myth states that our city’s planner, Pierre L’Enfant, left out J Street as a slight to John Jay.  Legend has it that L’Enfant hated John Jay for the 1794 Jay Treaty, which settled some issues between America and Great Britain.  The treaty was generally unpopular with Americans because it seemed to greatly favor the British, and the French were mad too because they were an ally during the Revolutionary War and now were fighting Great Britain on their own.  Supposedly, L’Enfant was upset because he was a French-born American, so he was doubly pissed.

However, this myth falls apart entirely when you look at the timeline of things.  L’Enfant’s plan for DC was finalized in early 1792, and the Jay Treaty didn’t happen until 1794.  And the other myth, that John Jay stole Pierre L’Enfant’s wife or girlfriend, also falls apart when you learn that Pierre L’Enfant was gay.  So there’s really no truth about the omission of J Street as a slight to John Jay. Continue reading

Mythbusting DC, The Features

DC Mythbusting*: Washington Monument On Axis

The Washington Monument is not on axis!

The Washington Monument is not on axis!

 I admit it, I’m definitely a perfectionist.  I’m a big fan of symmetry and straight lines and order.  I think that’s one of the reasons I like DC so much– L’Enfant’s plan is so orderly, with the important sites marked by radiating avenues, and the clear axis of power coming straight down the Mall.  But something has always bothered me– the center of the White House doesn’t look like it lines up with the Washington Monument.  Why, in a city so based on order and symmetry and strong axes, does the Washington Monument not line up?!

Because the ground right at the intersection of the center of the White House and the center of the Capitol was not strong enough to support such a giant structure.  Originally, L’Enfant had proposed a small equestrian statue of George Washingon at the intersection of the east-west axis of the Capitol and the north-south axis of the White House.  But plans changed, and the Washington Monument went there instead.  The Monument was larger and heavier than anything that L’Enfant had envisioned, so it had to be shifted off axis to avoid less solid, marshy ground.  The Monument now rests “about 300 feet southeast of the crossing point of L’Enfant’s two primary vistas” (from Grand Avenues, page 271).  Mystery solved!

So has anyone besides me noticed and been bothered by this?  Or am I the only one who will be sleeping easier tonight knowing that there’s a reason behind the off-axis placement of the Monument?

* Ok, so I realize this isn’t a myth exactly.  But it’s something that’s always bothered me about DC that I couldn’t figure out.  If you have a DC myth in mind that you’d like me to bust/confirm, please e-mail me at shannon (at) welovedc.com.  Thanks!

Life in the Capital, Mythbusting DC, The District, The Features

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. Continue reading