WASHINGTON lays proud claim to be one of the most beautiful cities of the world. In its great artistic composition, its combination of usefulness and beauty, the genius and sagacity of our forefathers is everywhere instanced; and amongst the treasures which the Capital preserves, is not one which rivals the city itself, with its broad thoroughfares, its verdant squares and circles, its handsome edifices, and generous park systems.
Washington has the advantage over the modern cities of the world, with the possible exception of Saint Petersburg, in having been designed and laid out as the capital of a great nation. It has no civic history which antedates the establishment of the government upon its site, and it is a unit in a sense scarcely true of any other city, in that from the beginning everything has been planned to fit the purpose of the nation’s executive administration, everything weaves together into the common pat-tern.
There is a tradition that George Washington, when a youth, surveying the lands of the opulent Lord Fairfax, and all unconscious of the brilliant career which the future had in store for him, predicted that a great city would occupy the territory now included in the District of Columbia. In later years, when serving under General Braddock he encamped with the British troops upon the hill now crowned by the National Observatory, he is said to have sat many times at the door of his tent and gazed at the undulating plateau on which the city rests; noted the broad river front and the surrounding hills, and with the practised eye of a practical surveyor, traced out the future abode of thousands.
Centuries before the physical advantages of the site had attracted the aboriginal Indians of our country. The Manahoacs frequented the region now occupied by the city, and in the spring assembled there to hold their yearly councils. Shad and herring ran in the river at this time, and great feasts were made while the return of the vernal season was heralded with joyous ceremonies.
When Captain John Smith sailed up the Potomac, in 1608, he found the country inhabited by numerous Indian tribes, and archaeological treasures have been found in abundance where they had their camping ground.
The Potomac borders were again thoroughly explored in 1623-25, when Henry Fleet, the hardy English fur trader, visited the country. He wrote and published an enthusiastic description of the country about Washington, and doubtless influenced many of the emigrants of that time in favour of Maryland and Virginia, as a place desirable for settlement.
Amongst the first of these settlers was a company of Scotch and Irish people who established themselves within the limits of what is now the District, obtaining patents for a large tract of land, and calling their domain ” New Scotland.” Their descendants were amongst the original proprietors of the land upon which Washington is built.
It is told of a member of this colony, named Pope, that ” he set up his lares and penates on the top of the hill, where the Capitol now stands. He called his plantation Rome, and a little stream that meandered along the base of the hill, the Tiber, believing that, in the course of time, a capital city greater than imperial Rome, would arise on the spacious plateau where he cultivated his crops.”
The selection of a site upon which to erect the capital city of the United States was left to the wisdom of President Washington, who was empowered by the second session of the first Congress under the constitution, held in New York in the summer of 1790, to select a Federal Territory, ” not exceeding ten miles square, on the Potomac River, at some space between the mouth of the eastern branch of the Conogocheague, for the permanent seat of the government of the United States.”
There had been a severe contest over the selection of the Federal Territory; New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Trenton, Harrisburg, and many other places urged their claims to be made the capital city. The final adoption of the Potomac site was brought about by a coup d’état contrived by Jefferson and Hamilton. Through their ingenious manipulation, the bill fixing the permanent seat of the government on the banks of the Potomac was the argument which turned the scale and carried Hamilton’s monument of statesmanship, the funding bill, which gave life to public credit and saved from dishonour the war debts of the States. The bargain carried both through.
The District of Columbia, or the Federal Territory, as originally laid out by the first commission, under the direction of President Washington, embraced one hundred square miles, so located as to include the thriving towns of Georgetown, Mary-land and Alexandria, Virginia, together with the confluence of the Potomac River with its eastern branch and the adjacent heights. Maryland and Virginia ceded to the United States the territory required.
In 1846 all that portion of the District lying on the west bank of the Potomac was retroceded by Congress to the State of Virginia, so that the Federal Territory at the present time comprises sixty-four square miles and is bounded on three sides by the State of Maryland, with the Potomac River on its west.
Having chosen the area of the Federal Territory, Washington next turned his attention to the plan of the city. For this important task he had engaged the services of Major Pierre Charles L’Enfant, a skilful French engineer, to whom the country owes much for his intelligent and beautiful treatment of the design of the capital city.
