Have you ever thought about the fact that someone had to design and plan the cities where we live? In this post, we share with you a little history of the designer of our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C. His name? Pierre Charles L’Enfant.
We wish we could have found a great picture book for children to learn about L’Enfant (like the one we found about Jean-Jacques Audubon), but as we could not find one, this post is full of pictures and little snippets that tell the story of the intriguing life of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a Frenchman with a great love of America.
After learning a little about L’Enfant, we’ll show you a fun art project to plan your own imaginary city, using L’Enfant’s methods. You can even learn some French city words, with our free chart, as a nod to L’Enfant’s native language.
And, if you are up for an adventure, we suggest some places in the D.C. area you can visit which honor the designer of our nation’s capital – scroll to the bottom of this post to find these fun places.
A few little notes… This post was inspired by reading Grand Avenues by Scott W. Berg – it’s a history book, but it is written like an enthralling novel. I would recommend it to adults reading this post, especially those with a penchant for French and a love for Washington D.C. For children, or those wanting a quick snapshot, our post should be a nice place to start. Pictures in this post are mostly public domain images. In many cases, clicking on the images will lead to the source of the photos if you want to dive deeper. Okay, let’s learn about L’Enfant…
Who was Pierre Charles L’Enfant?
Pierre L’Enfant was born in France in 1754. His father was employed by King Louis XV as a royal artist. Pierre L’Enfant studied at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. One of his contemporaries was Jacques-Louis David, who became a famous artist.
Vue perspective du Sallon de l’Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture au Louvre (1778)
Painting by L’Enfant of West Point, 1782 (Museum of the American Revolution)
Pierre L’Enfant’s family was close with the famous playwright Beaumarchais (author of plays such as The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro). Beaumarchais encouraged a group of young men at the time to travel to America to help to fight against the English in the American Revolution. L’Enfant did not have military training, but he wanted to come to America to join in the fight for American independence.
Soon after his arrival in America, L’Enfant met George Washington. George Washington was impressed with L’Enfant, especially with his artistic abilities. L’Enfant was asked to draw a military manual for General Baron von Steuben. L’Enfant was also asked to create the medallions for the Society of the Cincinnati. Later, L’Enfant took on a bigger project, redesigning Federal Hall in New York City.
L’Enfant’s drawing for Steuben’s military manual (Muesuem of the American Revolution)
When the Revolutionary War had been won and it was decided that the new country should also have a new capital city, L’Enfant was determined to be the designer of this great city. George Washington thought that L’Enfant was the one who had the genius for this job.
“Since my first knowledge of [L’Enfant’s] abilities in the line of his profession, I have received him not only as a scientific man, but one who added considerable taste to his professional knowledge; and that, for such employment as he is now engaged in, for projecting public works, and carrying them into effect, he was better qualified than any one who had come within my knowledge in this country, or indeed in any other…”
(Letter from George Washington to David Stuart, as quoted in Grand Avenues, pages 136-137)
L’Enfant explored and surveyed the land that would become Washington, District of Columbia. Then L’Enfant meticulously designed a grand city to be built there. At the time, Georgetown was a little village and most of the area that would become Washington D.C. was farmland and forest.
Unknown author – Library of Congress Geography and Map Division
From his tireless study of the land, his vast imagination, and artistic talent, L’Enfant created a plan for the new capital city. He created his plan on 2 pieces of handmade paper (joined together to be 2 feet by 3 feet), using pencil and watercolor for the images, and many styles of calligraphy for the descriptions.
L’Enfants hand drawn plan for Washington, D.C. (public domain image)
L’Enfant had a fiery personality, however, and sometimes offended the other people working in government at the time. Interestingly, the plan that became engraved and publicized had the name of one of L’Enfant’s helpers, Ellicott, who had copied and slightly modified L’Enfant’s plan. L’Enfant was enraged that after all of his hard work, his name was not the one on the published plan. Due to disagreements and financial difficulties, the plan for D.C. was slow to become a reality.
