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
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,
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.
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
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
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
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
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
- 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
Want to know more about the city's history?
Click here: Historical
Society of Washington D.C.
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Millennium Monument, please e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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American Urban Design Foundation
3855 Randall Mill Rd
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