Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who
Designed Washington, D.C.
To all those who have encountered the delights of driving in the District of Columbiaâ€”and subsequently suffered the distress of getting lost amid its oddly angled avenuesâ€”Berg (a teacher of nonfiction writing and literature at George Mason University) offers a welcome narrative of the man responsible: Pierre Charles L'Enfant. A French volunteer during the American Revolution, L'Enfant was asked by George Washington in 1791 to design a gleaming federal city, not on a hill but in a swamp. Suffering from constant interference, not least by Thomas Jefferson, and a nasty episode of credit-stealing by a rival surveyor, L'Enfantâ€”something of an easily inflamed control-freak himselfâ€”persisted for 11 months before being dismissed. Still, his plan lived on, a monument to Enlightenment architectural principles and plotted with geometric regularity. Washington, D.C., as conceived by L'Enfant, would be the republican antithesis to the medieval, dirty warren of Paris; it would be a polis where the people's Congress would form the city's nexusâ€”and what would become the White House was pointedly set off to the side. Berg performs sterling service in excavating this little-known story from the archives. Every tourist to the nation's capital, and every driver within it, will enjoy the ride. B&w illus., maps. (Feb. 13)