A Month of Reflection | 6 | Scott W. Berg: Grand Avenues

by Glenn on November 7, 2018

For the past eleven years, we have traveled for work at least once a year to Washington, D.C. Whenever possible, we take some time on the edges to do some sight-seeing or be part of something related to life in the capital. We were in the capital just after the election in 2016 and watched a performance of A Christmas Carol in Ford’s Theatre. The play was great, although it existed in the shadow of Lincoln’s assassination.

This last May we attended Sunday services at Washington National Cathedral.

Since it is part of the Episcopal Church, the tradition is much different from my own. Infant baptism, in particular, is something that I wasn’t exposed to much, my part of the Christian Church generally preferring baby dedications. Something I had never heard of or experienced before happened after the dedications. The pastoral staff (I’m sure that’s not the Episcopalian term), walked up the aisles and after dipping branches in water from the baptismal, they shook the branches at us, sprinkling us in water. The pastor near us said words like, “Remember your baptism,” which I thought made for one of the most beautiful moments I had in a church service all year.

Washington, D.C. is a remarkable place, mostly because of the scale of things. Somehow the view from, say, the Lincoln Memorial toward the Capitol is as inspiring as the view within the Lincoln Memorial. It’s hard to go to the capital without Aaron Sorkin’s script from The American President coming to mind:

[President Andrew Shepherd:] “Did you know when the city planners sat down to design Washington, D.C. their intention was to build a city that would intimidate foreign leaders? It’s true. … The White House is the single greatest home-court advantage in the world.”

Around the time of our travel to Washington, D.C., I try to read something related to American history or biography. This year I read a book I purchased on a previous trip to the capital, Grand Avenues: The Story of Charles L’Enfant, the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C. (New York: Random House, Inc., 2007) by Scott W. Berg. This is a book about those city planners.


The capital didn’t spring up organically. It was designed. The story Berg tells is nearly a tragedy for both L’Enfant and the capital. Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a French citizen and gifted artist, left Paris to help “the improbable political experiment across the ocean.” He served as an engineer during the Revolutionary War and was wounded. After the war, L’Enfant was engaged to help create a plan for the new Federal District. On the one hand, he was perfect for the job. L’Enfant was a genius, able to “think on an all-encompassing scale.” But he had some (tragic) flaws. He never learned the English language very well, so he was challenging to communicate with; he had an outsized ego (to accompany the outsize genius)l and he didn’t read political landscapes as well as he did natural ones.

L’Enfant’s idea was to bring the best of Versailles to this new venture. He saw Jenkins Hill, what we now refer to as Capitol Hill, and concluded this was “a pedestal waiting for a superstructure . . . a high and central place to provide a visual anchor and hub for the city.” L’Enfant didn’t like the “standard rectilinear grid” that was typical of cities like Philadelphia, which is why you get streets on a diagonal.

Berg says that L’Enfant’s background in Paris meant he “knew first hand the value of monumental views in juxtaposition with intimate spaces, of streets running straight to create vistas or subtly shifting to corral one’s line of sight, of experiencing both awe and small delights in the same casual walk across town.”

L’Enfant created a plan he thought everyone should accept.

L'enfant plan of Washington, D.C..jpg

But it didn’t play out that way.

The story goes that L’Enfant found himself running into obstacles of all kinds. If this was an Ayn Rand novel (The Fountainhead come to mind), the genius would overcome. But this was real life and real politics and things don’t go well for him. L’Enfant finds himself in conflict with the Board of Commissioners and, ultimately, his chief benefactor, George Washington. Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson, as Secretary of State is on the side steering things in his own direction (Jefferson had his own architectural ideas and was more skilled in politics). The end of the matter is that no one wanted to work with L’Enfant and he was pushed to the side.

(One fascinating insight from the book is Berg’s evaluation of the writing styles of the founders. Adams was “a cudgel,” Hamilton was “a scalpel,” and Jefferson was “a sort of cool flame that could turn white hot given an appropriate occasion.”)

Enter Andrew Ellicott. Ellicott had been working for L’Enfant. He took L’Enfant’s plans and tweaked them at the direction of Washington, Jefferson, and company. It appears that, unlike L’Enfant, he was able to take direction. Now there was a new map of the capital with overall size shrunk, lines straightened, and public squares reduced in number.

Nowhere on this revised plan was L’Enfant’s name mentioned. The city never really took off. As I recall, it was a challenge to get private investment. Charles Dickens, in American Notes, writes this:

“It is sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances, but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions. Spacious avenues, that begin in nothing, and lead nowhere; streets, mile-long that only want houses, roads, and inhabitants; public buildings that need but a public to be complete; and ornaments of great thoroughfares, which only lack great thoroughfares to ornament—are its leading features. To the admirers of cities it is a pleasant field for the imagination to rove in; a monument raised to a deceased project, with not even a legible inscription to record its departed greatness.
“Such as it is, it is likely to remain.”

This would be a tragic story, except that an architect named Frederick Law Olmstead eventually entered the picture and, working with other architects, came up with a plan, as Berg describes it, “to rescue the country’s capital city from a century of bad luck, bad taste, and bad advice.” It’s from this group of architects that the idea comes for the Lincoln Memorial to be built on land created out of the Potomac. The city had been placed strategically as a compromise between the North and the South. Now a bridge, both actual and metaphorical  connected Robert E. Lee (Arlington House was his home) to Lincoln’s Memorial. This is a city full of meanings both large and small.

L’Enfant’s own story would be tragic if a man named Thomas Attwood Digges had not rescued the man. The connection between L’Enfant and Digges is the best story in the book, best left to the author.

I was never quite sure if Berg liked the subject of his book. I felt as though he found him as exasperating as his contemporaries did. One thing I didn’t necessarily enjoy in the book was the shift between actual facts and events rolling into imaginative exercises. For example, this line early on, about L’Enfant’s arrival in what would eventually become the Federal District:

“The spring was shaping up to be dour and difficult, and as L’Enfant moved downslope in the direction of the Potomac, past modest, well-kept structures of wood and brick, the streets were quieter than usual thanks to the chill and rain. The long journey surely would have awakened the old twinges in his leg.”

It’s as though we are right there, but some of this feels too imaginative, not real. But I’m not ready to reject it, either. The history of Hawai‘I I am currently reading, doesn’t do any of this, and is a less-compelling read. The author seems more interested in showing off his vocabulary than telling a story.

I don’t know that Berg was telling a morality tale. If he was, the moral would be something like: to make the grand statement requires a compelling vision and the ability to rally people to that vision. Rare are the moments when a person can act unilaterally.  Perhaps L’Enfant was the exception to prove a rule. It wasn’t the American way to give anyone carte blanche on this project. L’Enfant certainly wished he had had it, but no one seemed willing to give it to him. Compromise was not in his nature. People like to give input, whether or not they are qualified to give it.

One of the most moving places in Washington, D.C. is the Vietnam Memorial. I find it hard to imagine it being other than how it is. But I remember the artist Maya Lin swirled in controversy over its design. A large flagpole and a statue of three soldiers were added to Lin’s design because others had criticisms and ideas of their own. When do you let the artist do their thing and when do you require him or her to compromise?