Pierre Charles L’Enfant Revolutionary Architect and Washington, D.C. Planner

Pierre Charles L’Enfant was a military engineer born in Paris on 2 August 1754 to Pierre L’Enfant, a painter who served King Louis XV, and Marie L’Enfant, the daughter of a minor court official. After his older brother died at the age of six, L’Enfant was sent to study art at the Royal Academy in the Louvre and then with his father at the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture.

Pierre Charles L’Enfant image

Portrait of Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, a polymath like Benjamin Franklin, played a major role in delivering French munitions, money and supplies to the American army before France official entered the war. He also recruited L’Enfant, who like other young French gallants was intrigued by what was happening in America and left school to enlist in the American Revolutionary War. L’Enfant arrived in American in the fall of 1777 and then served alongside rebelling colonialists.

Despite his aristocratic origins, Pierre Charles L’Enfant closely identified with the United States and anglicized his name from Pierre to Peter shortly after his arrival. He first served as a military engineer in the Continental Army with Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette who was a Major General. He also served on General George Washington’s staff at Valley Forge, and while there Lafayette commissioned L’Enfant to paint a portrait of Washington.

Although there are many portraits of Washington, there seems to be only one known image of L’Enfant. It is a medallion created by Leon Chatelain. Physical descriptions of L’Enfant are somewhat elusive too. His contemporaries noted that he was tall, and he has been described has having a prominent nose. As to his character, above all he was an aristocratic gentleman, one that was talkative, proud of his accomplishments, and boastful to that point that he stated no one else could accomplish his same feats half as well as he did. Here is another description:

“L’Enfant was of ordinary appearance, except that he had an abstracted manner and carriage in public. It appears that he had the irritability belonging to ambition, but which is falsely made appropriate to genius.”[1]

Despite his obvious character flaws, L’Enfant’s good works got him promoted to a captain on 18 February 1778 and he was then commissioned a captain in the Corps of Engineers on 3 April 1779. That same year (between 16 September and 18 October) the Siege of Savannah happened, and L’Enfant was wounded while leading an attack. Unfortunately, the siege also resulted in the British remaining in control of that city until July 1782.

After Pierre Charles L’Enfant recovered from his wounds, he participated at the Siege at Charleston. It took place between 29 March and 12 May 1780. British forces proved victorious once again and commandeered over 300 pieces of artillery along with artillery rounds, muskets, ammunition, ships, boats, regimental colors, and other goods such as flour, rice, and rum. In addition, they captured over five thousand prisoners, which included L’Enfant, who remained a prisoner until he was exchanged in November supposedly for a Lieutenant de Heyden of the Anspach yagers.

Although Washington may have appreciated Pierre Charles L’Enfant, he found him to be grumbler if he felt overlooked or under appreciated. L’Enfant also had great ambition and when thwarted become difficult. An example of L’Enfant’s temperament was demonstrated in a note that Washington sent to him dated 4 March 1782 after Washington received a complaint from L’Enfant about not getting a promotion:

“I have been favord with a Letter from you of the 18th feby — I am sensible how disagreable it is to have an inferior Officer promoted over your head, and am sorry it is not in my power to remedy it — The promotion of Major Rochefontaine was a matter in which I had not the least interference, it took place solely on the recommendation of General Duportail, who I believe represented to Congress, that it was the practise of all Nations after a successfull Seige, to promote the Engineers who had contributed to the Success.

Your Zeal and active Services are such as reflect the highest honor on yourself and are extremely pleasing to me and I have no doubt they will have their due weight with Congress in any future promotion in your Corps. I am sir Your Most Obedt Servt.”[2]

Fortunately for L’Enfant, a reward for his heroic service in the cause of American liberty was soon forthcoming. He was promoted on 2 May 1783 to Major in the Corps of Engineers. He thereafter and until the end of the American Revolutionary War, also served on Washington’s staff. Moreover, when the Continental Army disbanded in December of 1783, like many other soldiers, he was honorably discharged but unlike many of his countrymen, he did not return to France instead he chose to stay in the U.S. 

Panoramic view of West Point, New York, showing American encampments on the Hudson River. Created August 1782 by Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Courtesy of The Library of Congress.

