L'Enfant, Pierre Charles

views updated

Pierre Charles L'Enfant

Born August 2, 1754
Paris, France
Died June 14, 1825
Near Bladensburg, Maryland

Architect, engineer, city planner, army officer

Pierre Charles L'Enfant was a French-born architect and engineer. Although he had little formal training, he designed the brilliant plan for the city of Washington, D.C., as well as other public and private buildings. His designs became models for city planners. His grand ideas and haughty attitude caused problems with many of his clients, however, and his life ended in poverty and bitterness.

Pierre Charles L'Enfant (pronounced pee-AIR sharl LON-FON) was born in Paris, France, on August 2, 1754. His father, Pierre, was a painter of battle scenes and landscapes. His mother, Marie Charlotte Leullier (pronounced luh-LYAY), was the daughter of a French military officer. Pierre had a brother, Pierre Joseph, who died in 1758, and a sister about whom nothing is known.

Young L'Enfant grew up among artistic people and was educated at Paris's Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, where his father taught. He learned to draw battle scenes and forts. L'Enfant also studied with André LaNotre (pronounced luh-NOTE), who designed the famous gardens at the beautiful Palace of Versailles (pronounced ver-SIGH), the extravagant home of the French royal family. L'Enfant also served in the French army, where he held the rank of lieutenant.

L'Enfant went to America in 1777, at the age of twenty- three, and volunteered to serve in George Washington 's see entry army in the fight for independence from Great Britain (the American Revolution was fought from 1775 to 1783). Although France had not yet entered the war on the American side, many idealistic men from France and other countries were inspired by the aims of the American revolutionaries and volunteered to serve in the American army.

L'Enfant was assigned to work with General Frederick von Steuben (pronounced von-SHTEW-ben), a German general who had volunteered to train American army troops. L'Enfant first met George Washington during the difficult winter of 1777–78 at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. L'Enfant kept General Washington and his fellow officers entertained by drawing pictures and sketches of them. Before long, L'Enfant attained the rank of captain in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He helped to supervise the building of forts and also engaged in combat.

In the Taggart Collection of Miscellaneous L'Enfant Papers, Hugh T. Taggart describes L'Enfant as "fully six feet in height, finely proportioned, nose prominent, of military bearing, [with a] courtly air, and polite manners, his figure usually enveloped in a long overcoat … a man who would attract attention in any assembly."

L'Enfant was present at the siege of Savannah, Georgia, in 1779, and suffered a serious wound that required months of recovery. He was later captured and held prisoner by the British until January 1782, when he was released in exchange for a British prisoner-of-war. He then served under George Washington, who promoted him in 1783 to Major of Engineers in the Continental army.

L'Enfant designed his first building while he was still in the Continental army. It was done at the request of the French foreign minister to America, a man named La Luzerne. He wanted to arrange a grand banquet in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in honor of the 1781 birth of the first son of King Louis XVI of France see entry, Louis-Joseph, who was himself in line to become king. La Luzerne had L'Enfant design and supervise the building of a magnificent hall in which to hold the banquet. The French government paid for the hall.

Visits France, returns and opens architectural firm

After the Continental army was disbanded in 1783, L'Enfant was invited to join the Society of the Cincinnati. The society was named for Cincinnatus, a Roman general of ancient times. The society aimed to keep alive the spirit of the revolution and the friendships of the men who had fought in the war. L'Enfant's handsome design for the society's medal greatly enhanced his reputation among America's early leaders and spread his fame as an artist. When L'Enfant returned to Paris to visit his dying father in 1783, he started a French branch of the Society of the Cincinnati.

While in Paris, L'Enfant learned that France had decided to grant him a pension, a small annual payment in recognition of his services and the wounds he received during the American Revolution. He never bothered to take the steps necessary to collect the pension. All his life, L'Enfant would be plagued by financial problems, in part because of his neglect of such details.

