Born in Anet on August 9, 1754, L'Enfant was the third child and second son of Marie Charlotte L'Enfant (aged 25 and the daughter of a minor marine official at court) and Pierre L'Enfant (1704–1787), a painter with a good reputation in the service of King Louis XV. In 1758, his brother Pierre Joseph died at the age of six, leaving him the eldest son. He studied at the Royal Academy in the Louvre before enrolling to fight in the American Revolution. He also studied under his father at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture.
While L'Enfant was in New York City, he was initiated into Freemasonry. His initiation took place on April 17, 1789, at Holland Lodge No. 8 F&AM, which the Grand Lodge of New York F&AM had chartered in 1787. L’Enfant took only the first of three degrees offered by the lodge and did not progress further in Freemasonry.
President Washington appointed L'Enfant in 1791 to design the new capital city (later named the City of Washington) under the supervision of three Commissioners, whom Washington had appointed to oversee the planning and development of the federal territory that would later become the District of Columbia.Thomas Jefferson, who worked alongside President Washington in overseeing the plans for the capital, sent L'Enfant a letter outlining his task, which was to provide a drawing of suitable sites for the federal city and the public buildings. Though Jefferson had modest ideas for the Capital, L'Enfant saw the task as far more grandiose, believing he was not only locating the capital, but also devising the city plan and designing the buildings.
L'Enfant arrived in Georgetown on March 9, 1791, and began his work, from Suter's Fountain Inn. Washington arrived on March 28, to meet with L'Enfant and the Commissioners for several days. On June 22, L'Enfant presented his first plan for the federal city to the President. On August 19, he appended a new map to a letter that he sent to the President.
President Washington retained one of L'Enfant's plans, showed it to Congress, and later gave it to the three Commissioners. The U.S. Library of Congress now holds both the plan that Washington apparently gave to the Commissioners and an undated anonymous survey map that the Library considers L'Enfant to have drawn before August 19, 1791. The survey map may be one that L'Enfant appended to his August 19 letter to the President.
L'Enfant's "Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of the United States..." encompassed an area bounded by the Potomac River, the Eastern Branch, the base of the escarpment of the Atlantic Seaboard Fall Line, and Rock Creek. His plan specified locations for the "Congress House" (the Capitol), which would be built on "Jenkins Hill" (later to be known as "Capitol Hill"), and the "President's House" (later after 1817, the White House), which would be situated on a ridge parallel to the Potomac River. L'Enfant envisioned the "President's House" to have public gardens and monumental architecture. Reflecting his grandiose visions, he specified that the "President's House" would be five times the size of the building that was actually constructed. Emphasizing the importance of the new Nation's Legislature, the "Congress House" would be located on a longitude designated as 0:0.
The plan specified that most streets would be laid out in a grid. To form the grid, some streets would travel in an east-west direction, while others would travel in a north-south direction. Diagonal avenues, later named after the states of the Union, crossed the grid. The diagonal avenues intersected with the north-south and east-west streets at circles and rectangular plazas that would later honor notable Americans and provide open space.
L'Enfant laid out a 400 feet (122 m)-wide garden-lined "grand avenue", which he expected to travel for about 1 mile (1.6 km) along an east-west axis in the center of an area that would later become the National Mall. He also laid out a narrower avenue (Pennsylvania Avenue) which would connect the "Congress House" with the "President's House". In time, Pennsylvania Avenue developed into the capital city's present "grand avenue".
Andrew Ellicott's 1792 revision of L'Enfant's plan of 1791-1792 for the "Federal City" later Washington City, District of Columbia
L'Enfant's plan additionally laid out a system of canals (later designated as the Washington City Canal) that would pass the "Congress House" and the "President's House". One branch of the canal would empty into the Potomac River south of the "President's House" at the mouth of old Tiber Creek, which would be channelized and straightened.
L'Enfant secured the lease of quarries at Wigginton Island and along Aquia Creek off the lower Potomac River in Virginia to supply Aquia Creek sandstone for the foundation and later for the wall slabs and blocks of the "Congress House" in November 1791. However, his temperament and his insistence that his city design be realized as a whole, brought him into conflict with the Commissioners, who wanted to direct the limited funds available into construction of the Federal buildings. In this, they had the support of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.
During a contentious period in February 1792, Andrew Ellicott, who had been conducting the original boundary survey of the future District of Columbia (see: Boundary Stones (District of Columbia)) and the survey of the "Federal City" under the direction of the Commissioners, informed the Commissioners that L'Enfant had not been able to have the city plan engraved and had refused to provide him with the original plan (of which L'Enfant had prepared several versions). Ellicott, with the aid of his brother, Benjamin Ellicott, then revised the plan, despite L'Enfant's protests. Shortly thereafter, having along with Secretary Jefferson grown increasingly frustrated by L'Enfant's unresponsiveness and headstrong ways, President Washington dismissed the architect. After L'Enfant departed, Andrew Ellicott continued the city survey in accordance with the revised plan, several versions of which were engraved, published and distributed. As a result, Ellicott's revisions subsequently became the basis for the Capital City's development.
