After the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers had to choose a capital city. The place we now know as Washington, D.C., was not everybody’s first choice. In the late 1700s, it was primitive, lacking infrastructure, hot and swampy. There were wooden plank streets in many neighborhoods so pedestrians would not have to walk through the mud.
The top contenders for the capital were New York and Philadelphia, both far more civilized and put together than Washington. However, they were also much farther from Mount Vernon, and George Washington preferred a short commute when he wanted to go home for a breather. He got his way. Our first president was so popular that the nation would have gladly crowned him king, having quickly forgotten why we went to war in the first place.
The site proved problematic and inhospitable for the reasons already mentioned. But there were also some lucky breaks in the history of the city’s development. The luckiest break came when the Marquis de Lafayette, who came from France to help our side in the Revolution, brought with him a young engineer named Pierre L’Enfant, who had been trained in design at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.
After the war, Lafayette became a kind of surrogate son to the childless George Washington. Needless to say, he had the first president’s ear, and when he proposed that his brilliant friend L’Enfant draw up a design for the new capital city, Washington agreed.
L’Enfant had a blank slate with which to work, since much of the area designated to be the city was empty. So in 1791 he created a sweeping design for a great city, with a massive mall park and wide boulevards, intersecting at squares and circles crowned with statuary, all reflecting the glory of the new republic. The plan sounded like an impossible dream; it seemed foolish to propose a great city along the lines of Paris in this empty, swampy space.
Nevertheless, many of the streets and boulevards were completed, though they all seemed to lead to nowhere. Due to a lack of funds and general apathy regarding the project, however, the plan did not get fully implemented until 1901, when Congress appointed the McMillan Commission to continue what L’Enfant started more than 100 years earlier.
By 1900, Washington was already beginning to realize its destiny as a great city. Wealthy people from all over the country were flocking here to lobby government and make a name for themselves. It was much easier to “break into society” in Washington than in New York, where the lines of families considered socially significant were already locked in place. In Washington, all you had to do was build a grand house and start wining and dining congressmen and senators.
Mansions sprung up, block by block, along Massachusetts Avenue. The area now known as Embassy Row was originally called Millionaires’ Row. The ambitious and wealthy people converging on Washington provided projects for architects, and some of the best and brightest were on hand to build grand and beautiful homes, leaving the city a legacy of architecturally significant buildings. The Gilded Age had arrived in Washington, and L’Enfant’s dream city of boulevards and monuments finally became a reality.
For Pierre L’Enfant, to whom we owe so much, the story did not end so well. Genius that he was, he did not work well with others, including the three-person commission appointed by Washington to oversee his work. When he turned in his city plan, he presented Congress with a bill for what was at that time the staggering amount of $95,500. Congress, in turn, offered to pay him $3,800. So he took to walking the streets of Washington with his bedraggled dog, complaining about his fate to whoever would listen.
He might have died of starvation had he not been taken in by friends who owned a farm in Bladensburg, Maryland. Penniless and forgotten, he died there in 1825 at the age of 70 and was buried on the property. It wasn’t until 1909 that his grave was moved to Arlington Cemetery, on a hillside near the Custis-Lee Mansion with a splendid view of the beautiful city that, at first, had lived only in his imagination.
Owner and broker of the largest woman-owned and woman-run real estate firm in the Washington metro area, Donna Evers is the proprietor of Twin Oaks Tavern Winery in Bluemont, Virginia, and a devoted student of Washington area history. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.