Pierre-Charles L Enfant

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L'Enfant, Pierre-Charles

Born August 2, 1754 (Paris, France)
Died June 14, 1825 (Prince Georges County, Maryland)

Engineer, architect

Pierre-Charles L'Enfant was a French artist who excelled in architecture and engineering. He is best remembered as the city planner who designed Washington, D.C., under the direction of President George Washington (1732–1799; served 1789–97; see entry in volume 2). L'Enfant was also responsible for remodeling Federal Hall in New York City, where Washington took the oath of office as the first president of the United States.

L'Enfant was a soldier in the American Revolution (1775–83) and a charter member of the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization created to help maintain ties among veterans of the American Revolution. He designed the society's certificate and its insignia. L'Enfant's use of symbolism and his practical use of topography (natural features of the ground surface) made him an influential urban planner into the twentieth century. Elements of L'Enfant's plan for Washington, D.C., were adopted in numerous cities nationally and internationally.

"The plan should be drawn on such a scale as to leave room for that . . . embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the nation will permit it to pursue at any period however remote. . . ."

A revolutionary man

Pierre-Charles L'Enfant was born in Paris on August 2, 1754. His mother was Marie Charlotte Lullier, the daughter of an official of the French Court. His father was Pierre L'Enfant (Lenfant), a painter for the French Crown whose specialty was landscapes and battle scenes. Pierre-Charles was baptized August 3, 1754, in the Church Royale of the Parish of Saint Hippolytus, one of the oldest Catholic churches in Paris. He had a sister and a brother, but his brother, Pierre Joseph, died in 1758 at the age of six. Pierre-Charles grew up in a privileged home and spent time in the courts of Louis XV (1710–1774; reigned 1715–74) and Louis XVI (1754–1793; reigned 1774–92). In 1771, he became a student at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, where his father was an instructor. Pierre-Charles studied fine art and learned to draw battle scenes, which involved sessions on how to draw fortifications. Included in his studies at the academy were detailed instructions in the art of landscape architecture.

At the age of twenty-two, L'Enfant accepted a lieutenancy in the Continental Army to help America in its fight for independence from Britain. France threw its support behind the American colonies in 1777 when it became evident that the Americans had a real chance of defeating Britain. The French were longtime enemies of Britain and had lost land to the British in North America during the French and Indian War (1754–63). L'Enfant was among the first to enlist, although he had no military training or experience as an army engineer (who built bridges, roads, and earthworks for troop defense). He joined with other commissioned and noncommissioned officers, including engineers, artillerymen, miners, and trained laborers. L'Enfant set out aboard the Amphitrite and arrived in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in April 1777. Almost immediately he changed his first name to Peter Charles, the English version of his original name, and committed his talents to supporting the American cause.

L'Enfant was sent to Boston, Massachusetts, in December 1777. He joined the staff of Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben (1730–1794), newly appointed inspector general of the army. Steuben was training General George Washington's raw recruits and preparing the official military manual of the U.S. Army. L'Enfant drew eight illustrations for Steuben's Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States while stationed at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, in 1778. He also drew a number of landscapes while he was there, including a panoramic view of West Point. It was at Valley Forge that L'Enfant was first introduced to George Washington. Washington requested a pencil portrait of himself after seeing L'Enfant sketch similar pictures for his fellow officers during the long, dreary days at Valley Forge. A talented artist, L'Enfant was able to catch a clear likeness of his subject in his drawings. His service in Pennsylvania earned L'Enfant an appointment as captain in the Army Corps of Engineers on April 3, 1779. With the promotion, L'Enfant was sent south to his next assignment.

In October 1779, L'Enfant was present at the Battle of Savannah, Georgia. He received a serious leg wound while attempting to set fire to the British-built defenses. Thereafter, he relied on a cane to walk. L'Enfant participated in the defense of Charleston, South Carolina, in May 1780, and was captured by the British. He was released in a prisoner exchange in January 1782 and allowed to return to active military duty with the engineers. L'Enfant immediately asked General Washington for a promotion to the rank of major. The commander in chief sent his personal praise, but Congress did not immediately grant a rank increase. L'Enfant's request for a promotion was granted on May 2, 1783. He was commissioned brevet major in the Army Corps of Engineers.

