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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars

on April 2, 2007
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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on March 3, 2018
Well written, interesting with plenty of detail that a book on this topic should have. I was born in the District and raised in Alexandria, so it's fascinating to come to understand the origins of so many facets of the cities.
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on April 6, 2008
This is an insightful book that sheds the spotlight on the planning of our infant nation's capitol city. The central planner in this was the French born Pierre Charles L'Enfant. Berg traces L'Enfant's early years in Paris, his artistic training there, to his joining in the American War for Independence, to his appointment as chief planner for the new federal capitol city on the Potomoc River.

I found the story of his background in France most interesting as we learn of L'Enfant's father's artistic employment in the service of King Louis XV (I believe), to various other aspects of French life at that time period. The son was groomed to follow in his father's footsteps until the war in America shifted Pierre Charles's plans.

Like many in this country, L'Enfant grew to admire George Washington, head of the Continental Army. Berg develops Washington as a sort of father figure to L'Enfant, if only in L'Enfant's mind. We learn of his war service and experiences and his acquaintences with other notables such as Baron Von Steuben and Alexander Hamilton. Through these acquaintences forged in the trials of war would L'Enfant find employment in various architectural and plannining projects after ther war.

The most notable of these assignments was his role as chief planner for a new federal city designated as City of Washington in the District of Columbia. Throughout this venture, Berg shows L'Enfant to be a visionary who envisioned this city to become what it is today. Another fascinating aside to this planning was L'Enfant's consideration of the concept of the national government and the role of the states. A good example of this was evidenced in his plan for diagonal avenues and squares to be named for the individual states.

Through his nearly year long employment in this role we learn of the roles played by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, the city commissioners, and some of the wealthier land owners in the city L'Enfant would contend with. Through these interactions did problems emerge. L'Enfant seemed to be the type who wanted complete control over the project, making exception for his revered Washington's approbation. L'Enfant's personality traits could make him less than endearing to those he had to work with and would play a part in his removal as planner in 1792.

Many realized his talents, but his foibles were also in abundance. His removal left him embittered as he watched changes to his plans for the layout of the city and the removal of his name from these plans. These and other factors can be understood as causing a certain amount of wounded pride. What followed was a sad story of a man whose services to his adopted country had nevertheless rendered him in a state of near abject poverty. He became dependent on the care of others, some of whom would cause him grief, while others like the Digges family would show more solictude for this aging man.

It would be over a century before others would give credit to L'Enfant's work, certainly a deserved, if delayed reward. His body was even removed and brought to lay in state in the capitol building before being taken to Arlington Cemetery. There were several topics of interest brought to light in this book whether tied directly or indirectly to L'Enfant, such as the contoversy over how large and what type of city Washington should be. This can be juxtoposed against the competing ideologies of the adherents of Washington and those of Jefferson. Washington (and L'Enfant) having a more nationalistic view of America, while Jefferson and his adherents having a more limited vision of government. Jefferson did not envision a necessarily grand federal city.

I felt the reader didn't really get to know L'Enfant all that well in this book, for various reasons, but his vision for a grand federal city certainly did come to pass, if not in his lifetime, most certainly today.
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HALL OF FAMEon April 10, 2007
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. He saw action in Savannah and Charleston, and got an honorable wound in the leg that bothered him ever after. Through a series of famous compromises after the war, the general site of the nation's capital on the Potomac was agreed, but not the precise location. Washington asked L'Enfant to survey an almost empty area east of Georgetown and identify locales for the main buildings. Seized with ambition, the Frenchman took up the survey in 1791, and in less than three months had drawn up a plan that went far beyond what Washington had expected, although the president was pleased with the design. L'Enfant further refined it to a schedule of building, and numbering one thousand workman who were to descend on the area for four years to produce the finished city. It did not happen that way. L'Enfant, for all his ambition and talent, was no politician. He managed to offend almost everyone connected to the project, including his last and best defender, President Washington himself. His inability to get along with all the others involved meant that he was fired the year after he began his work. His post was taken over by his chief surveyor who changed some of the details, and his plan was published without L'Enfant's name on it (an omission that Washington tried but failed to correct).

