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History of Early American Landscape Design

Pierre-Charles L’Enfant

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Pierre Charles L’Enfant (August 2, 1754– June 14, 1825) was a French architect, civil engineer, and urban designer best known for his 1791 plan for laying out the U.S. capital city of Washington, D.C.


From 1771 to 1776, L’Enfant studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Art in Paris where his father, a painter specializing in landscapes and military subjects, was an instructor. Thereafter, he enlisted as a volunteer in the American Continental Army, serving primarily in the capacity of draftsman and surveyor. L’Enfant provided drawings for the American army’s first training manual and, while stationed at Valley Forge, drew a portrait of General George Washington, who became an influential supporter of L’Enfant’s post-military career. [1] L’Enfant had attained the rank of Captain of Engineers by the time of the British surrender in 1781.

The following year, at the request of the French ambassador, Washington sent L’Enfant to Philadelphia (then the U.S. capital) to design a colonnaded pavilion for dancing and other entertainments in honor of the birth of an heir to Louis XVI. According to Benjamin Rush, the surrounding grounds were “cut into beautiful walks and divided with cedar and pine branches into artificial groves.” < Caemmerer, 1950, 87-88; see also Webster, 2008> L’Enfant established a successful civil engineering practice in New York City, which became the seat of the federal government in 1785, and was celebrated for his efficient and elegant renovation of the old city hall, where the first United States Congress met and Washington was inaugurated as president in 1789. <Berg, 2007, 64-70; Caemmerer, 1950, 108-18> In July 1790, Congress authorized the building of a new capital city on the Potomac River. L’Enfant had already written to Washington the previous year asking to design “the Foundation of a city which is to become the Capital of this vast Empire.”<Caemmerer, 1950, 127> Duly appointed, he developed a visionary plan for a great metropolis, borrowing ideas from the maps of various European cities provided to him by Thomas Jefferson, but reinterpreting Old World conventions according to American ideals. < Berg, 2007, 105-13; Savage, 2005, 29-30; Scott, 2002, 37-45; Jennings, 1979, 231-37; Caemmerer, 1950, 147, 149> Exploiting the existing topography, L’Enfant reserved the most commanding positions for “Grand Edifices” (principally, the “Congress House” and “President’s House”) and “Grand Squares. He connected these focal points by means of thirteen diagonally radiating avenues representative of the original colonies. The long vistas were to be punctuated by a series of landscaped circles and squares ornamented with fountains, columns, obelisks, and other monuments in memory of those who had contributed to the nation’s liberty and independence. Each of the states of the union was to take responsibility for “improving” one of the squares as an expression of its distinct identity. An underlying network of streets, laid out at right angles in a grid pattern, provided the connective tissue that unified the capital. <Stephenson, 1993, passim; Caemmerer, 1950, 150-65 Kahn and L’Enfant, 1942/43, 191-213>

A succession of clashes with the commissioners overseeing L’Enfant’s work resulted in his dismissal in 1792. <Caemmerer, 1950, 169-215> Nevertheless, his plan for the city of Washington remained a touchstone for the capital’s development into the late 20th century. <Bednar, 2006, passim; Jennings, 1979, 242-62> L’Enfant worked on a number of other projects that ended abortively as a result of their outsize ambition and expense, as well as the architect’s prickly personality. These include the city plan and hydraulic system for Paterson, New Jersey (1793), Robert Morris’s mansion in Philadelphia (1794-96), Fort Mifflin on the Delaware (1793-95), and Fort Washington on the Potomac (1814). <Smith, 2014, [***pages***]; Fries, 1974, 68-70>

  1. Chase, 2008, 129; Berg, 2007, 19-47; Caemmerer, 1950, 1-67.

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