The World’s Fair, Washington DC, and Symbolic Appropriation


L’Enfant’s plan for DC
Thoughts on the Chicago World’s Fair and the L’Enfant plan for Washington, D.C. based on Montgomery Schuyler’s “Last Words About the World’s Fair” and John W. Reps’ Monumental Washington:

In reading about the planning and development of Washington, DC and the Columbian Exposition at the Chicago World’s Fair, I was struck by a series of resonances between them, separated by time and space though they were. Both DC and the World’s fair were meant, at their respective moments of creation, to symbolize aspects of the budding American character. They were symbols of ambition and aspiration, capability and intention, announcing America’s arrival on the world stage and, what’s more, putting America forward as a rival to Europe—in culture, architecture, and capability. And for both, their symbolic significations to some extent eclipsed their realities: the Exposition was built to be torn down, living forever in cultural memory as a dreamlike vision of possibility, while the plan for DC became symbolic on its own, winning praise and attention and even playing a part in inspiring Baron Hausmann’s reworking of Paris, while the city itself lay unfinished and empty for decades, its reality forgotten in the shadow of its glowing plan.

Yet perhaps the most interesting connection between the two, is the manner in which their symbolism was achieved from a design standpoint. While it might be expected that the most logical form for such symbols to take would be one which would be sure to set them apart, to mark them as distinctly “American,” differentiating them from the symbols of the old world they sought to rival and surpass, in actuality both displayed strong design connections to Europe: in D.C. through L’Enfant’s boulevard system—particularly the radial boulevards used around the Capitol and the White House, and at the World’s Fair in Daniel Burnham’s classically influenced style. In fact, it was largely through the appropriation and “Americanization” of elements of European design that DC and the World’s Fair expressed their aspirations of grandeur and their designers made known their “faith in the nation’s ability to rival Europe in power and architectural glory”(Reps 21).


The classical influence on the World’s Fair is evident in the Fine Arts Building.

Both Reps and Schuyler make much of the European influences on Burnham and L’Enfant. Schuyler devotes much of the opening of his article to tracing these classical influences and explaining why a classical style was necessary for the fair and why, in fact, the decision was a major factor in the Exposition’s success. Schuyler points out that the effect of Burnham’s creation was in large part due to its unity, calling the fair “a triumph of ensemble” (Schuyler 559) and emphasizing that had Burnham not relied on a classical style, this unity would never have been possible. To undertake the creation of a new style, specifically American, specifically Chicagoan, for the fair, a style which all the architects involved could employ with equal success (as Gary Wills tells us that architects like Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright would have preferred (Wills 9)), would have been a “Herculean task” (Schuyler 563). To use the classical style ensured that all the architects involved would be familiar with its elements and yet would also have the freedom—within the very loose bounds of “classicism”—to express their individual goals, while maintaining the unity of the whole, which defined the fair’s effect.


1746 plan of Versailles

Yet this is only the practical side of the decision to adopt classicism as the style of the fair. In order to fully understand the effect of that decision, it’s quite interesting to look at the Exposition in light of Reps’ analysis of L’Enfant’s plan for DC and particularly the way in which he deals with its European influences. Reps traces L’Enfant’s architectural education, emphasizing his early years spent at Versailles and his time at the Royal Academy of Paris. Reps also tells us that when L’Enfant was beginning his plan for DC, he asked Jefferson for maps of various European cities to study for inspiration. Though Reps tells us that it is “doubtful” that most of these maps played a large part in the inspiration for DC, he emphasizes that L’Enfant’s design vocabulary was of distinctly European origin. The combination of a grid of streets overlaid by a system of diagonal boulevards which L’Enfant used in DC hearkens back to Versailles, as does his decision to have the city of DC back right up onto the Capitol. His radial boulevards referenced Karlsruhe (included among the maps Jefferson had leant him) and the way in which he defined the city by its streets and public space, rather than its buildings, was distinctly European as well. Reps goes on to highlight the irony that plan forms, such as the radial boulevards, “originally conceived to magnify the glories of despotic kings and emperors came to be applied as a national symbol of a country whose philosophical basis was so firmly rooted in democratic equality” (Reps 20-21).


Plan of Karlsruhe (Plan der Residenz-Stadt Karlsruhe, auf Stein gestochen von G. Börner 1817)

And yet, as Reps sees it, nothing could be more fitting to represent the “aspirations of [our nation’s] leaders for national grandeur” (Reps 21) than these old world symbols of power and glory. In accepting a plan so lofty in its vision, which drew upon such grandiose sources as Versailles and Karlsruhe, Jefferson and Washington were demonstrating “their ultimate faith in the nation’s ability to rival Europe in power and architectural glory” (Reps 21)—I would go so far as to say glory in every sense. America and her government were young, optimistic, and ambitious—and they had a lot to prove. But the risk in adopting European styles was great as well: if done badly the effect would be one of mere imitation and would announce America not as a budding world power, but as Europe’s copycat kid brother. L’Enfant’s plan’s success as a symbol of ambition and grandeur was then not due merely to the adoption of European elements of design, but to their appropriation and subsequent Americanization.


The Administration Building (at center), flanked by the Agriculture Building (left) and the Manufactures and Liberal Arts building (right). The Republic Statue stands in the foreground.

Nowhere does bigness count for more than in America, to borrow Schuyler’s turn of phrase (though perhaps we have now lost the title to China). America’s expanse made possible projects of a scale far greater than Europe allowed. Sheer magnitude was a distinctly American characteristic, value, and advantage. And, in part, it is the sheer magnitude of L’Enfant’s vision which Americanizes it. Reps tells us that “nowhere in the world had a city been planned on this scale and employing these design elements” (Reps 22) before L’Enfant’s plan for DC. What Europeans employed for the glorification of single people through single buildings, L’Enfant employed on the scale of an entire city, not to glorify a single figure, but to glorify a nation through the symbol of its capital. L’Enfant appropriated the uniformity of European palaces and their grounds to design a city with a singular vision. In fact, the irony which Reps points out between the origins of these design forms and their employment in America, ceases to exist when the change in scale is considered. Where in Europe the object of the glory had been a single person, through L’Enfant’s appropriation, the object of glorification became the people and the nation, democratizing and Americanizing these previous hallmarks of despotism. The purpose remains the same; it is merely the object of the glorification which has shifted.


The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building at The World’s Fair, which was large enough to house six baseball fields

Jumping forward a century, it becomes apparent that in Burnham’s adoption of classicism, much the same process is taking place. Schuyler devotes a whole section of his argument to magnitude, arguing that the fair’s success is due just as much to its sheer magnitude as its unity—in terms of both its physical characteristics and its vision. The Exposition was enormous in terms of sheer size, the number of buildings it comprised, and in terms of what it sought to achieve by announcing Chicago’s achievements and capabilities to the world, as particularly symbolic of American prowess and attitude. In blowing classicism up to a massive scale, Burnham and his collaborators achieved a marriage of European classicism and beaux-arts style and the distinctly American. Wills, in his article “Chicago Underground,” asks whether Burnham’s detractors expected him simply to build a couple Chicagoan skyscrapers. He didn’t need to. The American predilection for the enormous was well-represented in his designs and furthermore was a method of appropriating the styles of Europe, emphasizing the point that America was doing more than emerging as a rival to Europe, but surpassing it. To Americanize European design was as much as to say “not only are we capable of the same things your architects are, we’re capable of doing them better and making them our own.”


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