Grand Avenues

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Anyone who has ever visited the National Mall in Washington, D.C., can attest to the magnificent beauty of the “grand avenue” that stretches between the Capitol Building and the Washington Monument. The diagonal grid of streets in Washington can be confusing to visitors driving there, but their design directs visitors’ sights to the two buildingsthe White House and the Capitolthat serve as the perfect geometric anchors of the city. Set atop a gently sloping hill at one end of the avenue, the Capitol resembles one of the great achievements of republican Rome, and its setting reminds one of the streets and monuments of Paris. Fittingly, the spectacular architectural wonders of modern-day Washington, D.C., grew from the vision and will of one mana ParisianPierre Charles L’Enfant.

In a superb chronicle of L’Enfant’s life and work, Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C., acclaimed architectural journalist Scott W. Berg re-creates the exciting world of a newly independent colonial America striving to build its own memorable cities and institutions. Prior to Berg’s lively and widely praised historical biography, L’Enfant’s story had been a little-known chapter in American history. Berg’s engaging portrait reveals for the first time the genius behind the streets and buildings of the nation’s capital. Using journals, letters, and other archival material, Berg brings to life L’Enfant and the strong-willed desires to create a city for his patron, George Washington, the difficulties he faced along the way, and the social history of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century America.

On a rainy morning in early March, 1791, L’Enfant rode out from Georgetown to survey a district of 106 square miles along the Potomac River somewhere between the Eastern Branch and Conococheague Creek. Just eight months earlier, the Residence Act of 1790 had set aside this land as the location of the new federal capital. By 1800, according to this act, no state would have any jurisdiction in this territory, and the transfer of the federal government from Philadelphia to this territory would be complete. Was it possible to accomplish such a feat in just ten years? George Washington and others agreed that if anyone could undertake and complete such a task, it would be Pierre Charles L’Enfant.

Born in Paris in 1754, L’Enfant was the third child of Pierre L’Enfant, a well-known and well-respected painter in the service of the king descended from a line of artists with royal patronages. The elder L’Enfant so excelled in his training at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture that he was eventually awarded a faculty post there. He gained fame primarily as a painter of battleground panoramas, urban landscapes, and city sketches.

The young L’Enfant lived in modest apartments in Paris and benefited from his father’s production of famous and magnificent works of art for wealthy, royal patrons. The son learned well from watching his father at work, and many of the images imprinted on his young mind provided him the visions on which he based his future designs. He also developed a hunger for individual recognition from highly placed patrons that would haunt him for the rest of his life and underlie his triumphs and disappointments.

L’Enfant studied under his father at the Royal Academy, and such close study of his father’s panoramas, urban designs, and natural landscapes prepared him for his future as the designer of the newly formed nation’s capital. In addition to his study, though, the architecture of Paris influenced him immensely. As he stepped out of the academy to walk home, he encountered the great public spaces in Paris that would so guide his later visions: the Tuileries Garden, Versailles, and the Champs-Élysées, a grand public road that rose into infinity and on which L’Enfant would later base the design of the National Mall.

The young L’Enfant’s life soon took a turn that thrust him into the position that would change the shape of the territory along the Potomac. In 1776,...

(The entire section is 1681 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly 30, no. 3 (Summer, 2007): 432.

Booklist 103, nos. 9/10 (January 1-15, 2007): 36.

Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 1 (January 1, 2007): 19.

Publishers Weekly 253, no. 49 (December 11, 2006): 61.

The Wall Street Journal 249, no. 39 (February 16, 2007): W5.