L’Enfant then acquired work designing houses and furniture for the wealthy. In addition, he designed coins and medals. He was also one of the first members to join the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization of former officers of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War who wanted to preserve their ideals and fellowship. Washington became the society’s first President, but it was L’Enfant who suggested the society adopted the bald eagle as its insignia,* and members did so on 19 June 1783. L’Enfant then created an eagle-shaped badge. In addition, at Washington’s request, L’Enfant had the insignias made in France during a visit to see his father in 1783-1784. While there he and Lafayette also created a French Society of Cincinnati. It was established on 4 July 1784 at the home of Charles Hector, comte d’Estaing, who became its President. Moreover, King Louis XVI became a patron and granted permission for his subjects to wear the eagle insignia suggested and designed by L’Enfant.

Badge of the Society of the Cincinnati awarded by General George Washington to Baron Curt von Stedingk von Sweden in 1783. Designed by Pierre Charles L’Enfant. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Upon his return to America, L’Enfant soon discovered that New York needed his skills. A Greek Revival building had been completed in 1703 that served as New York’s first City Hall. It was an important building where revolutionary activities had taken place: the colonial Stamp Act Congress met to draft its message to King George III, and it served as a meeting place for the Congress of the Confederation. However, the building was inadequate, and New York City wanted it transformed.

L’Enfant’s skills were well-known, and he seemed to be the perfect person to take on the task to enlarge and redesign City Hall, which would then serve as America’s new seat of power. To accomplish this undertaking, he was offered ten acres and honorary citizenship, and although he refused the acreage, he found the offer of citizenship too appealing to pass up.

The building L’Enfant envisioned for the redesign of City Hall became the first example of Federal Style architecture and under the Constitution of 1789, it was renamed Federal Hall. It then hosted the 1st Congress and became the spot where George Washington took the oath of office as America’s first President on 30 April 1789.

Federal Hall, Seat of Congress, 1790 hand-colored engraving by Amos Doolittle that depicts Washington’s 30 April 1789 inauguration. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

While Pierre Charles L’Enfant was in New York City, he also became a Freemason, perhaps having been intrigued by Freemasonry in France where aristocrats such as the Louis Philippe d’Orléans (Duke of Orléans), his sister, and his sister-in-law, the Princesse de Lamballe, became members in 1770s. L’Enfant’s American membership in the freemasons was proposed on 3 April 1789 by John Stagg Jr. and seconded by John Pintard. His initiation happened on April 17 at Holland Lodge No. 8, F & A M, and although L’Enfant might have become a masonic brother, he did not go far: One thought is that because he was sometimes extraordinarily difficult to deal with, he was not invited to advance.

The new Constitution of the United States took effect in March and April of 1789 and gave the newly organized Congress the authority to establish a federal district up to ten miles square in size. L’Enfant had already written to President Washington requesting that he be commissioned to plan the city, but the site for this undertaking was not settled until 1791, which is when it was decided that it should be built on the shores of the Potomac River. However, not everyone thought a “Federal City” was a good idea as did one such unnamed Hartford gentleman who wrote to his friend on 27 March 1791 about his concerns:

“Before you receive this, you will see an account that Mr. Elicott and Maj. L’Enfant are laying out the federal town and a plan of the public buildings on the Patowmac. To a man acquainted, as you are, with the world, there cannot be a more laughable truth, than a serious intention of building a Federal Town as it is called; that is, a town for the residence of Congress. Advert to a few facts. Congress when filled upon the present enumeration, will consist of at least one hundred and thirty members, in both houses. The attendants of these gentlemen, and the family of the President, will at least make the same number. The officers in the several departments with their clerks and attendants, will be probably two hundred persons; but I will suppose they will make but one hundred. There are then to be three hundred and sixty persons in Congress and necessarily attendant upon them. We may safely eliminate the company, who wait on Congress either on business or out of curiosity, at the same number. But suppose the whole number of persons to be accommodate during the session, to be only five hundred — and one hundred and fifty houses are necessary to furnish convenient lodgings for this number; as many for the gentlemen will have families with them. Of all this number, not more than a fifth or fourth, will want accommodations, except during the sessions of Congress, which we will eliminate at four months in the year. All the others will return home. Now during the recess of Congress, more than one hundred houses are to stand empty. Can those who keep lodging houses, maintain their families by four months business a year? No you will say. No person will take a house to keep lodgers, unless he has a common probability of constant custom. How will they find customers during the recess of Congress? – Some will say that a great town will grow up at once, wherever Congress determine their permanent residence to be. But if Congress are in session but a small part of the year their expences will not support this great town. Will trade, or manufacture support his huge town? If they will not, agriculture certainly will not. The very growth and being then of this town will depend on commerce; or manufacturers; for I deny that any other human means will make and maintain a large town. If then the place chosen for the seat of government is so situated, as naturally to draw together the trade of an extensive country, a town may in time arise there. But otherwise neither grants of money, nor acts of congress will have the least effect. We may expend ten millions of money in erecting accommodations for people, but if the place it is not naturally designed for business, people will not live there.

