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Pierre Charles L'Enfant

[lahn fahn'] planner of Washington, D.C.

Pierre Charles L'Enfant

Pierre Charles L'Enfant was born in Paris, France, on August 2, 1754. After completing his education as an architect and engineer, he became an officer in the French colonial troops. He came to America in 1777 to fight in the Revolutionary War, volunteering in the Continental Army at his own expense. He was commissioned Captain of Engineers in February 1778 and promoted to Major of Engineers in May 1783.

When the Society of the Cincinnati was founded by former officers of the Continental Army in May 1783, L'Enfant was commissioned to design its insignia. He also assisted in organizing the French branch of that society. He subsequently established himself as an architect and engineer in New York City. In 1787, L'Enfant was chosen to remodel the old City Hall in New York into Federal Hall, which became the temporary headquarters of the United States government. The first Congress assembled there on March 4, 1789, and President George Washington was inaugurated there on April 30, 1789.

After Congress decided to establish the permanent capital on the banks of the Potomac River, President Washington asked L'Enfant to draw up plans for the city. By June 1790, L'Enfant had finished his basic designs. The streets were to be constructed in a gridlike pattern, running from north to south and from east to west. In addition, wide avenues were to radiate from the principal points in the city, and central squares and attractive parks were to add a feeling of space. His plan was accepted, and he was employed in March 1791 to direct the work. L'Enfant's unwillingness to compromise his plans and the unexpectedly high cost of the venture soon put him at odds with the federal authorities, and he was dismissed in February 1792. When informed that he had been fired, L'Enfant stormed out of the city-in-progress, taking all of the blueprints and plans with him. Fortunately, one of his assistants, Benjamin Banneker, was able to reproduce the plans from memory and the project was completed. The city still retains many of the features of L'Enfant's original plans, including the wide main avenues, placement of the White House and Capitol, and gridlike pattern of the streets.

L'Enfant's plan for the District of Columbia

L'Enfant was unable to obtain satisfactory renumeration or recognition for his work, and he died almost penniless on June 14, 1825, in Prince George County, Maryland. His work remained largely unrecognized until 1901, when his original design was readopted as the basis for all future development of the city. On April 28, 1909, his remains were removed to Arlington National Cemetery, where a monument was erected to him by Congress.

Arlington National Cemetery
Washington, D.C., A National Register of Historic Places Travel Itinerary

New York City
President George Washington
Benjamin Banneker
White House

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This page was last updated on August 30, 2018.