L’Enfant Plan of Washington D.C.

chicago_grid_planCities, like people, have individual “personalities.” The particular character of a city – its physical form and its organization – is the product of its singular geography and history.” – Thomas Bender[1]

L'Enfant Plan, 1791

L’Enfant Plan, 1791

This statement is particularly true for Washington D.C. The federal city is a unique American city: as the capital and the only federal city in the United States (U.S.), the city housed the three branches of the federal governement; and therefore is an epicenter of the US politics. As a result of the union of the thirteen colonies struggling for independence, the city itself is a strong symbol of unity.

We are going to see in what ways the decision of founding a federal city shaped Washington D.C. and led to a unique pattern of development: a range of wide avenues that superimposed a “classic” grid plan.

A timeline of the nation’s capital

Pierre-Charles L'Enfant

Pierre-Charles L’Enfant

  • 1783: the Constitution includes the construction of a federal city to be the permanent seat of the US federal government[2].
  • 1790: the Residence Act[3] implemented the Constitution. Washington gives to Pierre-Charles L’Enfant  a French engineer who served during the Revolutionary War  the mission of designing and laying out the new capital on a virgin diamond-shape land. Finally, because of a dispute[4], L’Enfant was dismissed by Washington in 1793. He left and took all his plans with him, but what we can see today is still the heritage of his plan: wide diagonal avenues, public squares where worthy citizens would be erected in statues, fountains[5]. L’Enfant wanted to be much more than a mere city. Its plan was to make Washington D.C. an example that planners could copy. Moreover, he wanted the federal city to be a strong symbol of the American power to the other nations. For a century, the plan will be only graduately implemented. The city got a reputation as a bad investment and grew slowly in the following century.
  • 1847: the Smithsonian Institution is established by Congress
  • 1848: Construction of the Washington Monument began (ends in 1884).
  • 1893: the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago introduced the City Beautiful movement. It will have a strong influence over the McMillan Plan to beautify Washington D.C.[6]
  • 1901-1902: the McMillan Plan (influenced and implemented by Burnham and Law Olmstead), revived the Beaux-Arts style of L’Enfant Plan, with the implementation of the National Mall, which became the “monumental core” of the growing city. A site is selected for the Lincoln Memorial, the city railway is relocated outside of the Mall (with the building of Union Station), a new municipal office complex and parks are built. Low (buildings were limited to not be higher than 160′) neoclassical museums and cultural centers in the National Mall[7]. One of the shared goals of L’Enfant and McMillan Plans was to let air and light reach the pedestrian level.
  • 1922: the Lincoln Memorial is built. In the first decades of the 20th century, some lands were reclamed, in order to expand L’Enfant Plan by building waterfront parks, an improved Mall and new monuments.

A grandiose vision that reflects the federal character of the U.S. capital

A different pattern of development

A strict grid plan – where streets and avenues cross one another in right angle corners – is the default pattern in many American cities, including Spanish, French, British, and American cities, or 17th, 18th or 19th-century cities. Here are some examples (click on each map to enlarge):

chicago grid layout



new york grid plan

New York Manhattan








san diego city map

San Diego 1908


portland oregon neighborhood grid

Portland Oregon












On the contrary, Washington D.C. contains a range of diagonal wide avenues that interconnect into circles and squares, as shown in those two plan views:

The wide avenues converging towards the National Mall

The wide avenues converging towards the National Mall



The circles and squares made by the crossings of the wide avenues

National symbols give the capital its federal character

As the U.S. capital and only federal city, Washington D.C. must meet the requirements linked to its role. First, the city of Washington must highlight the political life of the U.S. and unify States and Americans around some common ideals in order to build a new American collective conscience for the new nation.

From left to right and from top to bottom: Supreme Court, Washington Monument, Capitol, Smithsonian Museum, OAS, White House, Museum of American History, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial

From left to right and from top to bottom: Supreme Court, Washington Monument, Capitol, Smithsonian Museum, OAS, White House, Museum of American History, Lincoln Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial

  • A place of power:
    • The head of the three branches of the federal government are linked altogether by the National Mall.
    • The big avenues converge towards the National Mall, which emphasizes the strategic political role of the city.
    • The Beaux-Arts style gave an image of a strong country to other nations.
  • A place of unity:
    • The very location of the federal city was a compromise to unify Northern and Southern States[8].
    • Major streets are named after U.S. states: Massachussets, Virginia, Connecticut, Pennsylvania avenues.
  • A place of history:
    • L’Enfant, in his plan, created circles and squares where avenues cross. When circulating in front of those public spaces, one can see statues of American heroes[9]
    • Moreover, the city highlights U.S. national history: memorials and buildings refer to fights the U.S. endured to get its independence.
    • Since 1945, the government used this pattern of development to build statues and memorials to honor American soldiers involved in global conflicts, such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
  • A place of culture and humanism:
    • The Smithsonian Institution is inaugurated in 1846 “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge“.
    • Thoughout the course of History, museums, galleries, zoo, botanic gardens and libraries were build to “enlighten” the people.

From the implementation of L’Enfant Plan to today, the particular pattern of Washington DC has had an influence over the ways Washingtonians get around, and how highways and public transports were built: the main transit lines and freeways are superimposed to the wide avenues drawn by L’Enfant. This is a demonstration that the development of the city largely went along with the plan drawn by the French engineer.

Today, the National Mall is one of the most visited place in the US, with 25 million visitors per year[10]. The Mall, with its catalyst role, became the nation’s premier site for public celebrations and civic protests, such as the 1963 March on Washington, the 2007 Iraq War Protest, or the Presidential Inauguration.

Exhibit by Guillaume DÜRR

References and sources:
[1] “The American City – What shaped its development”, Cities : the forces that shape them, Cooper-Hewitt Museum, 1982
[3] This act is a compromise betweeen Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, which states that a new federal city must be built along the Potomac River by 1800, by George Washington. http://www.ushistory.org/us/20d.asp
[4] L’Enfant protested against revisions made by Andrew and Benjamin Ellicott and was against selling land prematurely.
[5] Howard P. CHUDACOFF, The Evolution of American Urban Society, p.41
[6] ibid., p.166-167
[8] “The compromise represented a symbolic politics of the very highest order. While Hamilton’s policies encouraged the consolidation of economic power in the hands of bankers, financiers, and merchants who predominated in the urban northeast, the political capital was to be in a more southerly and agricultural region apart from those economic elites.“. U.S.History.com : http://www.ushistory.org/us/20d.asp, accessed on 02/28/2014.
[9] Scott Circle, 1874: Winfield Scott, General / Logan Circle, 1930: John A. Logan, Commander of the Army of tTeennessee / Dupont Circle, 1884:  Naval Officer during the Civil War]
Photo credits:
All the plans are capture from Google Maps.
Supreme Court: Creative Commons BY-SA, took from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:SCOTUSbuilding_1st_Street_SE.JPG
Washington Monument:  Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0, took from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Washington_Monument_Dusk_Jan_2006.jpg
Organization of American States: Creative Commons CC-BY Photo by Peter Stehlik, took from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Peter_Stehlik_593A6319A.JPG
White House: Photo by Matt Wade. Licence CC-BY-SA, took from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:WhiteHouseSouthFacade.JPG
Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Photo by Mario Roverto Duran Ortiz. Licence CC-BY-SA, took from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:US_flag_reflexion_on_Vietnam_Veterans_Memorial_12_2011_000124.JPG
All pictures not mentioned here are in the public domain.