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In October 1790, President Washington took up his role of agent. He inspected many Potomac sites--from Conococheague, about 80 miles above the present city, to Oxon Hill, several miles below; and in January 1791 he made his decision, choosing the land in Maryland which is now the District of Colombia, and a smaller section across the Potomac in Virginia territory, including the town of Alexandria. In the same month he appointed Daniel Carroll, Thomas Johnson, and David Stuart as commissioners to superintend the building of the Federal City. Washington was also ready to employ L'Enfant to lay out the city and another surveyor, Andrew Ellicott, to survey the bounds of the Federal tract, 10 miles square. Ellicott came in February and L'Enfant in March. During the latter month Washington met the local landowners at Suter's Tavern in Georgetown, and persuaded them to sell at $66.00 and acre any land the Nation might need as sites or grounds for public buildings, and to permit the remainder of the proposed city area to be divided into lots and sold, the proceeds from every other lot to go to the Government. It was further agreed that no charge should be made for the land needed for highways.

All seemed well. But, as L'Enfant proceeded with his planning, the landowners began to open their eyes in amazement. Streets 100 to 110 feet wide, avenues 160 feet wide, one grand avenue 400 feet wide and a mile long! This crazy Frenchman was literally throwing away land that should come into the market as city lots. But, they still had time to curb his extravagant use of what rightly was still half theirs. They might even get back the whole, for they had not yet signed away their titles to the land. Trouble was brewing for the President, resting at Mount Vernon, and he was doubtless aware of it.

However, he let L'Enfant go on. This the latter did, oblivious to all private considerations. He had been given one fundamental, the President's house, to work from; but, having placed that, the planner was allowed free scope to create something worthy of the great nation of the future. In the distance, eastward, was a commanding rise--Jenkins Hill. Upon this eminence L'Enfant set the President's House (i.e., the Capitol) ; and to connect this with the President's House he planned a highway 160 feet wide, later designated the Avenue of Pennsylvania. He was practical enough to see that the Capital City's nourishment, unlike that of other cities, would come out of its public buildings rather than out of its trade centers. So L'Enfant made his highway plans subordinate to these features. "Thus," he concluded, "in every way advantageously situated, the Federal City would grow of itself and spread as the branches of a tree does toward where they meet with most nourishment." Alas, he was but the planner; he could not control the growth. A decade later it was apparent that each of the many landowners had striven to divert to his own land the development that should have grown steadily and compactly out from the center. Hence Washington for 50 years seemed to be little more than a number of straggling villages more or less remote from the public buildings.

In June 1791 President Washington faced his most difficult task, that of securing from the disgruntled landowners title deeds for the land required. L'Enfant's first draft of the city plan, which he now had to show them, confirmed their earlier forebodings. Of their 6,111 acres within the plan, 3,606 would be required for highways. The land to be purchased by the Government for public building sites and grounds or "reservations" amounted to 541 acres. the remaining 1,964 acres to be divided into city lots (20,272 in all) and sold for the equal benefit of Government and landowners--the former paying for the public building sites and grounds from its half of the proceeds. But unpromising as it appeared upon first glance, the arrangement was in truth an excellent one for the landowners, as their share in the city lots was estimated to yield about 10 times what the original acreage could be sold for as plantation land. The deeds were signed.

Although supposedly subordinate to the commissioners, L'Enfant was allowed to proceed unhampered for a while. In September 1791 the commissioners instructed him to number and letter his streets according to the simple system which has remained in effect ever since. They also asked for a copy of his plan, to be used in connection with a public sale of the city lots. L'Enfant indignantly refused to comply with this latter request. He would do nothing to aid "speculators to purchase the best locations in his vistas and architectural squares and raise huddles of shanties which would permanently disfigure" his creation. The sale of lots was a failure, and the commissioners blamed L'Enfant for this; but the President did not reprimand him.

Soon, however, another incident occurred which Washington felt he could not condone. The manorial lord of Duddington, Daniel Carroll, the largest landowner of the Federal region, had begun to build a new manor house. Unfortunately, it obstructed one of L'Enfant vistas, and the indignant planner ordered the squire to demolish it. He would not, so L'Enfant did. The commissioners complained to the President. The planner was peremptorily dismissed (in January 1792), and Ellicott was asked to complete his work. For his services in planning the Federal City, L'Enfant was offered $2,500 and a lot near the White House, both of which he refused. He died, impoverished and broken-spirited, in 1825. Eighty-four years later his body was removed from an obscure grave in Prince Georges County, Maryland, and given the belated honor of military burial in Arlington Cemetery.

A few days later a young man, sent by the George Washington himself, came into the commissioners' office. He was "of good repute" and "of much money" -- a young Bostonian related to Vice President Adams. "If," concludes the President's letter to the commissioners,"you can find it consistent with your duty to the public to attach Mr. Greenleaf, he will be a valuable acquisition." The commissioners found it quite consistent; and within a few days they had sold James Greenleaf 3,000 city lots, at $80 each. But, no money changed hands; payment was to be spread over a period of 7 years without interest! Two months later a greater figure came into the realty picture--Robert Morris, the Philadelphia financier. He would purchase 3,000 of the lots, and would now stand openly as partner of Greenleaf in the local venture. The commissioners we quite willing to cancel Greenleaf's first purchase, inasmuch as the two now made a joint purchase of 6,000 lots at $80 each. Under the new agreement, however, the buyers could secure title even before they paid for the lots; and there were other conditions that hopelessly confused the situation.

Within a year or two, these speculators held such a monopoly of local realty and wee asking such prohibitive prices that sales entirely ceased. Worse trouble followed, and in 1797 the commissioners realized that the building fund would have to be replenished from other sources than the sale of city lots. They borrowed $100,000 from the State of Maryland, and Congress was induced to make an appropriation of a like amount. By the end of 1798, the exterior of the President's House was completed, the Senate wing of the Capitol was under roof, and a contract placed for the first departmental building--the Treasury. The new activity in public building brought a return of courage to investors, and much private construction was carried through.


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