Photo by Frédéric Reglain
From the heights of Arlington Cemetery, I can see Washington D.C.’s National Mall, stretching from the Lincoln Memorial to the Washington Monument and beyond.
The rows of marble gravestones, laid out with military precision around me, echo the mathematical layout of a city designed by French-born architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant to have the grandeur of Paris. Diagonal avenues bisect the grid of streets that run north-south and east-west, wide boulevards that stretch out to symbolically reach the rest of America. Of course, the reality is that they just run into the Beltway, the congested ring road that has become a symbol of Washington’s isolation.
L’Enfant, who was soon removed from the project in a fine early example of Washington politics, is buried in Arlington. Here too, I stand before the eternal flame marking the grave of President John F. Kennedy, who said with dry wit: “Washington is a city of Northern charm and Southern efficiency.” Built on ten square miles of swampland, designed to unite north and south, the District of Columbia was named for Christopher Columbus and incorporated the towns of Georgetown, Maryland, and Alexandria, Virginia. Alexandria pulled out of the deal in 1846, believing it was being dragged down by its association with the new capital.
“L’Enfant’s plan was for each of the original 15 states to have an area at each intersection to display their own monuments,” says Stephens. “The McMillan Commission of 1902 moved the center of gravity to the National Mall, depriving each neighbourhood of a focus. That created this cityscape we have today of bland government buildings (originally designed to act as a neutral backdrop to the monuments) and neglected suburbs.”
Kirk Savage, professor of history of art and architecture at the University of Pittsburgh, has written extensively about the National Mall. “The McMillan Commission claimed L’Enfant as their predecessor because he had this direct link to George Washington,” he says. “It was important to give it the authenticity of a plan that was overseen by Washington himself. The reality is that there were some major departures, including the main idea of a long pedestrian boulevard. It is not exactly clear what L’Enfant had in mind but it was probably more like an urban boulevard.”
The new Mall did away with an existing rolling landscape of hills and trees, replacing a city park with a national one. “The park that developed in the 19th century was perhaps more consistent with L’Enfant’s vision,” says Professor Savage. “But to the MacMillan planners it was Victorian claptrap and they wanted rid of it. The Federal Government was so much smaller and weaker than it is now and yet the representation is so bold and powerful. It was an attempt to create an image of national unity despite all the complicated local governments of the time.”
Take me to D.C.!