Ellicott, Plan of the City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia (1795)

No early plan for an American city is more celebrated than that drawn up by the French-born military engineer and architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant (1754-1825) for the nation’s capital. The son of a painter of military scenes with ties to the French court, L’Enfant was trained at France’s premier art school, the Académie royale de peinture et de sculpture. In 1777 he volunteered for the French army to serve as a military engineer during the American Revolution, eventually becoming a member of George Washington’s staff. After the war he pursued a career as an engineer and architect in New York, where he was acclaimed for his redesign of City Hall in 1789. His reputation and ties to President Washington made him a logical selection to plan an entirely new national capital, a task he began in 1791.

L’Enfant’s plan, with its broad diagonal avenues connecting large public squares, monuments, and major buildings, was influenced by the European trends in urban planning since the mid-sixteenth century. His plan for Washington is often compared to the layout of the palatial parks favored by France’s royalty and aristocracy, such as those at Versailles and Fountainbleu. Though the plan’s general scheme follows these formulas, it reflected a military engineer’s sensitivity to the character and details of the local terrain. L’Enfant ensured that the most important public buildings, such as the capitol and the President’s house, would be situated on the highest and best land, giving them commanding prospects over the entire city. The plan provided generously for the construction of monuments and public squares fitting for the Capitol of a great nation. Yet L’Enfant also thought of the many squares and plazas placed generously throughout the city as focal points of neighborhood life, similar to the intimate squares of Italian cities and his native Paris. Finally, and much like Penn’s Philadelphia before it, L’Enfant’s plan was spacious in conception, with indeterminate boundaries to accommodate the future growth of the great city he envisioned.

Though the key elements of the original 1791 plan were preserved in this version, first published in 1792 by the city’s surveyor, Andrew Ellicott (1754-1820), L’Enfant was displeased with the subtle differences. L’Enfant served at the pleasure of the man who hired him, George Washington, but was required to work under the supervision of Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and three commissioners. Washington was pleased with L’Enfant’s original design, preserved in a manuscript that is now in the Library of Congress. But L’Enfant, by all accounts a proud man, apparently chafed at supervision. Matters came to a head when he was unable to produce a printed version of his plan in time for the first sale of city lots in October 1791. This was a matter of some urgency, because the commissioners were compelled by law to offer lots of the new city to support the construction of the buildings that would house the federal government in time for its planned move from Philadelphia to Washington in 1800. When a suitable plan was not engraved or printed in time for a second sale of land in November 1791, Jefferson and the commissioners asked Ellicott himself to finish the engraving of the map. Ellicott did so without the consultation of L’Enfant, and his version departed in several ways from L’Enfant’s design. Many of the original planned diagonal avenues and plazas were missing. Other avenues, notably Pennsylvania Avenue, were realigned, ignoring planned sightlines and transforming them into uninterrupted thoroughfares. The squares were rendered as open plazas, undermining the intimacy of the squares as communal meeting points. Worst of all, L’Enfant’s name was nowhere on the map, whereas Ellicott’s was. This was more than L’Enfant could bear, and his complaints (apparently rudely delivered to Washington) and unwillingness to submit to the supervision of the commissioners, led to his dismissal as the planner of the national capital. Ellicott stepped into this role, with long-term consequences for the way L’Enfant’s design was implemented on the ground.

Only Ellicott’s versions of the plan were ever published. The first, diminutive edition was published in The Universal Asylum, and Columbian Magazine, in Philadelphia in 1792 to publicize the new city. A second, larger version appeared in the same year, which was copied faithfully in the edition published in London in 1795 to accompany a general history and description of the young nation by William Winterbotham. Winterbotham’s flowery description of the city reflects none of the disputes among its planners:

The plan of the city, agreeably to the direction of the President of the United States, was designed and drawn by the celebrated Major L’Enfant, and it is an inconceivable improvement upon all others, combining not only convenience, regularity, elegance of prospect, and a free circulation of air, but every thing grand and beautiful that can possibly be introduced into a city. (p. 69)

The great avenues, Winterbotham writes, “not only produce a variety of choice prospects, but remove that insipid sameness that renders other cities unpleasing.” (p. 69) Taking this remark at face value, Winterbotham may have found “unpleasing” the simplicity and plainness of Philadelphia’s plan that was so appealing to Quaker sensibilities. He praises the site of the future city and its surroundings in terms comparable to the rhetoric adopted by American community promoters throughout the coming nineteenth century, calling it “a tract of territory exceeded in point convenience, salubrity, and beauty, by none in America, if any of the world: for although the land is apparently level, yet by gentle and gradual swellings, a variety of elegant prospects are produced” (p. 67). Winterbotham dwells on the availability of fresh water, the productivity of surrounding agricultural land, and the suitability of the Eastern Branch (Anacostia River) as a harbor, and the centrality of the location in relation to the 15 states existing in 1795. This rhetoric, and the prominent numbering of the city blocks on the map, remind us that however elegant L’Enfant’s design may have been, however well that plan provided a blueprint for the monumental and important city Washington would become, in the 1790s it was most immediately a real estate enterprise, whose success depended on the sale and occupation of land. In this respect the L’Enfant/Ellicott maps were blueprints for American urban mapping in the coming century.

Though there were more than 8,000 people living in the District of Columbia by the time it officially became the capital of the United States in 1800, for much of the nineteenth century it struggled to fill out its ambitious outlines. The reclamation of land that would extend the mall westward into the shallow waters and marshes on the northeastern bank of the Potomac lay nearly a century in the future. The Senate Park Commission’s work, featuring Daniel Burnham’s ideas for transforming the Mall into its present form, waited until the turn of the twentieth century. Yet modern Washington, D.C., is clearly recognizable in this image from 1795, testimony to the ultimate success of much of L’Enfant’s vision, despite the liberties L’Enfant’s contemporaries took in implementing many of its details.

See also:

The City Beautiful



Jennings, J.L. Sibley, Jr. “Artistry as Design.” Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 36, no. 3 (Summer 1979): 225-278.

Miller, Iris. Washington in Maps, 1606-2000. New York: Rizzoli, 2002.

Stephenson, Richard W. “The Delineation of the Grand Plan.” Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress 36, no. 3 (Summer 1979): 207-224.

Stephenson, Richard W. “From L’Enfant to the Senate Park Commission: Mapping the Nation’s Capital from 1791 to 1902.”. The Occasional Papers, Series no. 6. Washington: Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress, 2014.



Ellicott, Andrew. “Plan of the city of Washington in the territory of Columbia [map].” (1792). 42 x 50 cm. “Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Library of Congress.” http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g3850.ct000299

Ellicott, Andrew. “Territory of Columbia [map].” (1793). 56 x 56 cm. “Library of Congress Geography and Map Division Library of Congress.” http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.gmd/g3850.ct003597

Andrew Ellicott, “Plan of the City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia, ceded by the States of Virginia and Maryland to the United States of America, and by them Established as the Seat of Their Government after the Year 1800,” in William Winterbotham, An Historical, Geographical, Commercial, and Philosophical View of the American United States (London, J. Ridgway [et al.], 1795), vol. 3, opp. p. 67. The Newberry Library, Case E18 .W78 1795