Pierre Charles L'Enfant

Pierre Charles L'Enfant (1754-1825), French-born American architect, designed the plan on which Washington, D.C., was built.

The philosophical ideals of 18th-century France gave the American Revolution its ideological character. When the new republic was created, artists were called upon to symbolize and incorporate these ideals in official arts commissions. The work of Pierre Charles L'Enfant is the architectural expression of those ideological convictions.

L'Enfant was born in Paris. He studied painting under his father at the Royal Academy in Paris and later trained as an engineer. In 1777, during the American Revolution, he joined the American army as a volunteer and rose to the rank of major of engineers. After the war he gained George Washington's admiration by designing an eagle insignia for the Society of the Cincinnati.

In 1788 L'Enfant was commissioned to redesign the New York City Hall into an appropriate seat for the new Federal government. For Federal Hall, L'Enfant prepared a design that would consciously symbolize the union of the 13 colonies. He used emblematic motifs such as capitals with stars and rays in foliage, an exterior frieze with 13 metopes, each containing a star, and a pediment crowned with an eagle grasping 13 arrows.

When the decision was made to lay out a new Federal capital on the Potomac, L'Enfant wrote to President Washington offering his services. His plans were published in 1791. The symbolism of this design was more mature and coherent than that used in Federal Hall. The radiating streets and squares, named after the 13 states and centering on the two key buildings, the Capitol and the White House, symbolized union. Also contained in L'Enfant's plan were "statues, columns, obelisks … to perpetuate not only the memory of such individuals whose counsels or military achievements were conspicuous in giving liberty and independence to this country, but also those whose usefulness hath rendered them worthy of general imitation, to invite the youth of succeeding generations to tread in the paths of those sages or heroes whom their country has thought proper to celebrate."

Despite his great talent, L'Enfant never had a successful career. He was often impatient and tactless with clients, including his most prestigious employer, the U.S. government, from whose service he was dismissed in 1792. In turn, the overproud architect refused to accept payment for his work. In 1795 he began to build a lavish town house in Philadelphia for the banker Robert Morris, but L'Enfant's temperament and the banker's financial reverses prevented the completion of the building. L'Enfant died in obscurity; in 1909 his body was moved to Arlington National Cemetery.


Further Reading on Pierre Charles L'Enfant

The standard biography of L'Enfant is Hans P. Caemmerer, The Life of Pierre Charles L'Enfant (1950).