Main Street Of America


O n cold, foggy morning in March, 1791, a young French military engineer in the service of the United States government rode out on horseback to a stretch of farmland between the Potomac and Anacostia rivers to contemplate the wide sweep of boulevard he would cut through alder and blackberry bushes as the great ceremonial way of a nation. It would be, he wrote later in his imperfect English to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, ”… a grand and majestic avenue … as grand as it will be agreeable and convenient … and all along iicle of which may be placed play houses, room of assembly, ;iccadeinies and all such sort of places as may be attractive to the learned and afford diversion to the idle.” The young Frenchman, Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a veteran of the American Revolution, had been commissioned by President Washington to plan a Federal City on the banks of the Potomac, and this majestic: and convenient street was to be the grand thoroughfare of the new national capital.

The site, which was handsome in its natural state, had belonged to one Ffrands Pope, Esquire, who had received it from the English Crown. It was a large acreage on the site of the present city of Washington. Hc called his property Rome, and the creek that ran through it the ‘Filier. According to tradition, he also called the highest hill in the region the Capitoline, but this seems too pat to be true, particularly since it was not his hill but his neighbor’s. After he died and his land fell into the hands of persons not named Pope, his little joke no longer had a point. The plantation called Rome was broken up, and the Tiber came also to be known as Goose Creek because of its wild geese and other birds. The hill, in honor of some now-forgotten Mr. Jenkins, was called Jenkins’ Hill or Jenkins’ Heights; so it was still known in 1790, when Congress decided to build a new capital city somewhere between the falls of the Potomac and Alexandria, Virginia. George Washington, who was asked to choose the site, decided on the place where Pope had owned Rome oxer a hundred years earlier.

Although the notion of planning a brand-new capital city AVas unprecedented, there was already an applicant for the job. Two years before, while Congress was still mulling over the qualificaticns of various established cities, L’Enfant had written Washington: No nation perhaps had ever before the opportunity offerd them of deliberately deciding on the spot where their Capital city should be fixed; or of combining every necessary consideration in the choice of situation; 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 aggrandisement & embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the Nation will permit it to pursue to any period however remote.

Washington had a high opinion of L’Enfant, who “added considerable taste to professional knowledge,” and in the field of planning and designing public works was “better qualified than anyone … within my knowledge in this country, or indeed in any other, the probability of obtaining whom could be counted upon.” At Washington’s request, Congress appointed I/Enfant to plan the new city. Andrew Ellicott, a highly respected engineer, was given the official post ol Geographer General and assigned as chief surveyor. Then—an early example of congressional caution and fondness for too many cooks—Congress appointed three commissioners (Thomas Tohnson and Daniel Carroll of Maryland, and Dr. David Stuart of Virginia). Although these three were to work under L’Enfant’s direction, they were to be answerable only to Congress. Secretary Tclfcrson was one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the new city and its planner. City planning had long been one of his many interests, and he lent Major L’Enfant a collection of maps of stich European cities as Paris, Amsterdam, Karlsruhe, Turin, Orléans, and Milan.

In March, 1791, the Georgetown Weekly Ledger reported the arrival in Georgetown of “Major Longfont, a French gentleman employed by the President of the United States to survey the lands contiguous to George-town, where the Federal City is to be built. … He is earnest in the business and hopes to be able to lay a plan of that parcel of land before the President upon his arrival in this town.”

The nineteen owners of the land that lay between the Potomac and its Eastern Branch, or Anacostia River, were also “earnest in the business.” Nearly all of them were reconciled to a sacrifice for the national good, but hoped that a certain amount of good might accrue to themselves. Only one of them, a Scot named David Burnes, whose farm lay on the present site of the White House, the Treasury, the Pan American Union, part of the Mall and the Ellipse, and part of Pennsylvania Avenue, wanted nothing to do with the affair. When Washington sent his secretary, Tobias Lear, to call on Burnes and tell him that he was going to have to give up his farm, the testy Scotsman replied that he wished to stay where he was, and added the gratuitous remark that if George Washington had not married the rich Widow Custis he would never have amounted to anything.