The plan defines the physical character of the national capital, through a symbolic and commemorative arrangement of buildings, structures, and views. The plan was intimately related to the establishment of the United States and the creation of a symbolic and innovative capital city for the Federal republic. It was embellished through 19th century public works and building regulations, and magnified and expanded through the urban improvements of the Senate Park Commission of 1901 (the McMillan Commission), resulting in the most elegant example of City Beautiful tenets in the nation.
The plan is the acknowledged masterpiece of architect-engineer Pierre (Peter) Charles L'Enfant and the McMillan Commission. It is also significant to the work of numerous other persons and groups important to the landscape architecture, urban design, civil engineering, and planning of the city. It has served continuously as the setting for national political expression and nationally significant events, and has influenced subsequent American city planning and other planned national capitals.
Major Elements: In 1792, the Federal government purchased 17 sizable parcels, known as the Original Appropriations, as sites for specific public uses. Most of these remain recognizable as public open spaces, although some were never developed as public space, and some are the sites of major public buildings with only residual grounds. Original Appropriation No. 6, intended as the location of a market, was never developed, and is now the site of the Federal Reserve. Appropriation No. 7, also intended as a market space, is now occupied by the National Archives. Appropriation No. 8, intended as the site for a non-denominational national memorial church, is the site of the Old Patent Office. Appropriations Nos. 10, 11, and 12, collectively Bank and Exchange Squares -- located north of Pennsylvania Avenue between Second and Fourth-and-a-Half streets -- were sold for private development by an Act of Congress in 1822, and the sites are now occupied by the U.S. Court House and Department of Labor.
Other original appropriations: President’s Park (No. 1), White House Grounds (part of No. 1), the Ellipse (part of No. 1), Lafayette Square (part of No. 1), the Capitol Grounds (part of No. 2), the Mall (part of No. 2), Washington Monument Grounds (No. 3), Observatory Hill (No. 4), Washington Arsenal (No. 5), Judiciary Square (No. 9), Hospital Square (No. 13), Washington Navy Yard (No. 14), Old Eastern Market Square (Nos. 15 and 16)
With the outbreak of war between the Union and the Confederacy, many of the city’s public grounds became vital to the survival of the city and the Union. Open spaces became ideal campsites for troops protecting the capital, and crude encampments, barracks, temporary offices, and hospitals were erected on them. What little planting and landscaping had been completed before the war was damaged or neglected. Roads, bridges, and the city streets were also vital to the war effort, and suffered under the abuse. To expedite traffic on Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress chartered the Washington and Georgetown Railroad Company to run streetcar tracks from Georgetown to the Capitol and Navy Yard on the same gauge as the railroad.
Following the war, Congress and the city returned their attention to improving and beautifying the city’s infrastructure. Jurisdiction of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds was transferred from civilian control to the Army Corps of Engineers in 1867. Brigadier General Nathaniel Michler (1827-81) was placed in charge, and although Michler’s reports never mentioned L’Enfant by name, his respect for the integrity of the original plan is evident. Michler advocated landscaping the wide avenues as elegant boulevards after the fashion set in Europe.
While devising a scheme for the improvement for the avenues, Michler acknowledged parks and small reservations created by the road system as an integral feature of the original plan. He also recognized that the original plan had been misinterpreted when the Mall was divided into segments by intervening streets, and recommended that these streets be tunneled under the Mall. He also suggested, in 1870, that the Potomac flats should be reclaimed. Michler recommended the creation of rectangular parks at McPherson and Farragut Squares, the creation of the circular parks at Thomas, Scott, and Dupont Circles, and the development of parks in the hitherto neglected public reservations east of the Capitol.
Congress further committed to improving the capital city with two important laws in 1870 and 1871. In 1870, Congress formed the Parking Commission and allowed private encroachment on many of L’Enfant’s wide streets and avenues under a system that remains in effect today. The legislation enabled a large percentage of the right-of-way to be maintained and improved by the owners or occupants of the abutting properties, effectively narrowing the width of the street area requiring federally funded improvement. In 1871, Congress formed a territorial government for the city, and during the next four years, under Henry D. Cooke as territorial governor and Alexander Shepherd as head of the Board of Public Works, the city undertook an extraordinary program of public works before it was dissolved due to debt and shame. Nonetheless, Shepherd’s improvements drastically changed the face and reputation of the city and inspired decades of growth, investment, and improvement.