L’Enfant (1755-1825) was a lieutenant in the French provisional service, and came to this country, with Lafayette, in 1777. He entered the Continental army in the autumn of that year, as an engineer, was made captain in February, 1778, and at the siege of Savannah was wounded and left on the field. Recovering, he afterward served under the immediate command of Washington, and between the two, a warm friendship sprung up. He became a major in May, 1783, and was employed as an engineer at Fort Mifflin in 1794. He was appointed professor of engineering at the United States military academy in July, 1812, but declined. The insignia of the Society of Cincinnati, of which L’Enfant was a charter member, was designed by him at the president’s special request, and he had in various ways shown the possession of marked artistic ability.
L’Enfant’s plan shows that he was familiar with the work of Lenôtre, whose examples of landscape architecture, not only in France, but also in Italy and in England, are still the admiration of the world. L’Enfant had also the advantage of those maps of foreign cities, ” drawn upon a large and accurate scale,” which Jefferson gathered during his public service abroad; while from Jefferson’s letters, we learn how he adjured L’Enfant not to de-part from classic models, but to follow those examples which the world had agreed to admire.
Washington and Jefferson took an active interest in the plan, and L’Enfant presented a great artistic composition in his design, with its proposed park treatment, radial streets, beautiful vistas, reciprocity of site between points of interest, and grouping of Federal buildings. Streets, parks, and sites for the President’s House and the Capitol are shown on the original map practically as they exist today.
L’Enfant took his first draft to Mt. Vernon, where he remained a week, in consultation with Washington, during which time the plan of the Federal City was thoroughly matured. Alterations were made and the sketch completed under the direction of General Washington, who, with a clear understanding of the requirements and mechanical difficulties, gave close attention to everything pertaining to the District or to the city. The result of this collaboration was elaborate and magnificent and was duly set forth upon a map, finely drawn.
Washington, L’Enfant and Ellicott, who was doing the field work, went over the ground carefully together and ” selected the sites of the ` grand edifices’ where they would command the greatest prospect and be susceptible of the greatest improvement.” The topography of the city and its surroundings developed a wealth of magnificent possibilities. The district, encircled by two beautiful rivers, nestled in an amphitheatre of hills nothing could be more inviting to the artistic mind.
According to L’Enfant’s map, the Capitol is placed on a centre line of four avenues North, South, and East Capitol Streets, and what was to have been the Boulevard ; an arrangement which created twelve pleasing and unbroken vistas, as one approached the building from different directions. Similar views were allotted the President’s House, which was so placed as to form the vista at the end of seven streets, with its southern front facing the Washington Monument.
The ” grand edifices ” were to have been located in the centre of parks. The plan provided that the Mall, extending from the Capitol to the Washing-ton Monument, should contain through its centre, an avenue four hundred feet wide, and about a mile in length, bordered with gardens, ending in a slope from the houses on each side, and connecting the Monument with the President’s Park. On both sides of this avenue, parks were to have been laid out, ending against a background of public buildings.
The pristine beauty of L’Enfant’s plan was subject to menace from the very first. The young Frenchman was put in charge of its execution, after it was formally adopted, and had his own troubles in carrying it out. We read that ” shortly after the streets were marked out, strictly in accordance with L’Enfant’s plan, Daniel Carroll, who was one of the commissioners, assumed the right to begin the erection of his house in the middle of New Jersey Avenue, near the Capitol grounds.
” L’Enfant vigorously protested against its location, which would close the avenue and destroy the symmetry of the general plan of the city; but his protests not being heeded, he gave orders one morning to his assistant to demolish the structure. Carroll hurried to a magistrate, obtained a warrant and stopped the demolition before it had proceeded very far. That night when L’Enfant returned to the city from Acquia Creek, where he was working busily getting out sandstone for the new Capitol, he was much chagrined to find his orders unfulfilled. He vowed the house should come down, and organizing a gang of labourers, secretly took them up the hill, after dark, and set them at work. By sunrise not a brick of the obnoxious dwelling was left standing.” 1 L’Enfant carried his point, and when the house was rebuilt it was erected on North Carolina Avenue.
After the demolition of the Carroll house, how-ever, L’Enfant was not in good favour and his unpopularity increased when he refused to allow his map to be published as a guide to the purchasers of lots, on the plea that such A distribution of the city’s plan would be detrimental to the preservation of its best interests, as speculators would in-form themselves of the desirable locations, and build unsightly edifices upon the finest streets. This attitude on the part of L’Enfant resulted in his dismissal from the service of the government.
He continued to live in Washington, and, in his old age, became a claimant for his services as the original designer of the city, constantly haunting the committee rooms of Congress, ” a poor, but rather courtly, feeble, old man, attired in a long blue coat, closely buttoned high on his breast.”
