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). Read More