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Pierre Charles L'Enfant

Pierre Charles L'Enfant

civil engineer, architect

Expertise

Design, Construction

Location

USA
My highlights

Designed the plans for the US capital, Washington DC

Designed Federal Hall in New York City

Designed Morris House in Philadelphia

A day in my life

L’Enfant was thought to be an ‘exasperating genius’, according to journalist Lawrence Knutson.

The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) shared that he had disagreeable traits, such as a temper and ‘overbearing disposition’.

Historians believe this led to several disagreements with city commissioners and ended in L’Enfant being released of his post by President George Washington in 1792.

That same year, Washington wrote: “The conduct of Major L’Enfant and those employed under him, astonishes me beyond measure! And something more than even appears, must be meant by them!”

It became clear that Washington had an issue with L’Enfant’s attitude, but Bob Arnebeck, author of Through a Fiery Trial: Building Washington, 1790-1800, suggests that Washington’s displeasure with L’Enfant might have been related to his sexual orientation, as it was known that L’Enfant was a gay man.

In his old age, he lived with friends at Green Hill, in Maryland. He died penniless in 1825.

In 1909, his body was moved to Arlington National Cemetery, where Congress erected a monument for him.

Pierre ‘Peter’ Charles L’Enfant was a French-born civil engineer and architect who was responsible for designing Washington DC, in the United States.

His design features a European-style, tree-filled city, which includes grid systems, wide diagonal avenues, public squares, monuments, and canals. For the creation of his design, L’Enfant took inspiration from European cities such as Versailles and London.

The American people really took to the Mall in the 20th century and turned it into this great civic stage… That was something that Pierre L'Enfant never envisioned... a place for us to speak to our national leaders in the spotlight.

More about Pierre

Designing a brand-new capital for the nation

In 1791, President George Washington hired L’Enfant to prepare a plan for their brand-new federal capital, established a year earlier. An act of Congress authorised the construction of a federal district along the Potomac river, in what was then filled with marshes, forests and plantations.

This location offered an easy route to the western frontier and situated the capital between the northern and southern states that comprised the United States at the time.

Judy Scott Feldman, chairwoman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall, explains that L’Enfant ‘essentially had a clean slate on which to design the city’.

He went beyond a simple survey of the land and opted for a city that would make the most of existing changes in elevation and contours of waterways.

The city plans

This plan consisted of a grid of rectangular blocks upon which broad diagonal avenues were superimposed. The purpose was to focus on the Capitol and the presidential mansion, forming many squares, circles, and triangles at street intersections where fountains and monuments could be placed. The plan also foresaw the needs of public transportation.

US Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson had provided L’Enfant with maps of various European cities for inspiration, and L’Enfant integrated the design of these cities to create something unique.

The centrepiece of his plan was a public walk, now known as the National Mall. It’s a wide strip of grass and trees that stretches out 2mi (3.2km), from Capitol Hill to the Potomac river. The Smithsonian museum flanks both sides of the Mall.

L’Enfant placed Congress on a high point connecting it to the White House via Pennsylvania Avenue.

Concerned city commissioners

The French-born civil engineer refused to compromise when it came to his grand design. This led to conflict with city commissioners who were concerned with funding the project and appeasing wealthy landowners in the area.

After L’Enfant demolished the house of Daniel Carroll, an influential Washington resident, to make way for one the avenues, the civil engineer was forced to leave his post.

While he didn’t receive credit or payment, L’Enfant’s plan for the city was mostly followed.

Membership of societies

L’Enfant was a member of the Society of the Cincinnati, an association of former Revolutionary officers who promoted union and national honour.

He designed the medal and diploma for the society, before helping to organise the French branch of the society in Paris.

Education

L’Enfant studied art at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in France from 1771 until 1776, when he enlisted as a volunteer in the American Continental Army at the beginning of the American Revolution (1775-1783).

To recognise his service in the war, the US Congress made him major of engineers in 1783.

Career

After a brief visit to France, where he set up the French arm of the Society of the Cincinnati (a revolutionary and patriotic organisation), L’Enfant returned to the United States in 1784 and settled in New York City.

While in New York City, he renovated the old city hall for the US Congress as Federal Hall (1888-89), using decorations of the Doric order, characterised by simple columns.

Later, he designed Morris House in Philadelphia, a grandiose structure that started construction in 1794, but was never finished.

Fascinating facts

L’Enfant was a Freemason.

L’Enfant tried to obtain $95,000 USD as payment for his services designing the capital, but Congress offered him only $3,800 USD, a sum they thought proper.

The Lockkeeper’s House at 17th Street NW and Constitution Avenue is the last standing piece of L’Enfant’s proposed City Canal, once connected to the C&O Canal. It’s the oldest building on the National Mall.

Notable projects

  • Washington DC
  • Federal Hall
  • Morris House