His claim was never considered, and it was the fashion, in those barbarous days, to laugh and sneer at what was called ” L’Enfant’s extravagant plan.” He died in 1825, and was buried by charitable hands, on the Digges Farm, a short distance from the city. No stone marked his grave.
Eighty-three years later, in 1908, Congress appropriated $1,000 for the removal of the body of Major L’Enfant from the Digges Farm, in Maryland, to ” some place selected by the District Commissioners, and for the erection of a suitable memorial, at the spot where the body should be reinterred.” On May 22, 1911, the simple monument which marks his final resting place, on the green knoll in front of the old Lee mansion in Arlington Cemetery, overlooking the broad Potomac and the Capital, was unveiled with appropriate ceremonies.
At his second burial L’Enfant was given a military funeral, under the direction of the War Department. Exercises were held in the rotunda of the Capitol, where the body lay in state, and where addresses were made by Vice-President Sherman, the French Ambassador, and Mr. Macfarland; after which a military procession escorted the body to Arlington, where it was reinterred April 28, 1909.
The society of graduates, in the United States, of the Ecole des Beaux Arts, offered to make the design for the monument free of charge, and held a competition for that purpose, which was decided subject to the approval of Mr: Cass Gilbert, President, and Mr. Glenn Brown, Secretary, of the American Institute of Architects. Mr. W. W. Bosworth won the competition, and his design was accepted.
The design of the memorial is of the old Colonial type. On the flat surface of the stone, between the balusters, the military sword of that period is carved in bold relief, with a wreath of laurel around the hilt. On the top of the capstone is a faithful reproduction of the map of Washington, as originally drawn by Major L’Enfant, together with a brief commemorative inscription. The base stone, eleven feet long by seven and a half feet wide, is formed of a single block. The material is of Knoxville graystone.
In the carrying out of the design of the city several grave mistakes have been made, the selection of sites for public buildings seeming, for a time, in later years, to have been a purely haphazard one. Each time that the French soldier’s plan was departed from, disaster to the unity of the city ensued. The Capitol and Executive Mansion are on the ground originally intended for them. The completed structures more than justify the wisdom of the choice. The effectiveness of the White House is, however, marred by the erection of the State, War and Navy, and the Treasury buildings; the latter also causing the tiresome break in Pennsylvania Avenue, which causes so much inconvenience to residents of the city and is so confusing to strangers.
The Library of Congress is the first structure to bring an antagonistic element in relation to the Capitol. The Library is built across Pennsylvania Avenue, on the east, and destroys the fine view of the Capitol which the far distant end of East Capitol Street formerly commanded. Now the dome of the Capitol rising over the Library and seen in conjunction with the central feature of that edifice, produces confusion and discord.
Mr. Glenn Brown in speaking of the indifference shown by later generations to the preservation of the city’s beauty, says : ” The more the scheme laid out by Washington and L’Enfant is studied, the more forcibly it strikes one as the best. It is easy to imagine the magnificence of a boulevard four hundred feet wide, beginning at the Capitol and ending with the Monument, a distance of nearly a mile and a half, bounded on both sides by parks, six hundred feet wide, laid out by a skilled landscape architect and adorned by the work of capable artists. . . . By this time, such an avenue would have acquired a world wide reputation, if it had been carried out by competent architects, landscape artists, and sculptors, consulting and working in harmony with each other. The parked portion of the Champs Elysées, which is approximately thirteen hundred feet wide and three-quarters of a mile long, would not have compared to it in magnitude or grandeur.
” The original plan can be commended for other reasons than those of beauty. It has every advantage in point of economy in maintenance, repairs, supervision, inter-communication, transportation, and accessibility of the departments to each other and to the public.”
The ” Congress House ” and the ” President’s Palace ” as he termed them, were the cardinal features of L’Enfant’s plan, and those edifices he connected by ” a grand avenue four hundred feet broad and about a mile in length bordered by gar-dens.” At the point of intersection of two imaginary lines drawn through the centre of the Capitol and the White House, L’Enfant fixed the site of an equestrian statue of General Washington one of the numerous statues voted by the Continental Congress, but never erected.
When, in 1848, the people began to build the Washington Monument, engineers despaired of securing, on the proper site, a foundation sufficient for so great a structure, and consequently the Monument was located out of all relation with the buildings which it was intended to tie together in a single composition. To recreate these relations, as originally planned, was one of the chief problems of the Park Commission, which took charge of the development of Washington, about ten years ago, presenting its first report on the City of Washington, to the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, on January 15, 1902.