L'Enfant was initially not paid for his work on his plan for the "Federal City". He fell into disgrace, spending much of the rest of his life trying to persuade Congress to pay him the tens of thousands of dollars that he claimed he was owed. After a number of years, Congress finally paid him a small sum, nearly all of which went to his creditors.
After leaving the national capital area, L'Enfant prepared the initial plans for the city of Paterson, New Jersey, but was discharged from this project after a year had passed. However, in 1846 the city re-instated the original scheme proposed by L'enfant after the city's race way system encountered problems. During the same period (1792–1793) he designed Robert Morris' mansion in Philadelphia, which was never finished because of his delays and Morris' bankruptcy. In 1812, he was offered a position as a Professor of Engineering at United States Military Academy, but he declined that post. He did serve as a Professor of Engineering at West Point from 1813 to 1817. In 1814, L'Enfant worked briefly on the construction of Fort Washington on the Potomac River southeast of Washington, D.C., but others soon replaced him. L'Enfant surveyed and platted Perrysburg, Ohio on April 26, 1816. Washington, D.C., Indianapolis, Indiana, and Perrysburg, Ohio are the cities that he designed.
L'Enfant died in poverty. He was buried at the Green Hill farm in Chillum, Prince George's County, Maryland. He left behind three watches, three compasses, some books, some maps, and surveying instruments, whose total value was about forty-five dollars.
Grave of Pierre (Peter) Charles L'Enfant, overlooking the city he partially designed
In 1901 and 1902, the McMillan Commission used L'Enfant's plan as the cornerstone of a report that recommended a partial redesign of the capital city. Among other things, the Commission's report laid out a plan for a sweeping mall in the area of L'Enfant's widest "grand avenue", which had not been constructed.
At the instigation of a French Ambassador to the United States, Jean Jules Jusserand, L'Enfant's adopted nation then recognized his contributions. In 1909, after lying in state at the Capitol rotunda, L'Enfant's remains were re-interred in the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, in a slab tomb on a hill beneath the "Arlington House" (formerly the "Lee-Custis Mansion") overlooking the City by the Potomac that he had partially designed. [coincidentally just above the later 1963 famous grave of assassinated 35th President John F. Kennedy and later his family, that a few weeks before his death when visiting here for a ceremony, President Kennedy remarked "he could stay here forever"). In 1911, L'Enfant was honored with a monument placed on top of his grave. Engraved on the monument is a portion of L'Enfant's own plan, which Andrew Ellicott's revision and the McMillan Commission's plan had superseded.
In 1942, an American cargo-carrying "Liberty" ship in World War II, named the S.S. "Pierre L'Enfant" was launched, part of a series of almost 2,000 ships mass-produced in an "assembly-line" fashion from eleven coastal shipyards. In 1970, she was shipwrecked and abandoned.
L'Enfant Plaza, a complex of office buildings (with the headquarters of the United States Postal Service), a hotel, and an underground parking garage and a long series of underground corridors with a shopping center centered around an esplanade ('L'Enfant Promenade") in southwest Washington, D.C., was dedicated in 1968. Meeting rooms in the L'Enfant Plaza Hotel bear the names of French artists, military leaders, and explorers. The central portion of the plaza contains a map of the city. Within the city map is a smaller map that shows the plaza's location.
In 1980, Western Plaza (subsequently renamed to Freedom Plaza) off Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. in northwest downtown Washington, D.C., was designed. An inlay in the Plaza depicts parts of L'Enfant's architectural "Plan for the Federal City of Washington".
Since 2005, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. has held an annual "L'Enfant Lecture on City Planning and Design" to draw attention to critical issues in city and regional planning in the United States.
^ abMoore, Charles (ed) (1902), "Fig. No. 61 -- L'Enfant Map of Washington (1791)", The Improvement Of The Park System Of The District of Columbia: Report by the United States Congress: Senate Committee on the District of Columbia and District of Columbia Park Commission, Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, p. 12, Fifty-Seventh Congress, First Session, Senate Report No. 166
^ abcTindall, William (1914). "IV. The First Board of Commissioners". Standard History of the City of Washington From a Study of the Original Sources. Knoxville, Tennessee: H. W. Crew and Company. pp. 148–149.
^Washington Map Society: Plan of the City of Washington. The U.S. National Archives holds a copy of "Ellicott's engraved Plan superimposed on the Plan of L'Enfant showing the changes made in the engraved Plan under the direction of President Washington". See "Scope & Contents" page of "Archival Description" for National Archives holding of "Miscellaneous Oversize Prints, Drawings and Posters of Projects Associated with the Commission of Fine Arts, compiled 1893 – 1950", ARC Identifier 518229/Local Identifier 66-M; Series from Record Group 66: Records of the Commission of Fine Arts, 1893 – 1981. Record of holding obtained through search in Archival Descriptions Search of ARC — Archival Research Catalog using search term L'Enfant Plan Ellicott, 2008-08-22.