May 2, 1783 — Today, architect and civil engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant was promoted to Major of Engineers in recognition of his work in service to Colonial America. The most famous was his city plan for Washington, DC.
L’Enfant was chosen by President George Washington in 1791 to survey and design the new federal city of Washington. He designed streets in a grid pattern, and he placed major government buildings and parks in the plan. He also designed a “grand avenue” stretching west from the Capitol to the Potomac River, which we now call the National Mall. Disagreements with the city’s commissioners led to L’Enfant’s dismissal in February 1792. Never fully implemented, his vision continues to influence planners and designers.
More about L’Enfant: Born in Paris, France and studied at the French Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. He arrived in America in April 1777 as part of a unit of French engineers who came to aid the Continental forces during the American Revolution. After recovering from wounds received at the Siege of Savannah in 1779, he joined General George Washington’s staff as a captain. He was with Washington during the brutal winter at Valley Forge.
His architectural career included both temporary and permanent buildings, but not all of his designs were executed. He redesigned New York’s City Hall as the location for the US Congress, and George Washington took the presidential oath in that building in April 1789. Plans he created in 1794 to rebuild Fort Mifflin on the Delaware River were too complex and the job was given to another French engineer, Stephen Rochfontaine.
L’Enfant died in poverty in Prince George’s County, Maryland in 1825. In recognition of his service to the nation, he was reburied in Arlington National Cemetery in 1909.
Words of Wisdom for May 2, 2016
“We take [L’Enfant’s plan] into account for virtually everything we do. I think he would be pleasantly surprised if he could see the city today. I don’t think any city in the world can say that the plan has been followed so carefully as it has been in Washington.”
— John Cogbill, chairman of the National Capital Planning Commission from 2001-2009, says the Commission, which oversees development in the city, strives to fulfill L'Enfant's original vision while meeting the demands of a growing region.