At Long Last, Pierre L’Enfant, Designer of District of Columbia, to be Honored in Capitol
WASHINGTON — After more than decade of squabbling, a bronze likeness of the French architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the man who designed the original city plan for the nation’s capital in 1791, will finally take a place of honor in the U.S. Capitol.
The statue, which has been kept at One Judiciary Square since its creation in 2008, will be formally unveiled on Monday, Feb. 28 at the Memorial Door Foyer in the Capitol.
According to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the date was chosen because the Organic Act, which denied Washington, D.C., residents congressional voting representation and the right to self-government, was enacted on Feb. 27, 1801.
“This unveiling is a continuation of the effort to secure equality for the nearly 700,000 Americans who live in D.C.,” the speaker said in a press release.
Among those scheduled to join Pelosi for the ceremony are Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., Mayor Muriel Bowser and Phil Mendelson, chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia.
States have been invited to contribute up to two statues representing distinguished citizens to the Capitol since 1864. But the special status of District of Columbia — it is officially the only designated federal district in the United States — made putting it on equal footing with the states a touchy subject.
In 2008, the district paid $200,000 for the creation of two statues to offer to Congress: one of L’Enfant and the other of abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
The Douglass statue was welcomed into the Capitol five years later, and it continues to stand in Emancipation Hall today. L’Enfant had no such luck, but momentum has been building in his favor in recent years.
“When the District of Columbia commissioned the Douglass and L’Enfant statues, it was always our intention to bring them to the Capitol as equal with the states,” Holmes Norton said in a statement after the Douglass statute was accepted.
“Now, with historic momentum as our D.C. statehood bill is headed to the House floor for passage this year, the L’Enfant statue is a potent symbol that D.C. equality and D.C. statehood are on the way,” she said.
In 2021, for the second year in a row and for only the second time in history, the House passed a bill to make Washington, D.C., the 51st state.
Though L’Enfant’s grave overlooks the city from a hilltop perch in Arlington National Cemetery, his absence from Statuary Hall has long irked proponents for Washington, D.C., statehood.
Born in Paris in 1754, L’Enfant was the eldest son of painter Pierre L’Enfant, and he studied under his father at France’s Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture.
It was the American Revolution that brought L’Enfant to North America in 1776, and after initially serving with the French colonial troops, he eventually became an officer in the Continental Army Corps of Engineers.
He served on George Washington’s staff at Valley Forge, suffered a serious injury at the Siege of Savannah in October 1779, and was captured by the British during the battle for Charleston, South Carolina, in May 1780, spending six months as a prisoner of war.
Immediately after the war, L’Enfant received major commissions as an architect in both New York and Philadelphia. He also took many smaller scale projects, including designing the Purple Heart medal.
So taken was President George Washington with L’Enfant’s work that the president appointed him to design the federal city that would become Washington, D.C.
L’Enfant’s plan, which now is kept in the Library of Congress, included a four-quadrant grid, with north-south and east-west streets crossed by grand diagonal avenues.
Despite these commissions, L’Enfant died in poverty on June 14, 1825, his entire estate amounting to $46 worth of old compasses, maps, books and surveying equipment.
He was so poor that it was only through the intervention of a friend and benefactor that he was buried in a respectable plot of farmland in Prince George’s County, Maryland.
It wasn’t until about 70 years later that the Washington County Board of Commissioners asked the secretary of war to make available a suitable burial site in Arlington National Cemetery.
On Dec. 17, 1908, Secretary of War Luke Wright informed the Board of Commissioners that he had approved a site, located between the General Sheridan Monument and the Arlington House flagstaff.
Four months later, on April 28, 1909, L’Enfant’s remains were exhumed and placed in a casket draped with the American flag. His first stop was the U.S.Capitol where he laid in state not far from where his statue will now reside. He was then taken to Arlington National Cemetery, where he remains today.
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