Design work

In 1783, L'Enfant helped found the Society of the Cincinnati. The organization was created to help maintain the bonds of friendship among military officers who had served during the American Revolution. It also worked to promote their interests with the government and aid the widows and orphans of deceased officers. The Society of the Cincinnati was named after the famous Roman general Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus (born c. 519 bce). A branch of the organization was formed in each of the original thirteen states as well as France. Just over two thousand of the nearly six thousand officers eligible to join the society in 1783 applied for membership.

L'Enfant was selected to design the society's membership diploma, badge, and medal. He chose a bald eagle with the society's emblem on its breast because the bird's range was limited to the North American continent. The design was presented to George Washington, who had been elected president of the organization. L'Enfant was sent to France in December 1783 to help organize the French branch of the Society of the Cincinnati. He was commissioned to have the society's diploma engraved and the eagle insignia made by a good jeweler in Paris. L'Enfant used the time in France for personal business as well, visiting his aging father and family members, whom he had not seen in seven years.

L'Enfant was back in America by April 1784. Like most soldiers of the Continental Army, he received his official discharge papers in January of that year. In December, L'Enfant sent Congress a proposal for the creation of a department of engineers that he would command. He proposed that this new federal corps would be responsible for the fortification of the nation's harbors, for defense purposes as well as for the protection of trade. The department would also erect frontier posts for the supervision of Native American trade and the protection of Americans immigrating to the West. L'Enfant documented the need for city planning, road and bridge construction, and sanitation controls. His plan for the country's general growth and defense included the idea that the federal government create a separate territory held by the states for their common use. L'Enfant's suggestions for expanding federal control came at a time when Congress, operating under the Articles of Confederation, believed the government should exercise only minimal responsibilities. Congress gave L'Enfant's proposal the dignity due a war hero by submitting it to a committee. The committee studied the documents, and unconvinced, they reported back to Congress that the United States did not need a department of engineers.

The move to New York

In 1785, Congress chose New York City as the seat of the federal government. L'Enfant decided to move to the new capital as well. He settled in New York and supported himself as an artist and architect, designing ceremonial and monument pieces for private and governmental projects alike. He quickly established a reputation as an outstanding designer and engineer. In 1787, L'Enfant supervised the erection of a monument to General Richard Montgomery (1736–1775) at St. Paul's Church in the city. The following year, L'Enfant designed the facility used for New York's ratification convention, where delegates from the state considered whether to approve the new U.S. Constitution. The pavilion was built to seat six thousand people for a grand banquet that took place on July 23, 1788. Three days later, the New York convention ratified the Constitution, and New York became the eleventh state in the union. New York City busily made plans to grow and build in hopes of becoming the permanent residence of the federal government.

L'Enfant enjoyed a pleasant and prosperous decade in New York City. He built numerous mansions and monuments. In September 1788, his plans for converting New York's City Hall into Federal Hall were approved. The restored building faced Broad Street where it intersected with Wall Street. It was to be the new home for the U.S. Congress. On April 30, 1789, George Washington took the oath of the presidency on the second-story balcony of the newly completed Federal Hall.

A capital affair

In 1790, the U.S. House of Representatives approved the creation of a national capital city in the new District of Columbia. Washington had personally chosen the location, which included land in both Maryland and Virginia. President Washington turned to L'Enfant to plan the capital. L'Enfant's grand vision for the city greatly excited Washington. In January 1791, the eager architect was selected to design not only the city's layout but all of the public buildings as well. L'Enfant immediately set about surveying the terrain of the district, which at the time was a wilderness of swamp and forest. He sketched out a plan for the city and outlined a program for its prompt development.

L'Enfant completed his preliminary plan by July 1791. His plan made excellent use of the area's natural features; the proposed city fit the topography of the site perfectly. L'Enfant's "Congress House," which was later renamed the Capitol, was situated on a hill with a large park extending westward to the Potomac River. L'Enfant used long avenues that joined at key points marked by important buildings or monuments. The greatness of the plan was evident in its simplicity and symbolism, with the avenues of power radiating from a central source. By August 1791, L'Enfant submitted a report to President Washington that included a more complete map and numerous plans for proposed buildings. The president brought L'Enfant's work before Congress that December. The cornerstone of the President's House was laid in 1792.

