Surveying the Federal City

L’Enfant’s Design and Ellicott’s Geometry

Don Alexander Hawkins
Architect, Don Hawkins and Associates

2262nd Meeting Abstract
Friday, December 18, 2009 at 8:15 PM

Don Alexander Hawkins


In February, 1791, Major Peter Charles L’Enfant was commissioned to determine the locations of the buildings that would be needed by the federal government when it relocated from Philadelphia to the new Federal City on the banks of the Potomac in 1800. Within five months he had conceived, modified, redesigned, and received presidential approval of the plan of a new city like no other on earth. Andrew Ellicott, Surveyor General of the United States, worked closely with L’Enfant in the laying-out process, which resulted in numerous modifications of the original design. Ellicott’s survey report, including a map showing the centerlines of streets and avenues, demonstrates the limitations of eighteenth century surveyors’ practices when faced with the task of drawing a complex plan diagram on a six thousand acre landscape. Ellicott’s map makes it possible for us to determine the sequence of the measurements, and to discover which of the significant elements of the L’Enfant Plan were located intentionally, and which locations were dictated by his chosen geometry. This question must be dealt with in any full consideration of the designer’s intentions and accomplishments. This presentation, will discuss the effects of the eighteenth century science of surveying on the design of Washington, DC.

About the Author:

Don Alexander Hawkins is a native Washingtonian. He studied architecture at Catholic University, Washington, DC, The Architectural Association, London, and Carnegie Tech, Pittsburgh. As an undergraduate, he apprenticed with Hugh Newell Jacobsen. He founded Don Hawkins and Associates, an architectural practice specializing in small and medium scale projects, in 1967. He earned a Master of Architecture and Urban Design Degree from Catholic University in 1977 and began his systematic study of Washington, DC’s founding and development. His studies of the early city have been published in maps and articles, and shown in exhibitions. He curated the long-term exhibition “Washington: Symbol and City,” at the National Building Museum. He served as Chairman of the Parks and History Association, which built and operated twenty five bookstores in the Washington Region’s National Parks from 1999 to 2001. He was Chairman of the Committee of 100 on the Federal City, Washington’s oldest planning organization, from 2006 to 2008. He serves as Secretary of the Historical Society of Washington, DC and is a member of its Editorial Board. He lectures occasionally at several of Washington’s universities. His maps and historic reconstructions of Washington and the US Capitol have been included in many publications.

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