Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C.

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9780375422805: Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C.
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Grand Avenues tells the riveting story of Pierre Charles L’Enfant and the creation of Washington D.C.--from the seeds of his inspiration to the fulfillment of his extraordinary vision.

L’Enfant’s story is one of consuming passion, high emotion, artistic genius, and human frailty. As a boy he studied drawing at the most prestigious art institute in the world. As a young man he left his home in Paris to volunteer in the army of the American colonies, where he served under George Washington. There he would also meet many of the people who would have a profound impact on his life, including Alexander Hamilton and James Monroe. And it was Washington himself who, in 1791, entrusted L’Enfant with the planning of the nation’s capital--and reluctantly allowed him to be dismissed from the project eleven months later. The plan for the city was published under another name, and for the remainder of his life L’Enfant fought for recognition of his achievement. But he would not live to see that day, and a century would pass before L’Enfant would be given credit for his brilliant design.

Scott W. Berg recounts this tale, richly evocative of time and place, with the narrative verve of a novel and with a cast of characters that ranges from Thomas Jefferson and the other Founding Fathers to the surveyor who took credit for L’Enfant’s plans, the assistant who spent a week in jail for his loyalty to L’Enfant, and the men who finally restored L’Enfant’s reputation at the beginning of the twentienth century.

Here is a fascinating, little-explored episode in American history: the story of a visionary artist and of the founding of the magnificent city that is his enduring legacy.

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About the Author:

Scott W. Berg holds a B.A. in architecture from the University of Minnesota, an M.A. from Miami University, and an M.F.A. in creative writing from George Mason University, where he now teaches nonfiction writing and literature. He publishes frequently in The Washington Post and lives in Washington, D.C. Visit his Web sites at www.scottwberg.com and www.grandavenues.com.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1: A Pedestal Waiting for a Superstructure

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 9, 1791

Major L'Enfant entered Georgetown well after dark, nearing the end of one exhausting journey and anxious to begin another. He arrived on foot, blanketed by a steady rain, his breath visible and his overcoat wet, his boots caked with mud, and his belongings packed onto his horse. The stagecoach that had been L'Enfant's southward conveyance had broken down many miles back, but the architect had not waited for another, eager to get to the banks of the Potomac River and begin what promised to be the culminating work of a lifetime.

The major was alone. He was unmarried, without family in the United States, and if there had been any romantic ties in New York City, where he'd lived for most of the past five years, they had been cut. His father, once an accomplished painter of battle scenes for the court of Louis XV, had died three years earlier. His mother was at home in Paris leading a widow's life in her apartment at the royal tapestry manufacture, sheltered by the king's soldiers from the strikes, protests, and bread riots proliferating elsewhere in the city. The French Revolution was gaining steam, but L'Enfant was not dwelling on the troubles in his homeland. He had already helped to bring about one revolution in America, and that was where his sights and thoughts remained.

The name and talents of Peter Charles L'Enfant were well known to many of America's most influential citizens, and his Federal Hall in New York was the most famous building in the nation. Now he had embarked upon a task that he knew would eventually require the labor of many thousands of men and the outlay of vast sums of money, a task that would also require that he maintain the approbation of the young nation's most eminent leader. Still the major thought of himself as the man who would single-handedly bring forth an entire city through the force of his own will. For other men it would have been a waking dream, but L'Enfant saw it as his destiny and his due.

He carried a letter dated the first of March from Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson's instructions, approved by the president, gave L'Enfant the task of surveying the area along the Potomac River between Rock Creek, bordering Georgetown, and the mouth of the Eastern Branch, more than three miles to the southeast, in order that some section of that ground might be transformed into the new and permanent seat of government for the United States. The project was not just ambitious, it was unprecedented: the capital of a new world empire was to be set down in a quiet, sparsely inhabited territory of hills, forests, farms, and wetlands.

This city would not take shape through the slow accretion of time. It would not happen; it would be made. If it were to succeed, L'Enfant believed, it had to be planned by only one man. Though Jefferson's letter did not ask him to create a plan for the capital, L'Enfant had every expectation that his would be the hand holding the pencil, his the mind shaping the streets, squares, and monumental spaces, and his the name most closely associated with its realization. It was a deed in need of a fertile and tireless imagination, and he knew of only two individuals who possessed the necessary breadth of vision and reservoirs of commitment for its accomplishment: himself and the president. He had never failed George Washington in fifteen years of service to the American cause, and he would not do so now.

The spring was shaping up to be dour and difficult, and as L'Enfant moved downslope in the direction of the Potomac, past modest, well-kept structures of wood and brick, the streets were quieter than usual thanks to the chill and rain. The long journey surely would have awakened the old twinges in his leg. He had taken the wound eleven years earlier during the siege of Savannah, when, as a Continental Army captain desperate for distinction, he had rushed forward with a squad of men in a doomed attempt to set fire to a British infantry barrier. A musket volley at close range had ended his brief career in battle, and the resulting injury would eventually, in his old age, require the use of a cane. The wound would also become a badge of honor, an irrefutable soldierly credential he would invoke again and again when he felt his adopted country had turned its back on him.

