While visiting Washington for the AIA Convention 2012, a group of us toured the Federal Triangle. I became intrigued with the early plans for Washington, and how these were used in the planning of the city we see today. Here is an excerpt of the history of Washington’s historic plans from the Smithsonian.
Washington D.C. was established in 1790 when an act of Congress authorized a federal district along the Potomac River, a location offering an easy route to the western frontier (via the Potomac and Ohio River valleys) and conveniently situated between the northern and southern states.
President Washington chose an area of land measuring 100 square miles where the Eastern Branch (today’s Anacostia River) met the Potomac just north of Mount Vernon, his Virginia home. The site already contained the lively port towns of Alexandria and Georgetown, but the new nation needed a federal center with space dedicated to government buildings.
Washington asked L’Enfant, by then an established architect, to survey the area and recommend locations for buildings and streets. The Frenchman arrived in Georgetown on a rainy night in March 1791 and immediately got to work. “He had this rolling landscape at the confluence of two great rivers,” said Judy Scott Feldman, chairwoman of the National Coalition to Save Our Mall. “He essentially had a clean slate on which to design the city.” Inspired by the topography, L’Enfant went beyond a simple survey and envisioned a city where important buildings would occupy strategic places based on changes in elevation and the contours of waterways.
City commissioners who were concerned with funding the project and appeasing the District’s wealthy landowners didn’t share L’Enfant’s vision. The planner irked the commissioners when he demolished a powerful resident’s house to make way for an important avenue and when he delayed producing a map for the sale of city lots (fearing real estate speculators would buy up land and leave the city vacant).
Eventually, the city’s surveyor, Andrew Ellicott, produced an engraved map that provided details for lot sales. It was very similar to L’Enfant’s plan (with practical changes suggested by officials), but the Frenchman got no credit for it. L’Enfant, now furious, resigned at the urging of Thomas Jefferson. When L’Enfant died in 1825 he had never received payment for his work on the capital and the city was still a backwater (due partly to L’Enfant’s rejected development and funding proposals).
A century after L’Enfant conceived an elegant capital, Washington was still far from complete.
In the 1800s, cows grazed on the Mall, which was then an irregularly shaped, tree-covered park with winding paths. Trains passing through a railroad station on the Mall interrupted debate in Congress. Visitors ridiculed the city for its idealistic pretensions in a bumpkin setting and there was even talk after the Civil War of moving the capital to Philadelphia or the Midwest.
In 1901, the Senate formed the McMillan Commission, a team of architects and planners who updated the capital based largely on L’Enfant’s original framework. They planned an extensive park system, and the Mall was cleared and straightened. Reclaimed land dredged from the river expanded the park to the west and south, making room for the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials. The Commission’s work finally created the famous green center and plentiful monuments of today’s Washington.
Info from the Smithsonian Magazine online.
Read more here.
Tags: AIA Convention 2012, Federal District, Federal Triangle, Karin Patriquin Architect, McMillan Commission, New Haven Architect Karin Patriquin, Pierre L'Enfant, Save Our Mall, Smithsonian, Washington, Washington Historic Plans, Washington monuments