From the beginning, L'Enfant demanded complete control over the entire project. He was unwilling to submit himself to the authority of the federal overseers assigned to work with him. President Washington was finally forced to dismiss L'Enfant in February 1792, after just one year of intense planning activity. The first engraved map of the city of Washington was published that March. It credited the plan to Andrew Ellicott (1754–1820), the surveyor who had worked with L'Enfant. This plan for the district, known as the "Ellicott Map," was a version of the L'Enfant plan.

Post-Washington years

After his dismissal, L'Enfant left Washington, D.C., and moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804; see entry in volume 1) hired him to plan a town and an aqueduct (structure that conveys flowing water) for the Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers in Paterson, New Jersey. Others were later hired to carry out a simplified version of L'Enfant's extravagant design; this was the case with most of his projects over the years. Between 1793 and 1795, L'Enfant designed and partially constructed a famous house for financier Robert Morris (1734–1806). Unfortunately, financial problems forced Morris to declare bankruptcy, and L'Enfant stopped work on the mansion. It became known as "Morris's Folly" and was demolished in 1801.

In 1810, L'Enfant accepted a settlement of several thousand dollars from the U.S. government for his work on the federal city plan. It was far short of the nearly $100,000 he had originally demanded in 1800. L'Enfant was offered a professorship at West Point in the summer of 1812, but he declined to accept. His last public employment was a commission to reconstruct Fort Washington after it failed to protect the city of Washington from invasion by British troops in the War of 1812 (1812–15).

L'Enfant remained in his adopted country until his death in 1825 at the age of seventy. He spent his final years in poverty, depending on the charity of friends in Maryland. His body was buried in an unmarked grave at "Green Hill," a Digges family estate in Prince Georges County, Maryland. Early in the twentieth century, L'Enfant's plan for the city of Washington was readopted, and his contribution to the unique capital city brought him official recognition. In 1909, L'Enfant's body was exhumed and then, after lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery. His tomb over-looks the city he planned. A monument marking L'Enfant's grave includes his map of Washington.

For More Information


Bowling, Kenneth R. Peter Charles L'Enfant: Vision, Honor, and Male Friendship in the Early American Republic. Washington, DC: George Washington University, 2002.

Bryan, Wilhelmus Bogart. A History of the National Capital. New York: Macmillan, 1914–16.

Caemmerer, H. Paul. The Life of Pierre Charles L'Enfant: Planner of the City Beautiful—The City of Washington. Washington, DC: National Republic Publishing, 1950. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1970.

DeConde, Alexander. Entangling Alliance: Politics & Diplomacy under George Washington. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1958. Reprint, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1974.

Kite, Elizabeth S. L'Enfant and Washington, 1791–1792. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Press, 1929. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1970.

Web Sites

"Explore DC: Pierre L'Enfant." WETA: The Public Broadcasting Station in the Nation's Capital.http://www.exploredc.org/index.php?id=181 (accessed on August 14, 2005).

"Pierre Charles L'Enfant." Arlington National Cemetery.http://www.arlingtoncemetery.net/l-enfant.htm (accessed on August 14, 2005).

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L'Enfant, Pierre-Charles

L'ENFANT, PIERRE-CHARLES. (1754–1825). Continental officer, architect. France. Son of a painter at the Gobelin factory, he was born in Paris and educated as an architect and engineer. Beginning in 1771 he was a student at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, where he learned to draw battle scenes and fortifications. To protect him on his Atlantic passage, he was given a commission as lieutenant of colonial troops before signing a contract with Silas Deane that guaranteed him the rank of engineer lieutenant in the American army with rank from 1 December 1776. He went to America with Coudray in September 1777. L'Enfant's contract with Deane was honored by Congress, and he spent the winter at Valley Forge. On 18 February 1778 he was promoted to captain of engineers and attached to the staff of Steuben.