Accustomed to the patient rhythms of agriculture and dominated by the wealth of a very few intertwined families, Georgetown in 1791 was a prosperous port town finishing the fourth decade of a growth spurt fueled by the proceeds of tobacco exportation. Situated on a sedate stretch of water just below the Potomac's final set of falls, peopled by roughly twenty-five hundred whites and five hundred African slaves, the town was a convivial stopover for travelers taking overland trips along the eastern seaboard. Provincial and unassuming as it could seem, Georgetown was also familiar with the dialects of all fourteen states and the accents of many countries; its leading ladies dressed in European fashions, and its harbor was often host to foreign ships.

L'Enfant passed homes, attorneys' offices, and dry goods emporiums, watchmakers and barbershops and furniture stores, until he reached his destination just a few storefronts from the lapping waters of the Potomac. The Fountain Inn was a simple two-story wooden tavern and hotel with a stable on the premises. The entire operation was better known as Suter's, thanks to the popularity of its proprietor, John Suter, friend and host to politicians, businessmen, ambassadors, and other varieties of wandering gentlemen. L'Enfant was a distinguished arrival, sent to Georgetown by the president himself, but he made little time for conversation. Rather than settle into his rooms for the evening, he asked for directions and went back out into the damp toward the home of Mayor Thomas Beall. According to Jefferson's instructions, that was where L'Enfant was to make arrangements for the assistants and materials necessary for his surveying work.

L'Enfant was thirty-six years old in March 1791 and, aside from any lingering ache in his leg, in good physical health. It is one of the many blunt ironies of the major's life story that no authenticated image of him exists, outside of a single small silhouette made around 1785. Contemporary observers never quite agreed on a physical description, supplying only a vague outline of a man on the tall side with a prominent nose who, at least in the period before his work on the capital, usually presented an elegant appearance and carried himself as a gentleman. But those who crossed professional paths with L'Enfant were unanimous in describing him as a passionate talker, an unquenchable egoist who was monomaniacal about his work and convinced that he was the only person who could do that work so well. He certainly wasn't the kind of man to wonder if others might prefer that he wait until morning to begin.

Mayor Beall might have been taken aback by the late hour, but he had no reason to be anything but affable and offered the major a greeting and an apology, for it turned out that he knew nothing of the architect's needs and had no help at hand. L'Enfant was quickly able to establish his bona fides and receive the necessary assurances, but the mix-up was vexing. How had Jefferson, Washington's second on matters regarding the federal city, failed to prepare the mayor of Georgetown for this moment? L'Enfant knew that the surveyor Andrew Ellicott had also taken a room at Suter's and was already four weeks into the arduous work of setting off the ten-by-ten-mile square, tilted on its point, that was to contain the new seat of government. Had Ellicott's arrival met with a similarly unaccountable lack of advance notice? Workers had to be hired and paid, tools procured; there were myriad moving parts to put in motion.

An artist in possession of the most advanced professional training available in Europe, L'Enfant had left Paris at the age of twenty-two, arriving in America early in 1777 as a temporarily commissioned lieutenant in the Continental Army. Over the next six years he'd risen to the rank of captain and finally to major as he experienced firsthand the physical deprivation, precarious progress, and principled sacrifice of the War for Independence. The list of men he'd befriended and impressed along the way included many of the most famous soldiers and politicians of his time. Still, all that adventure was only a prelude: this inchoate seat of federal government along the Potomac was now of paramount importance, and here the greatest of L'Enfant's ambitions would be fulfilled.

The next day he rose to an unfortunate sight: the rain through which he'd slogged the night before had not lessened in vigor. The survey he was to perform for Washington and Jefferson required visibility, the ability to find high ground and grasp the rise and fall of hundreds and even thousands of acres of land. Given the conditions, he might have been forgiven for staying inside to rest and catch up on some long-overdue correspondence. But he had waited years for this opportunity and was past ready to begin. Without bothering to wait on the supplies and assistants that Mayor Beall was hastily arranging, L'Enfant donned his hat and coat, retrieved his horse, and rode off into the rain.
The largest stone in the political foundation of L'Enfant's journey had been laid eight months earlier, in July 1790, with the passage of the Residence Act. These six paragraphs of federal legislation authorized President Washington to place a district of one hundred square miles somewhere along the Potomac between the Eastern Branch and the Conococheague Creek, eighty miles upriver, for the establishment of a national capital. No state would have jurisdiction in this territory following the transfer of the federal government from Philadelphia, a move set for December 1800. It was a deadline so close—less than ten years away—as to seem fanciful, even laughable, to many Americans.

The establi...

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