Builders For A Golden Age


To the Virginians it must have seemed too good to be true. Washington, never sanguine that his dearest hopes would be fulfilled, wrote of his gloomy apprehensions. Jefferson agreed with him that there was a danger that Congress might change its mind. There was no time to be lost.

As soon as he was back in his office on High Street in Philadelphia, Jefferson drew up for the President’s attention a highly characteristic document that stretched Congress’ vague enactment to the point where it could be put to practical use.

Speaking of his conversations with local landowners he wrote:

… they were properly impressed with the idea that if the present occasion of securing the Federal seat on the Patowmack should be lost, it could never more be regained … & that therefore measures should be adopted to carry the residence bill into execution … and that the requisites were: ist land enough to place the public buildings on; & 2ndly money enough to build them, and to erect moreover about 20 good dwelling houses … about as many good lodging houses, and half a dozen taverns.

He went on to suggest various methods which could be used to pay the owners for the land turned to public use without needless expenditure of public funds. He was for playing on their hopes of rising values once the city was a going concern.

Meanwhile the President was appointing a board of commissioners to superintend the work, and a surveyor was being found to lay out the boundaries of the district. As early as February 2 of the following year Jefferson wrote Andrew Ellicott, one of the ablest surveyors of the time, instructing him in professional language how to make his preliminary rough survey along the lines President Washington had decided on. A few days later, in spite of the wintry weather, Ellicott was writing back that he would soon submit a plan “which will I believe embrace every object of advantage which can be included within the ten miles square.”

Ellicott had hardly started to carry his lines across the wooded hills overlooking the Potomac when Washington and Jefferson, in a fever to get sod turned for the foundations, sent frothy Major L’Enfant after him to draw a plan for the “Grand Columbian Federal City.”

Pierre Charles L’Enfant arrived in America at his own expense as a volunteer to fight the British. The son of a court painter, some of whose vast seascapes and battle pieces still hang in the gray light of the royal palaces, he was brought up at Versailles. The father drew designs for the Gobelin tapestry works. The son was trained as a painter.

In America L’Enfant served with credit in the artillery, was wounded in the assault on Savannah under Colonel John Laurens, and discharged with the rank of major. Washington thought highly of him. He was thick with the leaders of the Society of the Cincinnati, who, after the war, sent him back to France to have manufactured for them from his own design the gold eagles which were their emblem.

He was a man of grandiloquent notions with a sense of scale that appealed to Washington. In the Federal Hall in New York he made the first essay toward a distinctive American style. In decoration he was a brilliant innovator, but he doesn’t seem to have had the necessary training as an architect to execute his grand ideas.

As soon as he arrived he wrote Jefferson that he’d reached Georgetown in spite of the sleet and the mud, “after having travelled part of the way on foot and part on horseback leaving the broken stage behind … As far as I was able to judge through a thick fog I passed on many spots which appeared to me rarely beautiful and which seem to dispute with each other who [to] command.” He went on in his tumultuous English:

In the most extensive prospect of the water the gradual rising of the ground from Carrollborough toward the Ferry Road, the level and extensive ground from there to the bank of the Potomack as far as Goose Creek present a situation most advantageous to run streets and prolong them on grand and far distant point of view; the water running from spring to some distance into the creeks, appeared also to me possible to be conducted without much labor so as to form pounds [ sic ] for watering every part of that spot.

L’Enfant had with him Jefferson’s modest sketch with its suggestion of an open mall between the President’s house at one end and the house for Congress at the other. As soon as he saw Jenkins’ Hill far to the east, he seized on that as a site for the Capitol, and placed the President’s house about on the spot Jefferson had indicated. He immediately tripled the scale of Jefferson’s sketch. Jefferson had furnished him with maps of a number of European cities, but freshest in L’Enfant’s mind was the plan of Versailles. It was in Versailles that he had spent his youth. So he took Jefferson’s gridiron and imposed on it the arrangement of broad avenues branching out from round points, like the claws in a goose’s foot, which the royal city planners of France most likely copied from the goosefoot of streets branching out from the Piazza del Popolo in Renaissance Rome.