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Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Washington DC - A Dream Half Realised - 'Life Cycles' And The Career Of Peter 'LEnfant

A couple of years ago I visited Washington and was most impressed when our guide explained the height restrictions on all buildings. He said the original notion was that no buildings be taller than Capitol Hill, because this symbolised freedom and no idea was above freedom. I'm told that currently there are now four buildings that are higher, but we're not here to split hairs. Washington is also based on Jefferson's memories and desire to see a recreation of Paris and other European cities, with low buildings and wide boulevards. It certainly looked like this to me. Indeed both countries having revolutions at a similar time fomented an exchange of ideas and the most tangible of all gifts - the Statue of Liberty. However, Washington DC was also a gift from a Frenchman, who came to America and fought in the Revolutionary army of George Washington. A man called Peter (not Pierre) L'Enfant (who is pictured below). This is his story told from the always unique angle of 'Life Cycles'.

Peter L'Enfant was born Pierre Charles L'Enfant in Paris, France August 9th. 1754, the son of a painter of good repute in the service of King Louis XV. Thus he had an aristocratic upbringing and was educated at the Louvre and the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture in Paris. In 1777 he was recruited through a French courtier to join the American War of Independence. Soon after this he joined the army of George Washington and fought with him at Valley Forge. After the war he ran a very successful civil engineering business and gained a reputation as an architect by redesigning the City Hall building in New York. He had also changed his name to Peter and was totally committed to the new America.

This brief summary is simply by way of understanding events in the first half of 1791 - the single most important career and life-defining year in his total of three score years and ten. I mean, I can't just lurch in and say he designed Washington DC without so much as a by your leave. Those who didn't know, might think he was just some uppity Frenchman, who came over because of an invitation from a grateful, fledgling American Government. No, he was a French/American, who came cap in hand to his former Commander-in-Chief - President George Washington. (who is pictured below at Valley Forge)

Now how good is your maths? If you add the single most important year in 'Life Cycles' to his first 12 months what do you get? Don't know what I'm talking about? Anyone who has read one of my many, many profiles and in-depth analyses could, I hope by now, enlighten you. Yes, it's the central, mid-life, often career and life-defining age of 36, which is called by me, the age 36 'Year of Revolution'. I've been banging on about this for years and it's so simple even the most limited mind could grasp it. So when was Peter L'Enfant 36? Just add 36 to his date of birth. That's the birthday to birthday 12 month period, which in his case is.....come on add 36 to August 1754 and what do you get? That would be the second half of 1790 and then the first half of 1791.

This period defined Peter L'Enfant's whole life. In 1789 Congress gave authority to the establishment of a new national capital. This prompted L'Enfant to write to President Washington asking for a commission to plan the city. This was on hold till July, 1790 when the Residence Act set the site of the new federal district and national capital to be on the northern and southern shores of the Potomac River, at a site to be determined by the President. So, this was almost in line with the ushering in of L'Enfant's age 36 'Year of Revolution'. He would have, no doubt, been even more motivated by this news.

However it was not until March, 1791 that L'Enfant was appointed by Washington to plan the new Federal City (later named the City of Washington) under the supervision of three Commissioners. Thomas Jefferson, who worked alongside Washington, 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 just wanted a suitable site and had modest ideas for the Capital, L'Enfant re-interpreted the task as far more grandiose, believing he was not only locating the capital, but also devising the city plan and designing the buildings. (An early painting of Washington in 1833, which hangs in the White House, is pictured below)

This re-interpretation of a commission reminds me in a curious way of what an ambitious 24 year-old Charles Dickens did when he was told to just add a few lines of text to the famous illustrator Robert Seymour's work. Instead he usurped the process and went on to make his name by writing 'The Pickwick Papers'. Also it should be noted that L'Enfant had a difficult and argumentative nature, which meant he alienated most people over a period of time.

There is no doubt though, that despite being watered down considerably, L'Enfant's original vision was the guiding inspiration for the magnificent city you see today. On June 22nd 1791, L'Enfant presented his first plan for the federal city to the President. This was his highest point of achievement in his 'Year of Revolution', the culmination of his dream. It is believed that some time prior to August 19th. he also appended a survey map to his plan (which again most probably lies within his age 36 year).

