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D.C. Capitol

Photo by John McShane

PIERRE L'ENFANT AND THE NATIONAL MALL

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For tourist and resident alike, the National Mall of Washington, D.C. will always be the glorious central axis of the District's monumental core, just as it was designed to be by architect and engineer Pierre L'Enfant in 1791.

Located in the area encompassed by Constitution and Pennsylvania Avenues, NW on the north, First Street on the east, Independence and Maryland Avenues on the south, and 14th Street on the west, the Mall was originally envisioned by its designer as the foremost boulevard of the city, the so-called "Grand Avenue."

Who was the man with the inspired vision for the Mall? Pierre L'Enfant was a French artist and engineer who formed a warm friendship with George Washington and Brevet Major, U.S. Army, while serving as Captain, U.S. Engineers, in the Revolutionary War. After the war ended, L'Enfant found work first in New York City remodeling the old City Hall for the meeting of the First Congress, and then helping with the design of Philadelphia's Federal Hall.

On January 24, 1791, President George Washington announced the congressionally designated, permanent location of the national capital – a diamond-shaped, ten-mile tract at the confluence of the Potomac and Eastern Branch Rivers. Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker undertook a preliminary survey of the area. As soon as L'Enfant got word of the project, he let it be known to President Washington that he was interested in designing it, and in March 1791, was hired to prepare the first plans.

Who was the man with the inspired first vision for the Mall? Pierre L'Enfant was a French artist and engineer who, by chance, had formed a warm friendship with George Washington while serving as captain, U.S. Engineers, and Brevet Major, U.S. Army, in the Revolutionary War. After the war ended, L'Enfant found work first in New York City remodeling the old City Hall for the meeting of the First Congress, then helping with the design of Philadelphia's Federal Hall.

On January 24, 1791, President George Washington announced the Congressionally designated, permanent location of the national capital – a diamond-shaped, ten-mile tract at the confluence of the Potomac and Eastern Branch Rivers. A preliminary survey of the area was undertaken by Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker. As soon as L'Enfant got word of the project, he let it be known to President Washington that he was interested in designing it, and in March 1791, was hired to prepare the first plans.

After surveying the site, L'Enfant came up with a complex plan that included ceremonial spaces and "grand avenues." The result: a system of intersecting diagonal avenues superimposed over a grid system, with avenues radiating out from what were to be houses for Congress and the President.

L'Enfant specified in his notes that he meant the avenues to be wide and lined with trees. He also wanted them to visually connect with other sites throughout the city where important structures, monuments and fountains, were to be built.

In his early written plans, L'Enfant shaded and numbered 15 large open spaces at the intersections of these avenues and indicated that they would be divided among the states. He specified that each open space would feature statues and memorials to honor worthy citizens.

But as the project progressed, L'Enfant began to exhibit personal traits—a quick temper and overbearing disposition—that soon alienated those around him. He also refused to meet a deadline for his final map, and on March 1, 1792, L'Enfant was relieved of his duties by a sad George Washington. Ellicott was then directed to produce a map, from memory, of L'Enfant's plan.

Tragically, L'Enfant's life continued on a downward spiral. He refused payment offered him for his work on the plan for the Capitol, and also an appointment as professor of engineering at the Military Academy at West Point. During the War of 1812 with England, he set to work constructing fortifications near Washington, but again quarreled with his superior officers and left the service. He apparently haunted the doors of Congress for years with applications for payment for his work, but they came to naught.

Poor and forgotten, he spent his last days at the home of a friend, William Dudley Digges, near Bladensburg, MD., where he died and was buried on June 14, 1825. It wasn't until April 1909, in accordance with an Act of Congress, that the remains of Major Pierre L'Enfant were removed from the Maryland gravesite and re-interred, with full military honors, in the Arlington National Cemetery

On May 22, 1911, the monument marking L'Enfant's grave was finally dedicated. The service was conducted on the portico of the Arlington House, where chairs had been arranged to make a miniature open-air theater facing the city. The monument was draped with the American flag.

Despite his sad end, L'Enfant's magnificent vision is still recognized and revered. As The National Park Service notes in its website, "In the context of the United States, a plan as grand as the 200 year old city of Washington, D.C., stands alone in its magnificence and scale. But as the capital of a new nation, its position and appearance had to surpass the social, economic and cultural balance of a mere city: it was intended as the model for American city planning and a symbol of governmental power to be seen by other nations. The remarkable aspect of Washington is that by definition of built-out blocks and unobstructed open space, the plan conceived by L'Enfant is little changed today."

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Note: The National Mall is accessible to the public. A National Park Service Ranger Station is located on the Washington Monument grounds and is open from 9 am until approximately 7 pm. For more information on ranger programs and National Mall activities, call 202-426-6841. Metro stop: Smithsonian