Biography written by Lauren Bordeaux
Pierre (Peter) Charles L’Enfant (1754-1825) was an American Revolutionary War veteran and Franco-American engineer. L’Enfant designed and constructed buildings during and after the Revolutionary War; however, he is best known for his design of the Federal City, which became Washington, D.C. His plan had no equivalent in the new United States, incorporating elements of European cities and a layout that placed the Capitol Building at the heart of the metropolis. Unfortunately, L’Enfant clashed with other officials, leading to his resignation before construction of the Federal City had hardly begun. He died in poverty, and his vision for the federal district did not come to fruition until the McMillan Commission--a group of architects and planners appointed by the U.S. Senate–salvaged his plan at the turn of the twentieth century.
L’Enfant was born in Paris on August 2, 1754 to an aristocratic family in the French Court. His father was an artist, under whom L’Enfant studied at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. He initially focused on architecture and drawing but felt unfulfilled in these pursuits. As his schooling concluded, an American secret agent in Paris offered L’Enfant a lieutenancy in the Continental Army Corps of Engineers, which L’Enfant accepted. This opportunity allowed him to use the skills he acquired at the Royal Academy, and L’Enfant arrived in America in 1777, taking the name “Peter.”
L’Enfant would not remain a lieutenant for long. He was expeditiously promoted by Congress to be the captain of the Continental Army Corps of Engineers due to a recommendation from Friedrich von Steuben, a fellow foreign officer. The promotion helped L’Enfant to become a force in the engineering world and develop his signature design style, which included motifs of patriotism and freedom. Such motifs were evident in L’Enfant’s construction of the celebration hall for the birth of the French King Louis XVII in April 1782 and in the insignia and diploma for the Society of Cincinnati, which was founded in 1783.
Following the Revolutionary War, L'Enfant lived in New York City. He worked on a variety of projects, including Federal Hall, which was intended to be the place of government for the new nation. After the capital moved first to Philadelphia and then to the new federal district, Federal Hall was demolished in 1812.
Even before the Residence Act of 1790 made the banks of the Potomac River the future location for the seat of government, L’Enfant lobbied President George Washington for a role in the building process: “The late determination of Congress to lay the Fundation of a City which is to become the Capital of this vast Empire, offer so great an occasion of acquiring reputation…, that your Excellency will not be surprised that my Embition and the desire I have of becoming a usefull Citizen should lead me to wish a share in the Undertaking.” In 1791, L’Enfant’s aspirations were fulfilled as Washington appointed him as the lead planner of the new federal district. Under the supervision of the Federal Commissioners of the District, a group of three supervisory commissioners, L’Enfant worked quickly to complete his Plan for the Seat of Government.
L’Enfant had a grand vision for the Federal City. His design integrated republican symbolism with his knowledge of European urban plans, such as for Paris, which incorporated accessible green spaces. He also admired the Palace of Versailles Gardens because of his upbringing close to the French Court. Hence, L’Enfant designed the garden-lined Grand Avenue (National Mall) and included many other green spaces in his plan. As for the republican symbolism, he wanted to ensure that the city represented the political ideals of his adopted country. Most notably, he placed the Capitol Building on a grand hill and branched all avenues and streets from this central position.
In February of 1792, L’Enfant wrote to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson detailing his vision of the Federal City. L’Enfant stated that he wanted “to change a Wilderness into a City, to erect and beautify Buildings & ca. to that degree of perfection, necessary to receive the Seat of Government of so extensive an Empire.” This letter reflected L’Enfant’s ambition to create a capital worthy of America’s present and future growth.
During the same month that he wrote to Jefferson, L’Enfant irritated the Federal Commissioners of the District by refusing to share his plan and for starting construction by demolishing the home of one of the commissioners. The commissioners threatened Washington with their potential resignations if L’Enfant did not accept their input. Washington attempted to reprimand L’Enfant with a letter sent through Thomas Jefferson, but L’Enfant instead resigned in February 1792. Washington was fond of L’Enfant and did not want him to leave, writing, “The continuance of your services (as I have often assured you) would have been pleasing to me.” However, L’Enfant never returned to the project, nor did he receive compensation for designing the capital.
L’Enfant continued building projects after his exit from the government. He designed forts for the War of 1812 and completed the layouts of Paterson, New Jersey, and Morris Mansion in Philadelphia. Yet financial troubles still troubled L’Enfant for the rest of his life. Despite his illustrious career, he died impoverished in 1825 with an estate appraised at forty-five dollars. L’Enfant was buried in an unmarked grave in the slave portion of the family graveyard at Green Hill Farm in Maryland. His distant child (whose mother is unknown) survived him.
In the twentieth century, L’Enfant finally received the recognition that eluded him during his lifetime. In 1901, for the centennial anniversary of Washington, D.C., the McMillan Commission formed and released a plan that restored much of L’Enfant’s original vision. In 1961, a major plaza (L’Enfant Plaza) was also dedicated to him in Washington, D.C., the capital city born of his imagination.