“Versailles on the Potomac”: The Brilliant Design of Washington, D.C.

In the Victorian Era, the capitals of the “Great Powers” of Europe were arguably among the most magnificent places in the world. Cities such as London, Paris, Vienna, Moscow and Berlin were hotbeds of cultural, political and economic activity. Pages upon pages of poetic prose were penned to laud the astonishing scale and grandeur of these places. However, the United States, the up-and-coming juggernaut across the Atlantic, hosted a capital that was of a less cosmopolitan fabric. In the 19th century, Washington, D.C. was little more than a sleepy, humid hamlet comprised of government buildings haphazardly scattered about. Charles Dickens infamously described his disappointment with the American capital in 1842, lambasting its moral bankruptcy and sorry, swampy condition. In the words of the legendary author, it was “a city of magnificent distances.” Richard Lyons, head of the British delegation to the United States during the 1860s, noted that Washington was bereft of cultural or intellectual institutions and was little more than a “village” that felt “deserted” when Congress wasn’t in session.

Amanda Foreman, author of “A World on Fire: Britain’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War,” described the state of the American capital in the 19th century based on the accounts of foreign tourists:

[In the words of an English tourist], ‘The whole place looks run up in a night, like the cardboard cities which Potemkin erected’ … A disagreement between the government and a local landowner had stranded the unfinished Capitol on top of a steep hill at the edge of town, facing the wrong way. Washington’s smart district lay two miles in the opposite direction, across marshland and noisome swamps that were breeding grounds for malaria in the summer. Elsewhere, the roads were still dirt tracks that frequently ended in piles of rubble or were interrupted by pastures. A pedestrian was in danger not only from one of the city’s unregulated hackney cabs, but also from being run over by wandering livestock. ‘On nine days out of ten, the climate of Washington is simply detestable,’ complained a British journalist. ‘When it rains, the streets are sloughs of liquid mud. In a couple of hours from the time the rain ceases, the same streets are enveloped in clouds of dust.

Why was the center of American democracy a city of dirt roads and substandard amenities? Was it due to the country’s nascence? Was it a result of American disinterest in centralized federal government?

Even today, with nearly six million people living in the vicinity of Washington, it is comparably modest when measured against other American cities. It does not have the towering skyscrapers of New York or Chicago, or the widespread scale of Los Angeles. Taking a stroll down the National Mall, past the memorials, federal buildings and Smithsonian museums, one is imbued with a sense of speechless humility that does not quite resonate from the vibrant hearts of other American cities. It broadcasts power and importance without the extravagant pomp and circumstance of New York or Los Angeles.

Indeed, this is the vision of Washington that rose victorious from centuries of architectural feuding. And while it is no longer the loose congregation of government buildings that disappointed Charles Dickens in the 1840s, it certainly retains the “light and airy,” almost Parisian nature Thomas Jefferson wanted of the capital city. As Washington’s booming economy propels it into the 21st century, Washingtonians are once again embroiled in a debate about height limits and vistas, about strangling growth in the name of symbolism and design.

What is the significance of Washington’s characteristic design? Should Congress ease regulations in the district, enabling it to become a grand metropolis fit to host the most powerful government in the world? Or should it remain the “low & convenient,” relatively unassuming capital intended for a self-effacing republic?

Versailles on the Potomac

Towards the close of the 18th century, President George Washington’s administration faced a dilemma: the nation was without a federal capital. Sites such as Philadelphia and New York had served as interim capitals, but the American imperative to divorce economic interests from political power — as articulated in Gordon Woods’ “The Radicalism of the American Revolution” — birthed arguments that the seat of American government should be located away from the bustling cities of the North and the sprawling plantations of the South. After much contention, Congress agreed that a federal district would be drawn along the Potomac River adjacent to the settlements of Georgetown, Maryland and Alexandria, Virginia.

President Washington appointed Pierre L’Enfant, a French architect and veteran of the Revolutionary War, as the capital’s chief urban planner. As indicated by his service on the American side of The Revolution — he actually left France specifically to take up arms against the British monarchy — L’Enfant was enamored with liberal ideas and sought to design a city that could convey the magnitude of the colonists’ experiment in republican governance. He envisioned a city of stunning proportions, ironically invoking the grandeur of Versailles, the embodiment of regal flamboyance and self-aggrandizement, in his initial designs.

A number of Revolutionary figures voiced objections to L’Enfant’s ambitions. Thomas Jefferson, a leading anti-federalist and amateur architect, felt that Washington should be a city of limited scale. As the United States had emerged from a grueling war against a monarchy, Jefferson suggested to President Washington that they erect a simple, unassuming capital city to emphasize their dedication to laissez-faire republicanism. While he certainly had a penchant for grand, neoclassical architecture, he nonetheless maintained that Americans should stray from the European convention of constructing towering palaces and ostentatious government buildings. Indeed, his proposal for the design of the White House resembled a town hall more than an executive mansion.

Ultimately, it was L’Enfant who managed to captivate President Washington, and while Jefferson played an advising role in the capital’s design, L’Enfant was its cardinal planner. However, in some respects, the French architect stayed true to the American vision. For instance, whereas most European capitals were centered around the palace of the head of state, L’Enfant oriented Washington’s design around the Capitol building. He chose the highest point in the federal district — Jenkin’s Hill, which is now Capitol Hill — as the site at which Congress would meet. This literally elevated the representatives of the people above the president, implying the supremacy of democracy in America.

