The Design of Washington, D.C.

Updated on April 24, 2020
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Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.

Who Thinks of the Artist?

When we gaze upon a work of art, we rarely think of the artist and wonder who the genius was. This is especially true in the case of art that is not as “tangible” as a painting or sculpture. What about art in the form of the design of a neighborhood or city? Have you ever really thought of that as an art form?

One of the most spectacular art forms of this kind is Washington, D.C., the capital city of the United States of America. This city is laid out very specifically with much detail put into the various areas. In visiting this city, you tend not to notice the whole picture of it all as you focus on the individual buildings and monuments. But in reality, this kind of art is very complicated and yet, while massive, very subtle.

Pierre Charles L'Enfant

So, who is the genius artist behind Washington, D.C.? It is Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Though many have no idea who this Frenchman is, they have gazed with wonder upon his work many times. Now, let us see the man behind the city.

L’Enfant was a student at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture located in Paris. He was inspired by America’s fight for freedom. It was not long after arriving in the New World that he witnessed the declaration of the colonists that they were now an independent nation. He was one of the earliest volunteers for the newly formed Continental Army. Over time he became a favorite of George Washington who let him practice his art while upon the battlefield. We have gazed upon his paintings and drawings but never knew what more this young man accomplished.


Where to Start?

After winning independence, the new country had a lot to do. So many decisions were to be made. Who was to be the first leader? How was the new country to be governed? Where would the capital city be? The first question was easy to answer. George Washington, the triumphant general, was the logical choice. The second question was answered through the new constitution that was adopted and ratified. But the third question surprisingly tended to be the most controversial one.


Many people were pushing for the location to be in Philadelphia. It was, after all, the city where independence was declared. So much of the early history of the new country happened there and the city was already established. Others wanted it in a more central part of the new country. Still, others wanted it in their area because of how much they fought for independence. So many adults were acting like children. In stepped the leader and finalized things.

Washington agreed with the concept of having a location as central as possible. Remembering that the country was a lot smaller back in the 1700s, the Virginia and Maryland areas were the perfect location. Washington was from there and knew the perfect spot. It was a diamond shaped section on the Potomac River. It basically was swampland that many had passed by. With no development, it was a great spot. The future city was carved out of the colonies and declared a separate “state”. In this way, no one state could claim dominance. All were to be equal.


Who Would Design It?

Now that the location was established, who was to design it? Washington turned to his favorite artist who just happened to be nearby. L’Enfant set about creating a city that would last for centuries and would define the new country. He created very wide avenues that would run diagonally and intersect in dramatic ways. Yet, all main avenues radiated from the two focal points of the city: the president’s home (White House) and the congressional building (Capital). While focusing on these structures, L’Enfant made sure that homes and businesses were placed into the design areas, yet within reason.

Had to Be Unique

L’Enfant did not want the city to be like the many others, which were crowded and almost suffocating. He wanted it to be fresh and welcoming. The development of areas was limited while many open spaces and parks were created for future monuments while following the natural law of the land. What L’Enfant realized, that so many colonists did not, was that the country was not through. If it were to be around hundreds of years later, it would want to display many monuments to commemorate events and people. He was from a country that was extremely old and knew the value of history.

The Artist

Like many artists, L’Enfant was protective of his work. It was not uncommon for him to “unbuild” something that an overzealous developer would create. If it went beyond his plan, it was removed. This led to several conflicts and soon they reached high enough that George Washington had to release his favored artist to appease the crowds. His perfectionist ways turned out to be his downfall.

With L’Enfant out of the way, much of his plans were kept, but quite a bit was disregarded. Where today we see a lovely National Mall, the early visitors to the capital saw a large railroad station. It was not until the McMillan Commission in 1901 was looking to enhance the city for its most celebrated and anticipated centennial that it pulled out L’Enfant’s designs and were shocked at how much was abandoned. The commission tore down the station and went tried to bring the city back to the vision of the original artist. A regulation on the height and style of buildings was also imposed to keep with the dream.


One other thing that the McMillan Commission accomplished was final recognition of the original designer, L’Enfant. He died in poverty and ruin, yet in the early 1900s, the country was reminded of his great accomplishment. His remains were dug up from a farm and moved to Arlington National Cemetery with a special monument designed for the now famous artist. His work was accomplished a hundred years later along with the honor he deserved. Thank you, Pierre L’Enfant, for your dream and your passion.


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