Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2108th Meeting

Speaker: Don A. Hawkins, architect and historical cartographer
Topic: “The L'Enfant Plan for Washington and its Fate”

President Garavelli called the 2108th meeting to order at 8:20 p.m. on October 15, 1999. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2107th meeting and they were approved.

The speaker for the 2108th meeting was Don A. Hawkins, architect and historical cartographer. The title of his presentation was “The L'Enfant Plan for Washington and its Fate.”

Even before the creation of this Republic, George Washington envisioned its capital at the head of navigation on the Potomac River. 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. Washington's and L'Enfant's program was the placement and the creation of a new city. This new city would express the ideals of our new constitution in its form and tell the story of our new constitution's genesis in its architectural and sculptural designs. The problems that Washington and L'Enfant recognized included a severe lack of funds and an almost total lack of enthusiasm throughout the country for the project. The problems they could not recognize were rooted in their eighteenth century outlooks. However, most of L'Enfant's symbolic street plan did survive 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 surely be incomprehensible to him today.

Mr. Hawkins provided us with an overview of how the plan of Washington, D.C. came to be. This overview included where it is, what it was meant to be, and what it ultimately became. It is a story of the perpetual imbalance between intention and geography. Currently, the Washington, D.C. area is home to 4 1/2 million people. Fully half a million people live in D.C. itself.

A town is usually an intersection of two transportation routes such as the junction of a road and a river or a road and a railroad. A city is nothing more than a developed town. In early America, towns often developed around a tobacco warehouse and the site almost always came at the point where a road met the water. The owner of the land at the water's edge then got to “lay out” the town. In the case of Washington, D.C., the biggest influence on the site location and the layout was none other than George Washington. He believed the new capital must be on the Potomac River. He also believed commerce had to pass along the Potomac River and on to the Ohio Valley. Here the Potomac River's headwaters commingled with the common headwaters of two other great American waterways, the Ohio River and the Mississippi River.

At the time of the formation of our national government, the population center of America was within a few miles of present day Georgetown. Further, the geological center of America was also within a few miles of Georgetown. This made that site the logical choice for the location of our nation's capital. However, Congress didn't agree. There was absolutely no will nor commercial reason to build a grand capital for our nation there.

Pierre L'Enfant grew up in Versailles, France and came to America to fight in the Revolutionary War and stayed. Alexander Hamilton was a good friend of L'Enfant and he arranged to have George Washington select L'Enfant as the designer of the city. The idea was to layout the city with three radiating centers to represent commerce, the executive branch, and the legislative branch of government. Further, at that time the states were thought of as countries and the layout included 15 circles surrounding the city, one circle for each state. Although this theme was lost with time, the current city is a good image of what the founders had in mind.

With regard to the capital building, contemporaneous paintings show our original capital building to be quite small, and located at the very edge of the wilderness. However, the original design was for a huge building, actually on the order of the size of today's building.

And with that Mr. Hawkins closed his presentation and kindly answered questions from the floor. President Garavelli thereupon thanked Mr. Hawkins for the society, announced the next meeting and made the usual parking announcement. He then adjourned the 2108th meeting to the Social Hour at 9:48 p.m.


Respectfully submitted,
Bill Spargo
Recording Secretary

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