L'Enfant returned to America in April 1784 and began working as an architect, establishing a private practice in New York City. He had met many rich and well-known people in America, and he soon had a long list of clients. He was hired to design, build, and restore buildings and monuments, and he also worked as an interior designer.

New York projects

Among L'Enfant's famous New York projects were St. Paul's Chapel, Erasmus Academy in Brooklyn, Gracie Mansion (now the residence of New York's mayor), and private homes for such prominent New Yorkers as wealthy businessman John Jacob Astor, furniture designer Duncan Phyfe, and politician Alexander Hamilton see entry.

In 1789 L'Enfant was hired by the City of New York to remodel city hall for possible use as the nation's capitol building. New York failed in its bid to become the permanent capitol, but the building did witness George Washington's swearing-in as the nation's first president. City officials offered L'Enfant ten acres of land near the city in payment for his work, but he refused. He claimed the complicated and challenging

project was worth far more than that. Ten years later he was offered $750; again he refused. In the end, he and the American government never reached an agreement and he was never fairly compensated for the excellent work he had done.

Draws up plans for new capitol in Washington, D.C., but loses job

At the urging of Virginian Thomas Jefferson see entry, it was decided by the U.S. Congress that a new capital city would be constructed on the Potomac River, not far from Jefferson's home. It would be built on a ten-mile-square piece of land, called the District of Columbia, that would be federal territory, rather than belonging to any particular state.

In 1789 L'Enfant wrote to George Washington with his suggestions for the design of the new capital. He said the plan "should be drawn on such a scale as to leave room for that [expansion] and [decoration] which the increase of the wealth of the nation will permit it to pursue at any period, however remote." With those words L'Enfant showed himself to be a visionary, a man who looked beyond the present to the nation's future needs. In 1791 Washington and Thomas Jefferson chose L'Enfant to draw up plans for the new capital city on the Potomac River.

L'Enfant worked on the plan for more than a year. His final design was based partly on the Gardens of Versailles in France and partly on the restoration of the city of Rome, Italy, in 1585. L'Enfant's plan for the nation's capital used the grid pattern of streets that he pioneered. The design included the use of long avenues that joined at key points marked by important buildings, monuments, or parks. In this way the city became a symbolic representation of power radiating from a central source.

Personality stands in way of career success

L'Enfant was a stubborn man with a quick temper and a large ego. He always had problems staying within a budget, and he was often fired from jobs for his free spending. His work on Washington, D.C., was no exception. In 1792 President Washington dismissed L'Enfant from the project. After only six months on the job, L'Enfant was well over his budget. He quarreled bitterly with his superiors over expenses and insisted on complete control of the project.

Despite this very public dismissal, L'Enfant was asked to do other jobs. In 1792 he created a design for the new city of Paterson, New Jersey. It would be the nation's first city designed to be a manufacturing center. Within a year L'Enfant lost the job of supervising the construction of the city because of his haughty attitude and the fact that it would have been impossible to carry out his plans and stay within a budget.

The pattern of Lafayette's being hired and then soon fired continued. In 1794 he was hired as an engineer at Fort Mifflin on the Delaware River. But once again he was fired when his plans for the fort turned out to be far grander than the budget would allow. Later in 1794, he designed a magnificent mansion in Philadelphia for Robert Morris, a wealthy man who had contributed a good deal of his own money to finance the American Revolution. Morris ran into financial difficulties and the project was never completed. Later, though poor and dependent on others, L'Enfant refused to sue Morris for money due him, as the two men had become fast friends.

In 1812 L'Enfant was asked to accept the position of professor of engineering at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, but he declined the position. He said that he did not think he would be a good teacher, he preferred to work actively rather than teach, and he had some problems with the English language.

Retirement and poverty

During the War of 1812 (1812–15), which pitted the United States against England over who would control the seas in North America, L'Enfant was employed to design and supervise the construction of Fort Washington, which was to stand several miles from the U.S. capital. Its purpose was to defend the city of Washington, D.C. At some time during the project, he had bitter disagreements with his superiors there and the construction of the project was taken over by another officer. L'Enfant then retired.