In order to restudy the same models that had inspired the designer of Washington in the preparation of his plan of the city, and to take note of the great civic works of Europe, this commission spent five weeks of the summer of 1901 in Europe, and visited London, Paris, Rome, Venice, Vienna, Budapest, Frankfort, and Berlin. The recommendations for the future development of Washington consisted in suggestions for the grouping of future Federal buildings and important monuments in the centre of the city; for new park areas necessary to preserve features of natural beauty or to enhance the natural landscape; and lastly suggestons for the most feasible and artistic connecting links between the parks.
Two models were presented by the Park Commission with their report : one showing the city as it was at that time, and the other altered ac-cording to the recommendations of the commission. These are displayed in the Library of Congress. The model of the city as it was shows how an indifferent administration came near to destroying the great composition left us by the Father of the Country. ” Since the days of Madison,” says Glenn Brown in his address before the Washington Chamber of Commerce, on the development of Washington, ” each park, building, and monument has been designed as an individual entity without relation to the other; thus the dignity of the composition has been lost. Looking from the Monument to the Capitol, one sees a tangle of trees, a jumble of unrelated buildings, jarring one with the other. . . . This model graphically displays the want of judgment in the disposition of Federal buildings without uniformity of design or grouping; and the thoughtless destruction of the beautiful vistas which constituted the fundamental and distinctive features of the original plan.
” The model for the Mall, which illustrates the proposed reinstatement and development of L’Enfant’s design, demonstrates what may be accomplished by directness, simplicity, and dignity in park treatment, and grouping of classic structures. The composition contemplates two principal axes, one east and one west, beginning with the Capitol, and ending with the Lincoln Memorial; the other beginning with the White House, having as its central feature the Monument Garden, ends with the monument to the Constitution makers.’ The planting and roadways of the parks, the architectural adornments, and the disposition of the new buildings, are designed to emphasize these axes and enhance the dignity of the Capitol, the White House, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and the monument to the Constitution makers, which are the principal points of interest and beauty in the composition.
” It is proposed that the Federal buildings for legislative purposes should be grouped around the Capitol; the Executive Department buildings around the White House; , and that the Scientific Departments of the government should face the Mall. The centre of the Mall from the Monument to the Capitol will be a carpet of green, three hundred feet wide, bounded by four rows of stately elms .on the north and south. Beyond the elms may be seen white, classic buildings. Between the Monument and the Lincoln Memorial is a broad canal two hundred feet wide flanked on either side by dense forests.
” In. addition to the enclosure of the Capitol Grounds by classic structures on three sides, a terrace is proposed on the west facing Union Square where the Mall terminates. From the centre of the present terrace a fountain is brought to the new terrace, by a series of cascades to a basin of no mean dimensions, in which fountains will play and around which the steps, with richly treated balustrades, will wind.
Union Square, in which the Mall terminates, is an important detail of the composition. It will have the new marble terrace of the Capitol on the east, classic white buildings on the north and south, and the Mall with its vistas, lawns, and trees on the west.” In this square is to be placed the statue of General Grant, by Shrady, now in process.
Where the rows of elms which form the boundary of the tapis vert on the Mall reach the Washington Monument, the plan broadens into the form of a Greek Cross. A base line, which is so much needed, is given to the Monument by the marble terraces depicted. The east terrace is a little above the surface of the park, while the west terrace is forty feet high and a broad and imposing flight of steps leads from the formal garden, on the lower level, to the plaza around the great shaft. From the pavilions on the plaza, embowered in elms, visitors will be able to obtain many enjoyable views of the Monument, its garden and the canal, as well as distant vistas of the Capitol, White House, and the Lincoln Memorial.”
From the Monument garden, west, according to the new plan, stretches a canal, thirty-six hundred feet long and two hundred feet wide with central arms and bordered by stretches of green, walled with trees, leading to a concourse raised to the height of the Monument platform. From this elevation of forty feet, a memorial bridge will lead across the Potomac directly to the base of the hill, crowned by the Mansion House of Arlington.
Reclamation of the Potomac flats, prosecuted since 1882, has added to the Monument grounds an area of about a mile in length, from east to west. The proposed treatment of this area, from New York Avenue to the river, includes the informal planting of a wood, marked by formal roads and paths, after the manner of the arrangement in the Bois de Boulogne.
Since the report of the Park Commission, much has been accomplished along the lines laid out in its pages. The great Terminal Station, the Agricultural Building, the New National Museum, the office buildings for the Senate and the House of Representatives, the Municipal Building, the buildings for the Bureau of American Republics and the Daughters of the American Revolution, as well as the monument to General Grant, have all been de-signed and placed to conform with the new plan for the development of Washington City.