clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Tracing Washington, D.C.'s Design Roots in Versailles


At the highest point in Arlington National Cemetery, with one of the most dramatic views of all of Washington, D.C., lies the grave of Pierre Charles L'Enfant. L'Enfant was a French architect and urban designer who would design for George Washington the U.S. capital of Washington, D.C, and L'Enfant's place of interment—once called the grandest vista in the world by the Marquis de Lafayette—provided a poetic ending to a tumultuous career. Born in 1754 in France, L'Enfant grew up during the reign of the French monarchy, joined the American Revolutionary War as a young man, serving as a military engineer in the Continental Army, and ultimately made his name in the nascent U.S. capital. This Frenchman—born 260 years ago this past Saturday—would leave an indelible impression on his adoptive country by designing the heart of its government. That design drew from the architecture of absolute monarchy—specifically, the French seat of power at Versailles.

Not all of the Founding Fathers intended for the new U.S. capital to draw inspiration from an absolutist monarchy. Thomas Jefferson, who was a gentleman architect, initially submitted a simple plan for the city, in line with his agrarian and Anti-Federalist ideals. It called for a modest "federal town," writes L'Enfant biographer Scott W. Berg, with a limited public walk, a President's House, and a Capitol (or Congress House) in very close proximity to one another. The setting would be rural. The plan was so modest that its area was smaller than the then-settled city of Philadelphia, spanning around 1,500 acres.

[Above, photo via The National Coalition to Save Our Mall. Below, graphic by Suze Myers.]

It was L'Enfant, the professionally trained and royally accustomed architect, who dreamed on a grander scale. The Frenchman left his native country in 1776 to enlist in the American Continental Army, ultimately rising to the rank of major. He first encountered General George Washington at Valley Forge, and his connection with Washington would serve him well more than a decade later, in 1789, when it became paramount that America establish a permanent seat of government as what Berg calls the "most visible and lasting piece of the first president's legacy." L'Enfant wrote to Washington, requesting the honor of designing that capital, in 1791:

"[…] the capital of this vast empire offers so great an occasion of
acquiring reputation to whoever may be appointed to conduct the
execution of the business that Your Excellency will not be
surprised that my ambition and the desire I have of becoming a

useful citizen should lead me to wish a share in the undertaking."

With just three weeks to survey the proposed site near the Potomac and prepare a plan, L'Enfant designed a capital inviting to all its constituents yet imposing to its enemies. L'Enfant presented his plan to the President in just a single sketch and an accompanying memorandum. Even this spare outline was enough to make Jefferson's proposal an afterthought to Washington.

L'Enfant called for a town spread across 6,000 acres and more than nine square miles. It was cruciform-shaped and proposed two high points on which to situate the President's House and the house for Congress, respectively (connecting them via axes intersecting at right angles), along with a rectangular grid of streets, notes historian Mark Gelernter. As L'Enfant wrote:

"Having determined some principal points to which I wished to make
others subordinate, I made the distribution regular with every street at
right angles, North and South, east and west, and afterwards opened

some in different directions …." L'Enfant focused particularly on sightlines for the new capital: he created vistas which highlighted specific monuments to denote the government's power. These were design tactics familiar to L'Enfant from his days in France. In fact, they were elements borrowed directly from the plan for the gardens at the Palace of Versailles and its architect, Andre Le Notre.

Versailles was the epitome of centralized and absolute power, the kind of government that America was established in protest against. By moving the seat of political power to Versailles, Louis XIV affirmed the authority of an absolute monarchy from which he wielded absolute power over his people—even his bedroom resided at the central axis of Versailles as a symbol of his centralized power. In keeping with that ideology, the palace and its grounds were designed in dramatic Baroque style, using topography to create grand vistas and delineate de facto locations of supremacy. L'Enfant designed D.C. in imitation of some of these aspects of Versailles: Le Notre laid out the palace grounds so that gentle slopes created controlled vistas and specific focal points; L'Enfant placed the president's house and the congress house where they could look down on the city unfolding beneath them. The diagonal D.C. streets resemble the web-like pathways of Le Notre's Versailles.

L'Enfant was exposed to Le Notre in his formative early years, when L'Enfant's father took a job decorating the newly constructed French War Ministry in Versailles. Later, L'Enfant studied at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, located at the Louvre in Paris, where the adjacent Tuilleries Gardens were also designed by Le Notre. Just beyond the Tuileries lay the grandest of all Parisian streets, the Champs-Élysées, yet another Le Notre product. L'Enfant's plan for Washington, D.C.'s grandest avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, evokes images of the Champs-Élysées. Both streets seemingly extend forever, and are alike down to their measurements. L'Enfant's Pennsylvania Avenue measured 160 feet precisely, for example—also the exact width of the Champs-Élysées. The view to D.C.'s National Mall from the west side of the Capitol presents a very similar vista to that of the Versailles gardens when viewed from the west side of the palace. Much of the latter similarity became apparent only in 1901, when the McMillan Commission (a Senate-formed group of architects and planners) collaborated to enhance L'Enfant's original plan for the city. The commission called for a shallow reflecting pool on the Mall to mimic Versailles' own Tapis Vert, inspired by the many references L'Enfant had made to his native country.

L'Enfant never fully realized his plan for America's new capital, because he was excused from his duties after only 11 months of work. His dreams were, perhaps, too grand: L'Enfant's extensive planning for what he was sure would be the city's eventual expansion got him into trouble with City commissioners when he surreptitiously demolished prominent local landowner Daniel Carroll's home to make way for a new road. L'Enfant was neither paid his proper sum nor given credit for his plan in his lifetime. Instead, his name was removed from maps and plans for the city going forward, and others assumed his duties. In subsequent years, many of his other projects stalled or ended in his dismissal. Ultimately, L'Enfant became a recluse and died in poverty. His involvement in the planning of D.C. would remain a secret until 1909, when his body was moved from an obscure grave at a Maryland farm to Arlington National cemetery and given a proper monument acknowledging his accomplishments.
· The 40-Year Garden: The Making of 1,976 Acres of Versailles [Curbed]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]