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Pierre Charles L'Enfant's monument at Arlington National Cemetery, located in Section 2, Grave S-3 in front of the Arlington House. Photo courtesy of Taylor Gulatsi.

The Architect Who Designed the District of Columbia – Pic of the Week

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Before Washington D.C. was the capital city we know today, there was a man with a vision and a president who trusted it. That man was Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Born in France in 1754, L’Enfant came to prominence as an architect and city planner following his service in the U.S. Continental Army during the American Revolution as a member of George Washington‘s staff at Valley Forge. After gaining a well-known reputation as an architect in the United States, L’Enfant submitted a proposal to George Washington for plans for the “federal city” that we now know as the nation’s capital, and was appointed by Washington to be captain in the Corps of Engineers.

A map representing Pierre Charles L'Enfant's vision of what the capital city would look like.
Plan of the city of Washington. L’Enfant, P. C. & Thackara & Vallance. 1792. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division,

L’Enfant’s plans for the capital city included wide avenues that featured a European influence on architecture and urban design, with the focal point of the capital being centered around a vast public area. That plan came to fruition as the National Mall – a wide, two-mile area of public space stretching from the Potomac River to Capitol Hill with wide gravel walks with trees on both sides. Although credited with the concept of the nation’s capital, L’Enfant was not able to see it become a reality due to conflicting opinions and disagreements with the city commissioners, resulting in L’Enfant’s resignation from his position. At the time of his death in 1825, he had never received payment for his work and died impoverished. He was originally buried in Prince George’s County, Maryland, but in 1908, it was decided by Congress that L’Enfant’s remains would be exhumed and interred at Arlington National Cemetery (ANC).

A black and white photograph of the monument dedication at Pierre Charles L'Enfant's gravesite at Arlington National Cemetery.
L’ENFANT, PIERRE. MAJOR OF FRANCE. DEDICATION OF TOMB AND MEMORIAL AT ARLINGTON, APRIL 28. , 1909. Harris & Ewing, photographer. c. April 28, 1909. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division.

On April 28, 1908, after previously laying in state at the U.S. Capitol, L’Enfant received a military funeral at Arlington National Cemetery. It wasn’t until May of 1911 that a monument was erected at his gravesite overlooking the city which he helped design. President William Taft, who would go on to be one of the two U.S. presidents buried at ANC, presided over the ceremony of dedication for the monument. L’Enfant’s final resting place can be visited in Section 2 of Arlington National Cemetery.

Historical marker in Arlington National Cemetery marking Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s tomb, describing his contributions to the design of D.C. Photo courtesy of Taylor Gulatsi.


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