Since stagnation of the war in the North left little prospect of action, L'Enfant arranged a transfer to the South, where he served in the light infantry under John Laurens. Now acting as an infantry officer, he received a serious gunshot wound while leading the advance of the American column against Savannah on 9 October 1779. Left on the field, he was recovered by friendly forces and taken to Charleston for a slow recuperation. He was bedridden as late as January 1780 and at the time of the British landing was still using a crutch. Replacing an American major who was more severely wounded than he, L'Enfant took an active part in the defense of the city. He became a prisoner when the garrison surrendered on 12 May 1780 and was not released until January 1782, when Rochambeau intervened to have him exchanged for Captain Van Eyden.

He returned to Philadelphia and on 2 May 1783 was breveted major. A few weeks later he received a French pension of three hundred livres and was promoted to captain in the French provincial forces. During July and August he accompanied Steuben on his unsuccessful mission to Canada. On 10 June 1783 he transmitted to the Society of the Cincinnati his design for a medal. He left for France in October bearing letters from Washington regarding the Order of the Cincinnati along with his designs for the diploma and insignia. He left American service on 1 January 1784 but settled in Philadelphia.

L'Enfant did several portraits of Washington, designed pavilions and other trappings for military and civic pageants around the city of New York, added adornments to St. Paul's Chapel (1786–1788), and converted the old New York City Hall into Federal Hall when the government was temporarily established in that city. In 1791 he submitted the basic concept for the capital city of Washington. In such a complex undertaking, L'Enfant soon found himself embroiled in continuous controversies. On 28 February 1792 he resigned, writing to Washington:

From a full conviction of the impossibility to effect the intended establishment, while struggling under various difficulties that continually must occur, and which would as certainly prove insurmountable, to late to remmedy their ill-consequences; at the same time fearing that by my continuance, you might indulge a fallacious hope of success, by which in the end you must have been deceived, under these impressions do I renounce all concern in it. (Caemmerer, Life, p. 213)

Yet he did not leave before he had established the city's fundamental character. In 1792 he was engaged to lay out the city of Paterson, New Jersey, but the next year he was dismissed because of a lack of funds for the project. In 1794 the federal government gave him the job of rebuilding Fort Mifflin, below Philadelphia, and some portions were executed, but again lack of finances did not allow him to complete his plan and little work was done under his supervision.

L'Enfant spent most of his time from 1800 to 1810 trying to obtain payment for his plan of Washington. Although Congress voted him two grants of money and offered him in 1812 the post of engineering professor at West Point, L'Enfant declared himself not suited to teaching. In 1814 he was engaged to undertake a reconstruction of Fort Washington but failed to produce a plan. After that he became a houseguest of the Digges family in Prince George's County, Maryland, until his death. He was buried at the foot of a tree on the Digges estate. In 1909 his body was moved from its grave and reburied at Arlington, Virginia.

SEE ALSO Cincinnati, Society of the; Deane, Silas; Laurens, John; Rochambeau, Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de; Steuben, Friedrich Wilhelm von.


Caemmerer, H. Paul. The Life of Pierre Charles L'Enfant. 1950. Reprint, New York: Da Capo, 1970.

Ford, Worthington C., et al, eds. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789. 34 vols. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1904–1937.

Kite, Elizabeth S. L'Enfant and Washington, 1791–1792. Washington: Institut français de Washington, 1929.

Washington, George. Writings of George Washington. Edited by John C. Fitzpatrick. 39 vols. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1931–1944.

                            revised by Robert Rhodes Crout

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Enfant, Pierre-Charles L' (1754–1825). A Frenchman, he served as a volunteer with the American forces during the War of Independence from 1777, and designed a large Neo-Classical pavilion in Philadelphia to commemorate the birth of the Dauphin (1782). He remodelled the City Hall, NYC, as the Congress or Federal Hall of the USA (1788–9—demolished 1812). From 1789 he was involved in the design of the new Federal Capital of Washington, DC, where the plan was on the grandest lines, owing something to Baroque precedents, especially Versailles.


Caemmerer (1970);
Kite (ed.) (1929);
Reiff (1977);
Reps (1967);
W&K (1983)

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L'Enfant, Pierre-Charles (1754–1825). See Enfant.