With the demise of the territorial government and the Board of Public Works in 1874, responsibility for the streets, bridges, and other public works reverted to a temporary Board of Commissioners until a more permanent municipal government was established by the Organic Act of June 11, 1878. The Organic Act vested executive power in three commissioners, including an officer of the Army Corps of Engineers, known as the Engineer Commissioner, who was placed in charge of the repair and improvement of streets, avenues, and other public rights of way. Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, the Commissioners and Army Corps continued to improve the city’s infrastructure. By 1881, most of the avenues had some type of pavement, and within the next decade, most streets in the northwest quadrant were paved with asphalt as far north as Florida Avenue. By the end of the century, development gradually approached the outer limits of the L’Enfant Plan.
The federal Office of Public Buildings and Grounds was responsible for the executive mansion grounds as well as the city’s parks and bridges. As the larger city parks were improved, the OPB&G heeded L’Enfant’s recommendation for making them the locations of statues and memorials. Parks were further embellished with exotic flowers, trees, and shrubs, although the lush plantings of the Victorian era gave way to sparser plantings toward the turn of the century. Another responsibility of the OPB&G was to identify and maintain the small, usually triangular federal reservations that resulted from the layout of new roadways and landscaped “parking” areas within the broad street rights-of-way. Scores of these plots were created where the diagonal avenues intersected grid streets; an 1883 listing described 246 federal reservations of various sizes, shapes, and states of improvement. Comprising a total of 408 acres, 38 were described as highly improved, 47 were partially improved, and the remaining 161 were vacant and unimproved. This list was updated in 1887 and 1894, when 301 reservations were enumerated, 92 of which were highly improved, 41 partially improved, and 168 unimproved. While few of the triangular reservations were large enough for extensive landscaping, they were laid out with simple lawns or planting beds, often with perimeter iron fencing.
The turn of the century and the centennial of the city of Washington provided the occasion for a reexamination of Washington’s original plan, subsequent development, and anticipated growth. The result of this process of reevaluation was the 1902 report of the Senate Park Commission, which came to be known as the McMillan Plan. Adopting as their goal the fulfillment of what they called “the comprehensive, intelligent, and yet simple and straightforward scheme devised by L’Enfant,” the highly accomplished members of the commission devised a plan that refashioned L’Enfant’s Baroque design principles into a powerful statement of City Beautiful aesthetic ideals. The members of the Senate Park Commission created an ambitious set of written and visual proposals for the city’s future that not only guided Washington’s development for decades to come but became a nationally significant model for the new field of city planning nationwide.
Major park reservations include: Columbus Plaza, Dupont Circle, East Potomac Park, Eastern Market Square (Reservations 44-49), Farragut Square, Folger Park, Freedom Plaza, Garfield Park, Gompers Park, Judiciary Square, Lafayette Square, Lincoln Square, Logan Circle, Marion Park, Market Square, McPherson Square, Mount Vernon Square, Pershing Park, Rawlins Park, Scott Circle, Seward Square, Stanton Square, Thomas Circle, Washington Circle, and West Potomac Park
Major avenues and streets include: Connecticut, Delaware, Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Potomac (originally Georgia), Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Vermont, and Virginia avenues; North, South, and East Capitol streets; K Street NW, 8th Street NW, and 16th Street NW; Florida Avenue (originally Boundary Street), Washington Avenue (originally Canal Street), and Maine Avenue (originally Water Street); Jackson and Madison places; Constitution, Independence, and Louisiana avenues (added with the McMillan Plan); and the remaining numbered and lettered streets of the original plan.
Vistas include the primary intersecting vistas (from the Capitol along the Mall to the western horizon and from the White House along President's Park to the southern horizon); vistas along radiating and orthogonal avenues (many providing either oblique or frontal views of landmark buildings and monuments), vistas along the major cross-axes at 4th and 8th Streets NW (providing frontal views of landmark buildings), tangential vistas along E, F, and G streets NW (providing views of the landmarks marking these cross-axes), other frontal vistas of landmark buildings, and other axial street vistas connecting circles, squares, and parks.
DC Inventory: November 8, 1964 (Joint Committee on Landmarks); major elements designated on January 19, 1971*
*DC designation expanded on January 23, 1997 to include virtually all extant components of the historic city plan; designation incorporates the former separate listings of the Eighth Street Vista, Franklin Square, Rawlins Park, and East Capitol Street -- but excludes L'Enfant Reservations 10, 11, and 12 (intended as Bank and Exchange Squares)
National Register: April 24, 1997