Home > History > Planning Our Capital City
Washington, D.C., was built at the start of the 19th century with more irony than iron.
Not only did a Frenchman design the American capital, but a free black man may have secured the construction of the city, which was to take place in the middle of the two largest slave-holding states in the union, Maryland and Virginia.
Even before President Washington hired the French artist-architect Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant to plan the physical layout of the city, L'Enfant seemed eager to help build the capital of someone else's country, a country he envisioned would grow from 13 colonies to 50 states and from 3 million inhabitants to 500 million citizens, according to Encyclopedia Britannica.
"No nation perhaps had ever before the opportunity offered [sic] them of deliberately deciding on the spot where their [sic] Capital City should be fixed," he said in a 1789 letter to Washington, which essentially was a personal advertisement. "The plan should be drawn on such a scale as to leave room for the aggrandisement & embellishment which the increase of the wealth of the Nation will permit it to pursue at any period how ever remote."
Although the Frenchman's designs were to symbolize the ideals of the freedom and independence so recently achieved, they were undisputedly European.
His original plans for D.C. - based on the city he thought would boom to more than four times as many inhabitants as the entire United States had at the time - reflected the grandeur of his predictions and the distinction of the Baroque landscape architecture he was strongly influenced by in Paris and Versailles, according to Britannica.
"Perhaps the dominant element in L'Enfant's designs is the complex revolving about the Capitol, the Mall, and the executive mansion, which came to be known as the White House," it reads. "Both buildings, incorporating Baroque design, were placed to form the background… of long straight pathways, or malls."
L'Enfant planned for two series of broad avenues, named for the states, that would converge into circular intersections, which were intended to complete long vistas and give direction and character to the city.
To be connected in a straight line by an avenue 160 feet wide, L'Enfant selected two high spots - Jenkins Hill for the "Congress House" and a second hill a mile and a half away for the "President's Palace." The avenue, though no longer a straight line since an addition to the Treasury building in 1840 effectively blocked it, became Pennsylvania Avenue.
The pattern of radiating avenues was to be joined and filled by a gridiron matrix of streets, which were numbered to the east and west and lettered to the north and south - excluding J Street, which L'Enfant omitted to avoid confusion with the letters I and J that were indistinguishable and often interchangeable at the time, according to a 1994 Washington Post Magazine article.
Although L'Enfant's design became the basis for landsales, construction and planning, President Washington fired him a year after he was hired because, according to Encyclopedia Americana, L'Enfant "forged ahead regardless of his orders, the budget, or landowners with prior claims."
He took his plans for D.C. with him to France, but renowned mathematician, astronomer and publisher Benjamin Banneker, who was assisting commissioner Andrew Ellicott in the survey of the site, saved the project by reproducing the plans in their entirety from memory, according to The African American Almanac.
"In two days [Banneker reproduced] a complete layout of the streets, parks and major buildings," according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Web site that highlights an inventor each week. "Thus Washington, D.C., itself can be considered a monument to the genius of this great man."
Other sources - like Chrisanne Beckner in her "African Americans Who Shaped American History," Phillip Drotning in his "Black Heroes In Our Nation's History," the online education tool ThinkQuest, and the Web sites of D.C.'s Millennium Gate organization and Benjamin Banneker Middle School in Montgomery County, Md., just outside the city - also credit Banneker's memory with saving L'Enfant's plans.
But many historians, authors and the nation's major encyclopedias, Britannica, Encyclopedia Americana and World Book, do not give him such commendation.
"Banneker has not been given his due,… and he was ignored along with so much of the black experience," said Professor Ron Johnson, chairman of the American Studies program at Georgetown University in D.C. "In recent years he has begun to receive the attention he deserves."
Linda Bennett, a member of the diversity council of the Oak Ridge Associated Universities, a consortium of 86 colleges and universities that helps faculty and students gain access to federal research facilities, put it more bluntly: "It's because he's African American."
But others say it's simply because, according to them, the claims that Banneker saved the D.C. plans from memory are not true.
Bob and Jane Freundel Levey, authors of The Washington Post's "Washington Album," called the claims "local legend."
Bob Arnebeck, author of "Through A Fiery Trial" and other D.C. historical literature, agrees the claims are more myth than miracle.
"The story about Banneker reconstructing the plan from memory is certainly not true," he said.
According to Arenebeck, when L'Enfant refused to give up his map of the city, with all his recent fine tuning, Andrew Ellicott and his brother Benjamin, who came to D.C. to assist Andrew in late 1791, told Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and President Washington they were familiar enough with L'Enfant's plans to make a copy suitable for engraving.
But because the first name of Ellicott's new assistant was also Benjamin, the myth of Banneker remembering L'Enfant's plans took hold as Banneker was mistaken for Benjamin Ellicott.
"Ellicott deserves credit for inviting Banneker to the city, and [Banneker] deserves credit for coming," Arnebeck said. "One might say that it was the one true symbol of freedom that early Washington produced. That [Banneker's] contribution to the city is so overvalued is unfortunate and obscures his real contribution to society, his almanacs."
As their information clashes and debate continues, both sides acknowledge Banneker's work as a surveyor of the site and his achievement in breaking through 19th century prejudices.
The self-taught Banneker farmed until rheumatism made it impossible, but retirement at middle age allowed him to take up mathematics and astronomy in earnest, said Jim Horton, professor of American civilization and history in The George Washington University's American Studies department.
In 1791 Andrew Ellicott, who took over L'Enfant's position in 1792 when he was fired, asked Banneker, then 60, to help him survey the area for the national capital - a fact historians, authors, encyclopedias and diversity council members agree on.
During the first three months of the survey, Banneker occupied the field observatory tent, maintaining and correcting the regular clock each day and each night making observations and recordings of the transit stars, which Ellicott used the following day in his survey of the land. Recently discovered records of the survey show Banneker was paid $60 - about $600 in 2000 - for his participation and the costs of his travel.
Arnebeck is careful to distinguish Banneker's surveying the land from his helping L'Enfant to design it.
"There is no evidence that Banneker contributed anything to the design of the city," he said. "All [L'Enfant's] many letters are devoid of mathematical references, which, of course, was Banneker's expertise. He was an elderly man not suited to the work at hand which entailed much trooping over the considerable distances of the new city and district."
But as Arnebeck said in his book "Through a Fiery Trial," Banneker was living proof that blacks were not inferior and a living reflection of the era's prejudices.
An article that first appeared in the March 12, 1791, issue of The Georgetown Weekly Ledger but was later copied in other newspapers said: "[Ellicott] is attended by Benjamin Banneker, an Ethiopian, whose abilities, as a surveyor and an astronomer, clearly prove that Mr. Jefferson's concluding that race of men were void of mental endowments was without foundation."
Thus, according to historian David Lewis in "Washington Album," Banneker's significance to D.C. was not his arguable accomplishments as Ellicott's assistant, but the symbolism of his presence - a gifted black man in attendance at the creation of the nation's capital.