L'Enfant was never paid for the work he had done, and his life thereafter (he died in 1825) was mere beggary, although one family took him on as a sort of lost elder and kept a roof over his head. Berg shows that L'Enfant's plans may have been quixotic, but that if they had been financed at the time, they could have been accomplished for a fraction of the cost of doing them later. "Later" turned out to be 1900, when L'Enfant's plan was championed by (among others) the son of Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park in New York. His presentation to the American Institute of Architects sparked a re-interest in the original design, and two years later, there was an exhibit of models and paintings of how the city could look if L'Enfant's plan were instituted. L'Enfant's meager remains were dug up and in 1909 they were honored by lying in state at the Capitol, before being reburied at Arlington Cemetery. More than a century after his quarrels with others had led to his ouster and discredit, his talent had been allowed to get him a postmortem redemption. Berg's fascinating review of the historical record of long-forgotten agreements and misunderstandings lets the redemption continue.
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on June 21, 2007
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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on August 14, 2011
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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on July 3, 2007
Most people today would not know of the controversy and opposition to the Statue of Liberty, and the efforts and struggles it took to make a suitable platform for it. Similarly, the full story of L'Enfant's contributions to the original design of Washington, DC, was lost for almost a century before being restored. The US Government was very small in 1791, when work was started on the new capital's design, and one of the more interesting aspects of this historical narrative is the small cast of characters involved. The focus of this book is on these various individuals and how they impacted the evolution of the capital over time. Not surprisingly, all of the human traits, good and bad, march through the story with what seems a preponderance of greed, selfishness and small mindedness. It is interesting that the individuals who restored L'Enfant's reputation and works, and were not from the capital city.
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on May 12, 2007
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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I've always thought Washington was a beautiful - if not problem-ridden - city, with its wonderful (and confusing) street system and beautiful buildings. This very well-written biography of both L'Enfant and his times is a worthy examination of the city, the politics behind its creation, and the men who both promoted and built it. Berg is a masterful and easy writer.

I'll look forward to another book by him. (Not to be confused with A. Scott Berg).
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on May 29, 2007
GRAND AVENUES depicts the genius of Pierre Charles L'Enfant and his artistry in designing the capital city of the United States. Rich with biographical, political and historical detail, Scott W. Berg has included 25 black-and-white illustrations that will intrigue Washingtonians, city planners, history buffs and architects. In 1790, Thomas Jefferson commissioned L'Enfant to "provide aid in the form of drawings of the particular grounds most likely to be approved for the site of the federal towns and buildings."

Having served as a Continental Army officer under George Washington and designed Federal Hall in New York City, L'Enfant was immediately entranced with this project. Originally from Paris, he loved breathtaking views and a variety of buildings and space within a metropolitan city. "This first recorded evidence of L'Enfant's inclination toward city planning occurred in December, 1784, when he wrote at some length to George Washington outlining his scheme to establish a peacetime corps of engineers." Prior to his arrival in Washington, L'Enfant also worked on projects in Trenton, New Jersey, and Cincinnati, Ohio.

Jefferson and L'Enfant held completely different viewpoints on the way that Washington, D.C. should be laid out. As L'Enfant continued to evaluate Jenkins Hill as the perfect location for a congressional building, he writes, "From these heights every grand building would rear with a majestic aspect of the country all around and might be advantageously seen from twenty miles off." L'Enfant was proposing that the District of Columbia be designed on an expanded scale, with vistas, rises and boulevards. One major problem arose when George Washington suggested selling lots in the best areas of D.C. as delineated by L'Enfant's plans.

"L'Enfant now was arguing for a fundamentally public city --- in opposition to the motivations behind almost every other American public city --- in opposition to the motivations behind almost every other American place --- and to that end he was committed to the development of the public areas before the sale of the private." One problem was that houses were erected that did not fit with the public buildings in close proximity. In one case, L'Enfant actually tore down the completed home of a very influential Washingtonian, who had built it too close to a major public office building.

L'Enfant had organized a plan to access the Potomac River, allowing materials and supplies to arrive swiftly by water to the construction sites. "Every step in L'Enfant's chronology of construction was destined to reduce waste and conserve time, materials, and money." He wrote a significant memo to Washington, requesting that the project be completed as quickly as possible, using a million dollars, and suggesting that the oversight committee of commissioners be eliminated. Unsuccessful in his attempts to drive the project to immediate action, L'Enfant failed. Subsequently, Jefferson heralded Andrew Ellicott and assisted him in preparing a drawing to replace L'Enfant's plans.

Pierre Charles L'Enfant died in debt, unpaid for his work on America's capital city. "It is sometimes called the City of Magnificent Distances, but it might with greater propriety be termed the City of Magnificent Intentions."

--- Reviewed by Marge Fletcher
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