But even if the spot intended for a federal town is thus situated by nature, still if the country about it is not yet settled, or if the trade has been accustomed to run in other channels, will an act of congress and the erecting of buildings create trade or turn the whole at once into a new channel? How is this to be done? For I maintain that unless congress can make business enough in their federal town to support the inhabitants, independent of Congress, the inhabitants will leave the town, when Congress first adjourn, and will never return. These appear to me great and insurmountable objections to erecting a town for the seat of the national government, and yet during the debates on that subject, I believe they were hardly noticed. … I had rather be guided in my opinions by one experienced man of business; than by a hundred theorists, who are versed only in books.”[3]

Despite skepticism about what would become known as the “City of Washington,” President Washington hired L’Enfant to plan it. He was to work under the supervision of three Commissioners who had been appointed by Washington to oversee the future “District of Columbia,” named in honor of Christopher Columbus. In addition, Thomas Jefferson, one of America’s Founding Fathers, sent L’Enfant a letter outlining his tasks and informing him that he was to produce drawings of suitable sites for the city and its public buildings.

On 9 March 1791 Pierre Charles L’Enfant arrived in Georgetown and immediately got busy. Whereas Jefferson imagined a modest new Capital, L’Enfant’s ideas were grandiose. He believed he was not only locating the capital but also devising the city plan and responsible for creating all buildings. Washington arrived about three weeks after L’Enfant did and met him and the Commissioners. On 22 June L’Enfant presented his first plan for the “Federal City,” and on 19 August he appended a new map to a letter that he sent to the President. Washington then retained a copy of the plans, showed it to Congress, and later gave the plan to the three Commissioners.

L’Enfant’s “Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of the United States” was for the city to be bound by the Potomac River, the Eastern Branch, the base of the escarpment of the Atlantic Seaboard Fall Line, and Rock Creek. Furthermore, work by Frenchman André Le Nôtre, particularly his Gardens of Versailles, supposedly influenced L’Enfant’s master plan of a new capital that he imagined with beautiful vistas and gleaming marble buildings.

In that regard L’Enfant specified the locations for two impressive buildings, the “Congress House” (the United States Capitol) that was to be built on “Jenkins Hill” or “Jenkins Heights,” and the “President’s House,” later known as the “White House,” to be located on a northwest diagonal from the “Congress House” along what would become the future Pennsylvania Avenue. L’Enfant also envisioned that the “President’s House” would have public gardens and monumental architecture. Reflecting his grandiose vision, he specified that the “President’s House” would be five times the size of the building that was constructed, which even then was the largest residence in America at the time.

Explanatory observations of the plan were published in several newspapers. The Independent Gazetteer of Philadelphia was one such paper that offered the following descriptions about the buildings and streets mostly laid out in a grid for the new city:

“I. The positions for the different grand edifices, and for the several grand square or areas of different shapes as they are laid down, were first determined on the most advantageous ground, command the most extensive prospects, and the better susceptible of such improvements as the various interests of the several objects may require.

II. Lines or avenues of direct communication have been devised to connect the separate and most distant objects with the principals, and to preserve through the whole a reciprocity of sight at the same time. Attention has been paid to the passing of those leading avenues over the most favorable ground for prospect and convenience.