L'Enfant continued to neglect his own personal finan cial affairs. His father left him a small farm in Normandy, France, but L'Enfant never took the steps necessary to claim his inheritance. From 1815 to 1824 L'Enfant, now nearly broke, lived with the family of his friend, William Dudley Digges, near Bladensburg, Maryland.

Appeals to Congress for fair payment for work on capital

To the end of his days, L'Enfant believed he had been treated unjustly by his clients, both private individuals and the federal government. He haunted the halls of Congress applying for payment for his work on the Capital. He claimed he was owed $95,500 for his work, but George Washington and other federal officials figured the amount due him was between $2,500 and $3,000.

In trying to collect the money he felt was owed him, L'Enfant sent a series of memos to the U.S. Congress. In them, he recalled his accomplishments on the nation's behalf despite his personal misfortunes. Biographer Elizabeth S. Kite explained in L'Enfant and Washington: "He also wrote of 'the absolute destruction of his family's fortune in Europe,' owing to the French Revolution, his being reduced 'from a state of ease and content to one the most distressed and helpless,' living as he did, upon 'borrowed bread'; but he would not doubt of 'the [nobility of mind] and justice of Congress.'" To the end of his life L'Enfant never gave up hope that in time the United States would fairly compensate him for his brilliant work, but his hope went unfulfilled.

When the seventy-five-year-old L'Enfant died in 1815, his body was buried at the Digges' home at the foot of a tree. According to Elizabeth S. Kite, the goods he left behind consisted of "three watches, three compasses, some books, maps, and surveying instruments, the whole being valued at forty-six dollars."

L'Enfant's plans are realized

Seventy-four years after L'Enfant died poor and forgotten, his plan for Washington, D.C., was unearthed from the federal archives, and its brilliance was finally recognized. In 1901 plans went forward to develop the nation's capital according to L'Enfant's vision.

For all of his difficulties in getting along with people, L'Enfant was a man of honor. George Washington had once expressed his fear that L'Enfant might publicly denounce the Washington, D.C., project because he was fired from it. But reflecting later on L'Enfant's character, Washington wrote that he had never shown any "disloyalty to the creation of his genius [the capital city]. He bore his honors and disappointment in humility and poverty."

For More Information

Boatner, Mark M., III. "L'Enfant, Pierre Charles." Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994, pp. 615-16.

Caemmerer, H. Paul. Life of Pierre Charles L'Enfant. New York: De Capo Press, 1950.

Kite, Elizabeth S. L'Enfant and Washington. New York: Arno Press, 1970, pp. 1-29.

Taggart, Hugh T. Taggart Collection of Miscellaneous L'Enfant Papers. Records of the Columbia Historical Society, XI, p. 216.

Web Sites

"L'Enfant, Pierre Charles." The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography. J. S. Bowmen, ed. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1995. [Online] Available http://search.biography.com (accessed on 9/6/99).

Meehan, Thomas. "Pierre-Charles L'Enfant." From the Catholic Encyclopedia. Encyclopedia Press, Inc., 1913. Electronic version copyright 1997 by New Advent, Inc. [Online] Available http://www.knight.org/advent/cethen/09150a.htm (accessed on 9/2/99).

"Pierre Charles L'Enfant: Major, United States Army, and Designer of Washington, D.C." Arlington National Cemetery Website [Online] Available http://www.arlingtoncemetery.com/l-enfant.htm (accessed on 9/6/99).

L'Enfant Honored after Death

The remains of Pierre Charles L'Enfant lay in a poorly marked grave at Digges Farm, near Bladensburg, Maryland, for nearly a century after his death in 1815. Meanwhile, attention turned to the incomplete condition of the nation's capital. In 1902 both the Parks Commission of the City of Washington, D.C., and theU.S. Senate presented reports on what steps should be taken to improve and develop the city. Both groups said that the plans made by L'Enfant a century earlier had been carefully reviewed and had met with the approval of all concerned.

