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Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C. Hardcover – February 13, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. To all those who have encountered the delights of driving in the District of Columbia—and subsequently suffered the distress of getting lost amid its oddly angled avenues—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'Enfant—something of an easily inflamed control-freak himself—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 nexus—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)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

Pierre L'Enfant, hardly a household name, nonetheless had importance as the initial designer of the new federal capital, which the U.S. Congress stipulated to be located--essentially wrested from the wilderness--on the banks of the Potomac River. The story of L'Enfant's design for the city of Washington is a complicated one, and he was a complicated personality, but all the wrinkles about both the plan and the man himself are ironed out in this approachable biography. French born, a student at the distinguished Royal Academy of Art in Paris, L'Enfant came to the U.S. in 1777 and remained in this country for the rest of his life. He made a splash as the architect of Federal Hall in New York City, and he plunged eye-deep into the planning, with President Washington, for how the new federal city would look; L'Enfant's idea was to "design a capital to equal the greatest capitals in the world." L'Enfant's idiosyncratic personality interfered with his complete success yet only serves to make this biography a fascinating read. Brad Hooper
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; 1St Edition edition (February 13, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0375422803
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375422805
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.3 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (12 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,194,328 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Scott W. Berg is the author of 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Frontier's End (2012) and Grand Avenues: The Story of Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C. (2007), both published in hardcover by Pantheon Books and in paperback by Vintage Books. Born and raised in Minnesota's Twin Cities, Scott received a BA in Architecture from the University of Minnesota, an MA in English from Miami University of Ohio, and an MFA in Creative Writing from George Mason University, where he now teaches nonfiction writing and literature. Since 1999, he has also been a contributor to The Washington Post and other publications.

Scott's principal research interests include place origins, architectural history, urban history, and the intersections of lesser-known individuals with history's more famous figures. His feature writing for the Washington Post has ranged widely, covering topics as diverse as civil rights history, classical theater, the sport of cricket, the digitization of history, the role of monuments and museums in Washington, D.C., and airplane restoration efforts at the Smithsonian Institution, to name just a few. He regularly speaks to media outlets and to groups large and small in the Washington metro area and around the country about his books and related topics. A list of his upcoming and previous speaking engagements can be found on the "Events & Media" link of his website,

Scott lives in Reston, Virginia with his wife and their two sons, ages 10 and 7. He can be reached via his website or by using his e-mail address directly:

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Christian Schlect VINE VOICE on April 2, 2007
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Urban planners, landscape architects, those with an interest in early American history, and citizens within the influence of the orbit of the Beltway will especially enjoy this tale of the design of the District of Columbia.

Present day Washington is a strikingly beautiful capital city due in large part to the initial work and imagination of a difficult immigrant, Major L'Enfant. Along the way and over time, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, U.S. Grant, and Frederick Law Olmstead, Jr. all played significant roles in this great and continuing project.

While the flow of the narrative slows somewhat at mid-book as a result of too much concern over the details of the Major L'Enfant's arguments with the new city's three commissioners, the book finishes strongly as the author quickly traces the fitful implementation of the city's plan through to about the time of the reburial of the remains of Major L'Enfant at Arlington in 1909.

A very good first book by Mr. Berg. I expect he will write many more.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on April 10, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Whatever you think about the shenanigans within Washington, D.C., you have to admit that the city itself is a collection of buildings some of which are remarkable in themselves, and all of which are arranged along roads that are beautifully laid out. Washington is a planned city, as any view of an overhead picture or map will show, with its fine Mall flanked with important cultural artifacts and its regular grid of streets overlaid with diagonals and radiations from the Capitol and White House. The planning was done by Pierre Charles L'Enfant, and architects and city planners agreed that his design was a brilliant one. The problem is that they agreed on this in 1900, 75 years after L'Enfant had died. L'Enfant had his successes; after Lafayette, he was the most famous of the French who assisted us in our war for independence. He certainly had architectural and surveying talent, and a keen eye for big plans. He was, however, a prickly character whose lack of tact and inability to sympathize with the viewpoints of others made the big plans impossible for him to achieve in his lifetime. _Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C._ (Pantheon), by Scott W. Berg, holds the story of this ambitious and talented artist who was in his lifetime a failure largely because of his personality defects.

L'Enfant, along with many other young Frenchmen, sought glory on the battlefield, and sailed in 1776 to help the Americans. He served at Valley Forge where he had the opportunity to meet and become friends with many of the Founding Fathers. He met George Washington and painted his picture. He illustrated a book of regulations and discipline for the army, but he was not confined to an artist's desk.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Edward H. Utley on May 12, 2007
Format: Hardcover
This is an interesing story of how the basic plan for Washington, D. C. was formed. Pierre L'Enfant, a major in the Revolutionary Army worked with George Washington himself in the original design. L'Enfant was the graduate of excellent design schools in Paris, and he had been trained by his father. He had to fight off the influence of Thomas Jefferson the opponent of Washington and Hamilton in this project. His tenure on the project was short. Politics and land speculation was what really drove the process, little changed from today. A brilliant and far-seeing man who after this brief tenure died pretty much alone and unheralded. His work and his place in history was resurected about 1900. A well written and interesting account that meshes well with other biographical works of the era.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By David Robson on June 21, 2007
Format: Hardcover
Berg has written a fabulous book of popular history, full of intriguing anecdotes and fascinating glimpses of G. Washington, T. Jefferson, and J. Monroe, among others. Perhaps by favorite aspect of "Avenues" is the hissy-fit relationship between L'enfant (architect of DC) and Jefferson, a builder in his own right who despised L'enfant for his petulance, arrogance, and bullheadedness. (At least two of these qualities can be attributed to Jeff, as well.)

I've been visiting DC since I was a boy, but often, as children, we give little thought to something's creation. It just exists. But "Avenues" opens a window into the past that I'm still thinking about. In the beginning, there was L'enfant. Without him (and Rick Olmstead, who carried the torch), DC would be a drastically different city. Bravo to Scott Berg, and thank you!
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Pete on February 28, 2007
Format: Hardcover
A must read for anyone who has visited or is planning a visit to the nation's capital. This is the captivating story of the man who designed Washington. Berg brings L'Enfant to life as he rides horseback across the land that his design would transform into a great city. Berg also makes you empathize with the complicated and passionate Frenchman who never got his proper due during his lifetime.
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Format: Hardcover
An extremely well written and fascinating look into the leadership of George Washington and the relentless visionary energy of Pierre L'Enfant. Where did his ideas come from? France. L'Enfant was brought up in the pre-revolutionary France artistic guild machine that served wealthy patrons. L'Enfant learned illustration and three dimensional modeling from his father but he was inspired by the majestic buildings and grand avenues of Paris. L'Enfant's unheralded success and quick political destruction at the hands of Thomas Jefferson should be a great lesson to all of us of what not to let happen in our lifetime to anyone we know. A great book that inspired me toward great ideas. "I ventured the chance and gave imagination its full scope." L'Enfant to Alexander Hamilton 1791.
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