About 100 years went by without much progress on the grand plans for Washington, D.C., then L’Enfant’s original plans were unearthed by Frederick Olmsted, Jr., a highly acclaimed architect. The McMillan Commission then attempted to more fully understand L’Enfant’s plans. The commissioners even traveled to Paris to see where L’Enfant grew up and what might have inspired his plans.
Finally, L’Enfant’s plans for a grand city for our nation’s capital began to be realized.
The McMillan Plan for the National Mall
Perhaps it is because of L’Enfant’s original plans and the McMillan Commission’s work in carrying out his plans that Paris and Washington D.C. have some similarities, among them, grand diagonal avenues, long grassy esplanades, French Second Empire and Beaux-Arts style buildings, and ornate bridges. Let’s take a look…
Map of Paris in 1774
L'Enfant's plan for Washington, D.C.
Paris - Champ de Mars
D.C. - The National Mall
Paris - Opéra Garnier
D.C. - Eisenhower Executive Office Building
Paris - Pont Alexandre III
Ready to plan your own city?
L’Enfant used large pieces of handmade paper for his plan. For your plan, you will need large pieces of watercolor paper, watercolors, paint brushes, and pencils and/or pens.
L’Enfant spent a great deal of time exploring the land on which he planned our nation’s capital, deciding, for example, what buildings would look best on hills and what areas should be near water. To add even more fun to your imaginary city plan, it could be fun to spend time wandering in a country or farm area, and imagine how that piece of land could be turned into a city or town.
Once you have some ideas, start to sketch them out on your paper with pencil. Label your map in pen or pencil and add some watercolor (perhaps blue for rivers, green for parks, etc.). You could also add explanations about your map, using pen or pencil, or even try calligraphy as L’Enfant did. Decide on a name for your city, and give your map a fancy title.
If you are interested in learning French while making the city, feel free to print a copy of our French City Word Chart. Though L’Enfant made his map with English labels, it could be fun to label your map in French, L’Enfant’s native language.
If you need help with pronunciation of these city words, you could try Narakeet. Simply select French as the language, type the French word, and listen to the pronunciation.
Ready for a L’Enfant in D.C. fieldtrip?
L’Enfant was at first not honored for his great work in designing our nations capital, but now we can find a number of places around Washington, D.C. that remind us of L’Enfant’s contribution to our country. Let’s explore…
Statue of L'Enfant in the United States Capitol Building
The statue of L’Enfant in the Capitol is quite new, installed in 2022. Watch a video of the instatlation. The statue is tucked in a quiet alcove… a big thank you to our wonderful tour guide who took the time to show us this statue, though it was not part of the standard Capitol tour.
L'Enfant's tomb in Arlington National Cemetery
L’Enfant’s remains were transferred to Arlington National Cemetery about a century after his death. His tomb overlooks the capital city he designed.
Freedom Plaza in D.C.
At Freedom plaza one can walk on a stone inlay that depicts a portion of L’Enfant’s plan for Washington, D.C. (photo from wikimedia)
Is it possible to see the original plan created by L’Enfant? Unfortunately not. We read in Grand Avenues that “The only known copy of a plan for the federal city in L’Enfant’s own hand to survive into the twenty-first century rests in a refrigerated chamber in the Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress, where it is off limits to the public because of its brittle condition and the extreme fading of its pencil lines” (Grand Avenues, pages 185-186).
In addition to the places which specifically honor L’Enfant, you could walk in L’Enfant’s footsteps by visiting Mount Vernon (where L’Enfant met with George Washington to talk about his city plans) and Georgetown (where L’Enfant stayed while exploring the land that would become Washington, D.C.).
If you are interested in seeing the artwork of L’Enfant’s contemporaries, who were also gifted artists, consider a visit to the National Gallery of Art, looking for the works of Jacques-Louis David and John Trumbull.
We hope you have enjoyed learning about Pierre Charles L’Enfant, and creating and exploring on your own!
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Bonne journée! Have a great day!
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