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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 455

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This is the grave of Pierre Charles L’Enfant.

Born in Paris in 1754, L’Enfant’s father was a favorite painter of Louis XV, allowing him to study art at the Royal Academy of Art and the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture. But up for adventure and feeling the spirit of the age, he crossed the Atlantic to fight in the American Revolution on the side of the colonists. He fought under Lafayette as a military engineer, served on Washington’s staff at Valley Forge, and painted a portrait of the general. He was wounded during the Siege of Savannah in 1779 but recovered. In 1780, he was taken prisoner by the British when federal troops surrendered at Charleston. He was sent back to the Americans during a prisoner exchange later that year and served on Washington’s staff for the rest of the war.

After the war, L’Enfant decided to stay in the United States. He started his own engineering firm in New York and redesigned City Hall to fit the first session of Congress meeting in that city. He became a favorite designer for the wealthy. He designed the medal of the Society of the Cincinnati, that elite society of former officers that many republicans worried was to recreate a British aristocracy in the U.S. He was close to Alexander Hamilton, became a freemason, and was an important member of the early American elite.

All of these connections paid off in 1791, when Washington asked L’Enfant to design the new capital city in what became Washington, D.C. L’Enfant had big plans for this. For him, it was a chance to design a whole new city on Enlightenment principles, a model for the rest of the world. He wanted big public gardens and monumental architecture, reflecting life in Paris. The grid system of streets reflected those Enlightenment values, a very different system than Paris, at least pre-Haussmann Paris. The National Mall and a nice wide street connecting the president’s residence and Congress were centerpieces of his plans, the latter of which became Pennsylvania Avenue.

L’Enfant himself ran into all sorts of problems. He was a big spender. Americans were incredibly cheap, especially when it came to government expenditures. He wanted a grand vision, the commissioners in charge of the city wanted parsimony. Thomas Jefferson, still influential with Washington, was definitely on the side of the small-government cheapskates. So L’Enfant was fired in 1793 and replaced by Andrew Ellicott. But the final plan on Washington, D.C. is still a significant vision of L’Enfant, even if it wasn’t fully completed.

In the aftermath, L’Enfant was involved in a variety of projects, including laying the initial plans for Paterson, New Jersey, itself an experimental town based around Hamilton’s industrialization dreams, and designing mansions for rich Americans. He taught for a while in the 1810s at West Point, having turned down previous offers to teach there. He remained pretty grandiose in a cheap nation and started a lot projects where he got himself replaced.

His late life saw poverty, with unfinished commissions combining with heavy spending habits and old age to dwindle his savings. He died in 1825, with his total possessions worth all of $46.

Pierre L’Enfant is buried on the confiscated grounds of the traitor Lee, Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia. Obviously this is not the first site of his burial. He was initially buried in Maryland, but in 1909, was exhumed, place in state at the U.S. Capitol to honor him, and then moved to a sweet spot overlooking his vision of Washington.

If you would like this series to visit other American urban planners and theorists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Robert Moses is in the Bronx and Jane Jacob is in Almedia, Pennsylvania. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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