Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant

Essay by YohanceHigh School, 11th gradeA, June 2004

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As chief designer of the new national capital, L'Enfant quickly antagonized the three commissioners in charge of making sure the place got built. When they complained, he alienated his principal supporters, including George Washington, who reluctantly fired him.

He spent the rest of his life dunning Congress for back pay, as lean and ragged as the dog that trailed him through the streets.

When L'Enfant died in poverty in 1825 his obituary called him "an interesting but eccentric gentleman."

Most people supposed that was the end of Pierre L'Enfant.

Born in Paris into a family of artists, L'Enfant arrived in America in 1777, the year he turned 23. After service in the Revolutionary War as an engineer, he attracted the attention of the new country's leaders by designing Federal Hall in New York City. And when a design was needed for an entirely new federal city to be built on a 10-mile square on the banks of the Potomac River, L'Enfant was ready.

He had a vision of what an American capital could be, a forerunner to the motto, "Make no little plans."

"No nation perhaps had ever before the opportunity offered them of deliberately deciding on the spot where their capital city should be fixed..." L'Enfant wrote President Washington in 1789.

"And altho' the means now within the power of the country are not such as to pursue the design to any great extent it will be obvious that the plan should be drawn on such a scale as to leave room for that aggrandizement and embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the nation will permit it to pursue at any period however remote."

That translated to a radiating sweep of broad avenues intersected by a grid of north-south streets and punctuated by circles and...