III. North and south lines, intersected by others running due east and west, make the distribution of the city into streets, squares, &c. and those lines have been so combined as to meet at certain given points with those divergent avenues, so as to form on the spaces ‘first determined,’ the different squares, or areas, which are all proportional in magnitude to the number of avenues leading to them.”[4]

L’Enfant also laid out a wide garden-lined “grand avenue” of about a mile on an east-west axis in the center of an area that would later become the National Mall and a narrower avenue (Pennsylvania Avenue) which would connect the “Congress House” to that of the “President’s House.” (Over time, however, Pennsylvania Avenue became the capital city’s present “grand avenue.”) His plan also included a system of canals that would pass the “Congress House” and the “President’s House.”

Despite L’Enfant’s plan symbolizing America’s lofty aspirations, his irascible temperament and insistence that his city was a whole design, brought him into conflict with the three Commissioners. They were more practical and working with limited funds. They wanted the money to go towards the Federal buildings not some grand city that L’Enfant was promoting. Washington did everything he could do to keep L’Enfant in his position but his domineering attitude and unyielding focus on maintaining his plan unaltered finally resulted in his resignation, something he probably thought Washington would not accept, but Washington did, and he was dismissed on 27 February.

Pierre Charles L’Enfant - The L'Enfant Plan

The L’Enfant Plan for Washington, D.C., as revised by Andrew Ellicott in 1792. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Andrew Ellicott had been conducting the surveys for the future District of Columbia and the “Federal City” under the direction of the Commissioners. He informed them that L’Enfant had not been able to have the city plan engraved. Furthermore, L’Enfant refused to give him the original plan, so, Ellicott, with his brother decided to revise the plan. Ellicott was also already familiar with L’Enfant’s system and had many notes from his surveys. He therefore straightened out the longer avenues and removed a square. He then continued the city survey in accordance with the revised plan, which were engraved, published, and distributed. As a result, Ellicott’s revisions subsequently became the basis for the capital city’s development.

Amidst the planning of the “Federal City,” L’Enfant had also obtained work to prepare plans for the city of Patterson in New Jersey. However, once again he proved imperious and was discharged within a year. He also received work about this same time from Robert Morris, an English-born merchant and financier who wanted a mansion designed in Philadelphia. Unfortunately, Morris had become fixated on land speculation and after having been initially successful, he began to pursue greater profits through increasingly larger and riskier land acquisitions. He then commissioned L’Enfant to build a mansion occupying an entire block between Chestnut Street and Walnut Street on the western edge of Philadelphia.

“He [Morris] possessed the finest tracts of land both in Western New York and Western Pennsylvania, and, living on the scale of his prospects, he planned an elaborate mansion on Chestnut street, Philadelphia, taking up the whole square between Eighth and Ninth streets, and back to Sansom and Walnut streets. Major L’Enfant, then no more than thirty years of age, undertook to build this marble mansion for Mr. Morris for the sum of $60,000, though it appears that no contracts were made. The marveling diary-keepers of the period say that the cellars under the house were ‘three stories deep,’ probably an exaggeration of the idea that good provision was made for wine there. Pictures extant of the house show an oblong building … with pavilion projections at the corners, recesses for architectural porticos and the steep French roof.”[5]

Unfortunately, Morris began to have problems reselling his land and soon owed creditors. Unable to pay his bills Morris declared bankruptcy, turned himself into the Philadelphia Sheriff, and was subsequently imprisoned in Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Prison. He remained in debtor’s prison for three and a half years.

“[C]orrespondence between him and … L’Enfant shows that he had invested the latter’s salary and emoluments in the share of the bank, where they were lost in the common ruin. At this time, however, the young Frenchman was too much engaged in the gay society of foreign speculators and American politicians and promoters who thronged Philadelphia, to exclaim against his loss.”[6]

Soon after the fiasco of Morris’ mansion or as it became known, “Morris’ Folly,” L’Enfant was placed in charge of reconstructing Fort Mifflin on Mud Island in the Delaware River below Philadelphia. In 1812, he received an offer to be a professor of engineering at West Point but turned it down, and then had a change of heart and accepted the position in 1813. He remained a professor of engineering until 1817. He also worked briefly in 1814 on the construction of Fort Washington, but once again was replaced.