In 1908 the U.S. Congress finally got around to recognizing L'Enfant's achievements and directed that his remains be removed to a special site in Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia. The cemetery is a public monument for people who have made sacrifices in their lives for the public good. Congress ordered that a monument be erected at the gravesite.

On April 22, 1909, L'Enfant's remains were unearthed, placed in a metal-lined casket, covered with the American flag, and moved to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, where they rested for six days. On April 28, 1909, a military escort conveyed the casket to theU.S. Capitol building, to honor the distinguished man. The casket lay in state (displayed formally to the public before burial) in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda (a place in the Capitol Building used for ceremonial purposes) from 9 a.m. until noon. The casket was then taken to Arlington National Cemetery, where it was buried on the slope in front of the Custis-Lee Mansion, which had been built as a memorial to George Washington by his adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis.

A ceremony to honor L'Enfant was held at the cemetery and featured dedication addresses by President William Howard Taft and Ambassador J. J. Jusserand of France. The group of 350 that attended the ceremony included the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, other justices, senators and members of Congress, high-ranking military and city and national officials, and patriotic organizations, including representatives of the Society of the Cincinnati.

The monument constructed for L'Enfant's burial site is made of white marble (now very rough due to weather erosion). The top of the monument features an engraving of L'Enfant's design

Pierre Charles L'Enfant

views updated

Pierre Charles L'Enfant

Pierre Charles L'Enfant (1754-1825), French-born American architect, designed the plan on which Washington, D.C., was built.

The philosophical ideals of 18th-century France gave the American Revolution its ideological character. When the new republic was created, artists were called upon to symbolize and incorporate these ideals in official arts commissions. The work of Pierre Charles L'Enfant is the architectural expression of those ideological convictions.

L'Enfant was born in Paris. He studied painting under his father at the Royal Academy in Paris and later trained as an engineer. In 1777, during the American Revolution, he joined the American army as a volunteer and rose to the rank of major of engineers. After the war he gained George Washington's admiration by designing an eagle insignia for the Society of the Cincinnati.

In 1788 L'Enfant was commissioned to redesign the New York City Hall into an appropriate seat for the new Federal government. For Federal Hall, L'Enfant prepared a design that would consciously symbolize the union of the 13 colonies. He used emblematic motifs such as capitals with stars and rays in foliage, an exterior frieze with 13 metopes, each containing a star, and a pediment crowned with an eagle grasping 13 arrows.

When the decision was made to lay out a new Federal capital on the Potomac, L'Enfant wrote to President Washington offering his services. His plans were published in 1791. The symbolism of this design was more mature and coherent than that used in Federal Hall. The radiating streets and squares, named after the 13 states and centering on the two key buildings, the Capitol and the White House, symbolized union. Also contained in L'Enfant's plan were "statues, columns, obelisks … to perpetuate not only the memory of such individuals whose counsels or military achievements were conspicuous in giving liberty and independence to this country, but also those whose usefulness hath rendered them worthy of general imitation, to invite the youth of succeeding generations to tread in the paths of those sages or heroes whom their country has thought proper to celebrate."

Despite his great talent, L'Enfant never had a successful career. He was often impatient and tactless with clients, including his most prestigious employer, the U.S. government, from whose service he was dismissed in 1792. In turn, the overproud architect refused to accept payment for his work. In 1795 he began to build a lavish town house in Philadelphia for the banker Robert Morris, but L'Enfant's temperament and the banker's financial reverses prevented the completion of the building. L'Enfant died in obscurity; in 1909 his body was moved to Arlington National Cemetery.

Further Reading

The standard biography of L'Enfant is Hans P. Caemmerer, The Life of Pierre Charles L'Enfant (1950). □

About this article

Pierre Charles LEnfant

All Sources -
Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Topic