“A great city is nothing more than a portrait of itself, and yet when all is said and done, its arsenals of scenes and images are part of a deeply moving plan.” – Mark Helprin, Winter’s Tale
In 1790–just three years after the Constitution became law, a swampy 10-mile-square plot along the Potomac River and north of Alexandria, Virginia, became the nation’s new capital. Congress had considered many sites for the future city, including Philadelphia, the city where the Constitutional Congress was held, and a site near Princeton, New Jersey.
The choice of a place so connected to George Washington, so well-placed between the northern and southern states, and so connected to trade routes and the West was no accident. The city serves as a symbol of unity among the thirteen states that made up the young nation, of compromise between northern and southern states, and of the new nation’s potential for growth economically and west across the continent.
Pierre Charles L’Enfant was a Frenchman and the architect of the much-admired Federal Hall in New York City. An immigrant, he had fought in the Revolutionary War, and had been commissioned to paint General Washington’s portrait before being captured, released, and appointed to Washington’s staff.
L’Enfant’s plan was ambitious from the beginning. Where others, including Thomas Jefferson, imagined a scheme more typical of other colonial towns, L’Enfant saw a grand and vast city and drew on European models to use the natural topography to place monumental buildings prominently on the highest ground.
Unlike in a European town, however, he placed the Capitol Building, housing Congress and symbolizing the sovereignty of the people, in the highest and most important position instead of the palace of the king. Wide, diagonal streets, would at once represent the connections between these important buildings–the president’s house, the Capitol, and others–and provide faster routes between key places.
Influenced by a proposal by John Evelyn for London to rebuild after the Great Fire in 1666, L’Enfant blended the block system of a Georgian town in Britain with wide avenues like those often seen in France, in Paris or at Versailles. These long avenues cut through the grid of smaller scale gridded streets to connect major buildings and establish symbolic connections within the city’s plan.
With the support of Washington, L’Enfant was asked to develop the plan further and produce more refined drawings. However, insistent on perfecting his original plan and realizing it in full with little regard for time, he came into conflict with several officials involved who wanted to prioritize the speedy construction of the key federal buildings. He resigned from the project in 1792.
To maintain momentum, Andrew Ellicott was hired to recreate L’Enfant’s work and develop a practical system by which the street system could be created and the actual lots of land could be bought and sold. Though based on L’Enfant’s original work, Ellicott’s plan makes several departures from L’Enfant’s, and because his work was cut short, L’Enfant’s intentions for specific areas like the White House, the Capitol complex, and the public squares were never realized.
One of L’Enfant’s now forgotten contributions was the city’s canal system. Though now mostly filled in except for a small section in Georgetown, the canals connected the new federal city and Georgetown to nearby Alexandria and Harper’s Ferry to enable easy trade between them and provide water power and transportation to each city.
In the city itself, they ran directly across L’Enfant’s Grand Avenue–now the National Mall–from the Anacostia River, alongside the Capital’s west front, to Georgetown. Though originally envisioned to bolster Washington economically, the canals never reached their full potential and were obsolete before the end of the 1800s.
L’Enfant and Ellicott’s maps look remarkably like the city we know today, but many of the most recognizable parts of the city–the National Mall and the Beaux Artes inspired museums and memorials were not built until the first half of the 20th century. In the city’s early decades, the monumental scale of the city’s first federal buildings were isolated incidents of restrained grandeur amid vast areas of pasture land and brick facades.
But that’s not to say that the city remained a small town until 1900. In fact, what was built along the city’s new street system helped develop distinct character for America’s federal buildings. First among these major projects to be built were the President’s House and the Capitol building.
Washington selected James Hoban’s design for the presidential mansion, and the ornamental design, strongly influenced by buildings in his native Ireland, was completed by 1800 and then destroyed by the British soon after in 1814. The replacement, designed by Benjamin Latrobe and overseen by Hoban, added the porticos that can be seen today. The white plaster wash used to cover the stone’s dull grey gave it the moniker “The White House.”
The Capitol was built over the course of the first two decades of the 1800s. Though the initial design was submitted by William Thornton, construction of the initial south wing was supervised primarily by Benjamin Latrobe, who had become the surveyor of the nation’s public buildings and gained the support of Thomas Jefferson. Though not the original designer, he had significant sway over the design.
Latrobe oversaw the north wing’s construction, introduced his own designs, and connected the two with a temporary central structure. After the British burned the building during the War of 1812, Latrobe supervised its rebuilding. That work was then completed by Charles Bulfinch who was the designer of the building’s pre-Civil War dome.
Next to influence monumental Washington was Robert Mills, a South Carolinian who designed the Greek Revival Treasury Building next to the White House and subsequently a chain of distinguished public buildings along Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and the Capitol.
Arguably his most important contribution was the iconic Washington monument begun in 1848 amid the agricultural fields of the National Mall. In as early as 1783, the Continental Congress had agreed to create a monument dedicated to Washington and his efforts to aid the recently founded country. By 1833, the Washington National Monument Society was founded and a design by Robert Mills, the newly chosen Architect of Public Buildings for Washington, was chosen in 1845. However, a variety of financial, political, and construction issues delayed the monument’s completion until 1888.
By the 1850s, the new capitol had endured major trials and also benefited from upgrades and growth. Once dwarfed by nearby Alexandria and Georgetown, it had grown into a mature city guided by L’Enfant’s plan with monumental government buildings and significant infrastructure. Despite the trials of the Civil War in the 1860s, the second half the 19th century would see a similar trajectory as Washington, D.C., developed a distinct character that was at once federal and local.
To be continued…in Part II.