Despite L’Enfant’s impressive architectural skills, his finances suffered. Part of his money issues were related to the losses he suffered because of Morris. Other money problems were related to the “Federal City” he designed. When he presented his bill of $95,500 to Congress, legislators voted to give him only $4,600. In addition, his difficult personality and lack of cooperation resulted in him having a somewhat sporadic work history.

Because of his financial difficulties and poverty, in his later years he obtained lodging with the Digges at Chillum Manor, about 8 miles north of Washington, D.C. That is where Pierre Charles L’Enfant died on 14 June 1825 and that is where he was buried. In addition, what marked his passing was one short obituary published in the National Intelligencer where according to the American Architect and Architecture:

“At his death, his letters and papers were appraised, with all his other effects, at the total value of some $42,** and instead of falling into the hands of the Government, they were taken at the valuation by Mr. William Dudley Digges.”[7]

L’Enfant’s grave at the Green Hill farm in Chillum located in Prince George’s County, Maryland, was obscure and unmarked. No friends attended his funeral as he had none and he was buried unceremoniously near the Digges servants and slaves. Years later anyone looking for where he was buried could find his gravesite overgrown by myrtle and shaded by large cedars.

Fortunately, that was not his future because eventually his contributions to America’s capital were recognized and actions taken to honor him. A sundry civil bill of 1908 made $1000 available to exhume him and after some digging during which time a cardinal continuously sung, “a layer of discolored mold three inches in thickness, two pieces of bones, and a tooth were all that remained of the great engineer.”[8]

Pierre Charles L’Enfant gravesite

The gravesite of Pierre Charles L’Enfant in Arlington National Cemetery below Arlington House, overlooking the Potomac River and Washington, D.C. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Afterwards his remains lay in state at the Capitol rotunda, the only foreign-born individual to have ever been honored in such a fashion. Pierre Charles L’Enfant was then re-interred in front of Arlington House in Virginia’s Arlington National Cemetery on 28 April 1909. At the time only seven others – Abraham Lincoln in 1865, Thaddeus Stevens in 1868, Salmon P. Chase in 1873, Charles Sumner in 1874, James A Garfield in 1881, John A Logan in 1886, and William McKinley in 1901 – had received such an honor.

“Around noon eight army engineers carried L’Enfant’s casket out to the east front of the Capitol and set it on an artillery caisson pulled by six bay mares. Cavalry from Fort Myer led the way, followed by the Corps of Engineers band. A cortege of five hundred people, sometimes outnumbering the crowds flanking them, began its procession up Pennsylvania Avenue and across the Rock Creek bridge to M Street, reversing the direction of L’Enfant’s original ride around the site. Flags flew at half-mast all along the way.”[9]

L’Enfant’s re-burial allowed him to rest in peace. He had been provided some reward for his visionary plan of a “Federal City” that would come to represent a great nation that had been envisioned by its forefathers. His gravesite was placed on the highest promontory in Arlington and offers a spectacular view because it overlooks the Potomac River and the portion of Washington, D.C., that he originally designed.

*The eagle was one of America’s first post-revolution symbols and the second official American emblem, after the Great Seal of the United States.
** According to an inventory at the time of his death, his value was $45.00. And with a settlement owed by the Federal government at Fort Warburton, he received another $92.80.


  • [1] W. Dunlap, History of the rise and progress of the arts of design in the United States (New York: Scott, 1834), p. 340.
  • [2] “From George Washington to Pierre Charles L’Enfant, 4 March 1782,” accessed April 11, 2019, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/99-01-02-07914
  • [3] Hartford Courant, “Hartford, April 11,” April 11, 1791, p. 3.
  • [4] The Independent Gazetteer, “Miscellany,” December 31, 1791, p. 2.
  • [5] American Architect and Architecture v. 10 (Boston: American Architect, 1881).
  • [6] ibid., p. 193.
  • [7] ibid.
  • [8] Scott W. Berg, Grand Avenues (New York: Vintage Books, 2007), p. 274.
  • [9] S. W. Berg. 2007, p. 275.

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