From there, L’Enfant aimed to create a city of egalitarian character. Walking down from the western steps of the Capitol, one is faced with the National Mall, an expansive stretch of neatly-kept grass that is lined with sidewalks and (roughly) bisected by the Washington Monument. While many of its current features can be attributed to later generations of architects, L’Enfant wanted the National Mall — and, by extension, the heart of American government — to be open and accessible in a manner unlike anything in his native France.

It’s worth noting that, in 1791, the National Mall was intended to be a “grand avenue” flanked by gardens. While, of course, the “grand avenue” as L’Enfant imagined it was never realized, the contemporary National Mall retains the spirit of openness and approachability that was incorporated into the capital’s early designs. In fact, the National Mall was one of many wide avenues and public spaces that were meant to foster the “light & airy” atmosphere Jefferson desired. Whereas cities like New York and London suffocated visitors with narrower streets and taller buildings, L’Enfant wanted Washington to feel spacious and uncluttered (Parisian architecture appears to have heavily inspired L’Enfant; hence, it’s likely uncoincidental that Pennsylvania Avenue & Paris’s Avenue des Champs-Élysées have the same width). Additionally, this would enable the visibility of monuments from numerous vantage points throughout the city, thus creating Washington’s characteristic vistas.

Shortly into L’Enfant’s stint as the capital’s principal urban planner, numerous problems arose. He was ambitious to the point of obstinateness; commissioners raised complaints about the difficulty in working with him, as he blatantly ignored their suggestions and insisted on designing the city himself. He was careless in regard to feasibility or cost and refused to waver to the demands of those around him, going so far as to demolish a prominent landowner’s home in anticipation of having a street run through the property. At the behest of the frustrated commissioners, President Washington dismissed L’Enfant less than a year into his tenure.

Despite L’Enfant’s premature departure, the commissioners decided to implement his blueprint, barring some minor alterations. Surveyor Andrew Ellicott managed to furnish a copy of the elusive L’Enfant Plan, and the U.S. government got to work on constructing the seat of its apparatus. The commissioners effectively shunned the eccentric French architect and refused to credit him for designing the capital’s layout. In 1825, L’Enfant died an impoverished transient, spending his final days in the home of a friend with a mere $46 to his name.

The Resuscitation of L’Enfant: The McMillan Plan

If you have ever visited Washington, D.C., you might have observed that L’Enfant doesn’t appear to be a forty-six dollar name. His name is not an uncommon sight in the city, with L’Enfant Station and L’Enfant Plaza coming to mind as examples of its relative ubiquity. This can partially be attributed to Michigan Senator James McMillan and his push to “beautify” the U.S. capital.

The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair had significant implications for the American self-image. At the time, it was the grandest World’s Fair to be hosted. It stunned international visitors with the raw splendor of its architectural exhibitions and spearheaded the “city beautification” movement that was gradually spreading throughout American cities. As Chicago proudly exhibited American exceptionalism at its peak, Washington, D.C., as the capital of this “exceptional” America, was scarcely a magnificent metropolis. The city’s image was marred by slums. The National Mall was an underdeveloped marsh. Railroads haphazardly cut through the city with little regard for aesthetics or pleasant design. Aside from iconic structures such as the Capitol and the White House, much of the city’s architecture was uninspiring. Its public spaces were poorly-maintained. It wasn’t Jefferson’s humble, “light & airy” capital; it was something of an embarrassment for the United States.

In 1901, the Senate formed the McMillan Commission to explore ways in which the “city beautification” movement could manifest in Washington. Comprised of architects unaffected by 18th-century grudges, the commission researched L’Enfant’s core vision for the city and discovered the deliberations of an architectural genius. Now that the United States was far wealthier than it was during the Washington presidency, the commission was capable of implementing L’Enfant’s ambitions to a much greater extent.

New parks, monuments, gardens, vistas, statues, fountains and public spaces were included in preliminary redesign plans. The marsh around the Washington Monument was drained and turned into the National Mall, hearkening to L’Enfant’s desire to have a grand avenue stretch from the Capitol. The Lincoln Memorial was erected as a result of the commission’s initiatives. The construction of low Parisian buildings was emphasized. Furthermore, the commission had L’Enfant’s body, previously located in an unremarkable grave in Maryland, relocated to Arlington National Cemetery, where it now overlooks the district skyline.

In 1899 and 1910, Congress enacted height limits in the district. While they were actually underscored by concerns over the structural integrity of skyscrapers and the difficulty of fighting fires in tall buildings, they have been integral to the mythos of the capital, ensuring that the city retains its symbolic airiness and relative modesty. Indeed, even if the maintenance of this atmosphere was not cited as a reason for enacting the height limits, Congress has articulated its importance as a protector of Washington’s viewsheds; in 2013, Congress recommended that, should the 1910 height limit be repealed, “The city’s most significant viewsheds, to include without limitations, those to and from the U.S. Capitol and White House, should be further evaluated and federal and local protections established.”

Washington, as it exists today, is an elegant embodiment of the American democratic core. And even if the United States is no longer the self-effacing republic of L’Enfant’s lifetime, it is in our ideological interest to maintain a capital of a less imposing, less gaudy nature.

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