A Monumental Capital

The United States' capital city was planned from its inception as a place of grand avenues lined with academies, museums, and the great buildings of government. The Millennium Monument is intended to continue that design.

Map of Federal City, 1797

The Design of the City
Philadelphia comes to mind as the central political city of the American colonies, but the Continental Congress had convened in many locations during the Revolution and the years under the Articles of Confederation: New York, Princeton, Trenton, and Annapolis had also served as the Congressional meeting site. During the Constitutional Convention in 1787, the delegates agreed that a federal district, not exceeding ten miles square, would serve as the new nation's capital; but they could not decide on the location. In one of the first political bargains struck under the new government, the "Compromise of 1790" allowed George Washington, the first president, to choose the site of the federal district.

Principal considerations for the new capital site--to be called the District of Columbia--were a location central to the 13 states and easy access to a navigable river, since waterways were a primary means of transportation. On January 24, 1791, President Washington announced his selection of a site at the confluence of the Potomac and Eastern Branch (now Anacostia) Rivers, not far from his home at Mount Vernon, and including the established ports of Georgetown, Maryland, and Alexandria, Virginia. Despite these advantages, the heart of the Federal District was low-lying, swampy ground. Still, this would be the first city planned from its inception as a national capital.

While Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker surveyed the site, President Washington chose Pierre L'Enfant, a French artist and engineer who had assisted the colonists during the Revolution, to plan the city. L'Enfant's plan featured ceremonial spaces and grand radial avenues overlaid on a standard grid. L'Enfant was so devoted to his plan that he refused to furnish his maps to the city commissioners, whom he suspected would sell the land prematurely and frustrate his ideal of a capital city. Consequently, President Washington dismissed L'Enfant, who took his maps and notes. Ellicott and Banneker reproduced the plan from memory.

L'Enfant's Basic Plan
The dominant element in L'Enfant's design is the area surrounding the Capitol, the Mall, and the executive mansion, which came to be known as the White House. Both buildings, incorporating elements of Baroque design, were placed to form the background, or terminating vista, of long, straight pathways. Radiating from the buildings were broad avenues converging into circular intersections, the effect of which was to create, in L'Enfant's phrase, "a reciprocity of view," a means of terminating long vistas that would give direction and character to the city and would create a series of subcenters within view of one another.

Pierre Charles L'Enfant

Most of these subcenters--circles and squares with small green parks--were carefully located on natural rises in the terrain, as were the Capitol and the White House. The Mall, which now extends from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, was intended to be one broad, tree-lined avenue, in the manner of the Champs-Élysées in Paris, rather than the green lawn, with occasional buildings and a crisscross of roads, that it has become.

At the point where the north-south axis running through the White House meets the east-west axis from the Capitol, an equestrian statue of George Washington was planned. This spot, slightly relocated because of soft subsoil and subterranean streams, is now the site of the Washington Monument.

The pattern of radiating avenues was to be joined and filled by a grid of streets. With the Capitol as the origin, the streets were lettered to the north and south and numbered to the east and west, while the avenues were named for the states. The city was divided into quadrants--northwest (NW), northeast (NE), southeast (SE), and southwest (SW)--centered on the Capitol. L'Enfant's plan ended to the north at what became Florida Avenue, where a steep bluff was to provide the approaching traveler with the impressive expanse of the city spread out at his feet.

In the summer and fall of 1800, the government of the United States moved to the new capital city, now named for Washington, who had died the previous December. Then, and for many years thereafter, the number of government offices was small. L'Enfant's plan focused on the part of the federal district that had been part of Maryland, and Congress could not envision needing that portion of the 10-mile square on the south side of the Potomac, so it was returned to Virginia by the 1840s. As late as the Civil War, the District of Columbia remained a rudimentary city; but that great conflict brought an enlarged central government to run the war, as well as troops to protect the capital. The war's outcome determined that the nation would be more than a collection of sovereign states: As the nation grew, the central government grew, and more buildings went up.

Perspective showing the McMillan Commission proposals

The McMillan Commission
As the city approached its centennial, there was a call to develop a comprehensive park system. A joint committee formed by Congress held its first meeting in February 1900 with Senator James McMillan of Michigan as chairman and Charles Moore as secretary. At the same time, plans were put forward for the development of a Mall which would include the newly reclaimed Potomac Flats. As the committee planned for the centennial, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) joined the discussion. AIA leaders envisioned the capital as the perfect place to express the ideals of the "City Beautiful" movement promoted by the 1893 World's Fair Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Detail of the McMillan Commission proposals

In 1901, the Senate empanelled a commission to recommend a re-design of the capital city. The commission included architect Daniel Burnham (a visionary of the Columbian Exposition); landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.; architect Charles F. McKim; and sculptor Augustus St. Gaudens.

The commission members lamented the fragmented Mall and focused on restoring it to the uninterrupted greensward envisioned by L'Enfant. They consequently recommended:

  • Re-landscaping the ceremonial core, consisting of the Capitol Grounds and Mall, including new extensions west and south of the Washington Monument;
  • Consolidating city railways and alleviating at-grade crossings;
  • Clearing slums;
  • Designing a coordinated municipal office complex in the triangle formed by Pennsylvania Avenue, 15th Street, and the Mall; and
  • Establishing a comprehensive recreation and park system that would preserve the ring of Civil War-era fortifications around the city.

To implement the McMillan Commission's recommendations, the American Institute of Architects appealed to President Theodore Roosevelt to form a fine arts commission. Established by Congress in 1910 during the subsequent Taft administration, the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) was created to advise the government on the design of bridges, parks, paintings, and other artistic matters. An executive order later that year charged the CFA to review the design of all public buildings, as well.

During the 20th Century, L'Enfant's plan was magnified and expanded with the reclamation of land for waterfront parks, parkways, an improved Mall, and new monuments and vistas. Two hundred years since its design, the capital city is closer to L'Enfant's original plan than ever before. The height of buildings is restricted, greenspace is increasing, and wide avenues permit the intended vistas. The Millennium Monument is intended to further this plan.

Want to know more about the city's history?
Click here: Historical Society of Washington D.C.

back to top

To request more information about the Millennium Monument, please e-mail us at millennium2@mindspring.com. Contributions can be sent to:

American Urban Design Foundation
3855 Randall Mill Rd
Atlanta GA 30327


Home | A Monumental Capital | Get Involved | The Foundation | The Competition