His plan specified locations for the Congress House (the United States Capitol Building), which would be built on Jenkins Hill (later to be known as Capitol Hill), which he described as a "pedestal awaiting a monument". The President's House (later known after its 1815-1817 rebuilding and white-washing, as the famous White House) was to be at a northwest diagonal from the halls of Congress along an unusually broad Pennsylvania Avenue. 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" (occasionally referred to as the "President's Palace") would be five times the size of the building that was actually constructed, which would have become the largest residence then constructed in America.

The plan specified that most streets would be laid out in a grid. To form the grid, some streets (later named for letters of the alphabet) would travel in an east-west direction, while others (named for numbers) would travel north-south. 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-wide garden-lined Grand Avenue, which he expected to travel for about 1 mile along an east-west axis in the center of an area that would later become the National Mall (which is pictured below). He also laid out a narrower avenue (Pennsylvania Avenue) which would connect the "Congress House" with the "President's House". Additionally he laid out a system of canals (later designated as the Washington City Canal), that would pass the "Congress House" and the "President's House".

His plans may have been inspired by his native city, Paris, and other European cities, but he also had a uniquely American theme of making the "Grand Avenue" accessible to everyone in the new spirit of democracy (today this is reflected in the wonderful museums and institutes that line both sides and have free admission). I wish this story was one of L'Enfant's personal triumph and "the ushering in of his Golden Age" (which is the phrase I often use). But this grand vision did not go on to have a happy ending. His headstrong temperament and his insistence that his city design be realised as a whole, brought him into conflict with the Commissioners, who wanted to direct the limited funds available into just the construction of the Federal buildings. In this, they had the support of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. By Feb. 1792 L'Enfant was dismissed by Washington and Andrew Ellicott continued the city survey in accordance with a revised, more modest, plan.

The remainder of his life is, unfortunately, also tinged with sadness. 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. This is a salutary reminder that our ultimate fate is always in our own hands.

His dismissal revolved around a key incident in which he refused to give Andrew Ellicott (who had been surveying the District of Columbia and the "Federal City" under direction of the Commissioners) a copy of his original plan. Ellicott then worked on without it. With the aid of his brother, Benjamin, they completed a revised plan, despite L'Enfant's protests. Shortly thereafter, having along with Secretary Jefferson (who is pictured below in 1791) grown increasingly frustrated by L'Enfant's unresponsiveness and headstrong ways, President Washington dismissed the architect. He had managed to alienate even Washington, who had been his strongest supporter. In common parlance he had "pissed off the boss" and you know you just can't do this. Please see the beginning of my post on Erin Brockovich. You will then see that I classify him as an 'N' Factor (which is something I used to be all too familiar with in my business of Outplacement).

But when you make a tour of discovery in the magnificent city of Washington, as I did some two years ago, and you see the grandeur of Pennsylvania Avenue (America had never heard of Avenues before this) and the Congress Building on Capitol Hill and enjoy visiting the excellent museums for free along National Mall (I'm told you probably need a week to really do them justice) and see the White House for the first time.....spare a thought for the man behind all this. A man who truly loved America and who is remembered for one thing the L'Enfant Plan For Washington. A man who should have enjoyed a "Golden Age" of success and recognition for his lasting contribution to his adopted country....but who was brought low by his own temperamental flaws.

Also spare some more time to use your imagination and try to envisage the Washington Peter L'Enfant saw....a White House of epic proportions. Five times it's current size. To be quite honest when I finally visited it, I felt a bit underwhelmed by it's relatively small stature, but figured that's how they did things back then. But imagine a Presidential Palace complete with sweeping ornamental gardens and architecture and linked to Capitol Hill by a system of canals...the Versailles of the New World....a palace fitting the importance of your country. And if you look really deeply you can almost see the spirit of L'Enfant....his head bowed in discontent for a dream which never materialised....His Washington - a dream only half-realised.

I hope you enjoyed this post in which I found myself, somewhat unusually, compelled to wax lyrical, because I write as I feel and nearly everything is in one take. 'Life Cycles' will return next month with a whole new theme and a new twelve month cycle of posts. Until then :- "may the cycles always bring you good fortune."