Philosophical Society of Washington

The L'Enfant Plan for Washington and Its Fate

Don Hawkins

2108th Meeting Abstract
Friday, October 15, 1999 at 8:15 PM


Even before the creation of this Republic George Washington envisioned its capital at the head of navigation on the Potomac River, and almost as early Pierre L'Enfant presented his qualifications as the designer of the city. Both men looked into the future and saw a great nation deserving of a capital on a very grand scale, but looking around them saw a thinly spread population, struggling to survive, with an experimental government. Their program was the placement and creation of a city which would express the ideals of the constitution in its form and tell the story of the constitution's genesis in its architectural and sculptural programs. The problems they recognized included a severe lack of funds and an almost total lack of enthusiasm in the country for the project. The problems they could not see were rooted in their eighteenth century outlooks. Most of L'Enfant's symbolic street plan has survived long past the ability of almost anybody to read its meaning, while the patterns of its outward expansion are a clear and lively expression of American life that would be incomprehensible to him. This presentation will overview the process by which the plan of Washington came to be where it is, what it was meant to be, and what became. It is a story of the perpetual imbalance between intention and geography.

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