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March 21-27, 2007

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'Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C.'

Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C.
(By Scott W. Berg; Pantheon; 352 pages; $25 cloth)

Two hundred years after Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant mapped out our capital city, they named a hotel after him. In his day, he was considered an office-seeking nuisance who evolved into a pension-seeking obscurity. Handled with typical reserve by George Washington and with sarcasm by Thomas Jefferson, L'Enfant persisted. And to the end, he asked for due credit for envisioning a millennial city of grids, diagonals and separate-but-equal plazas named for the states, all to be carved out of heavily forested lowland. It was more than trees that stood in L'Enfant's way. A lack of budgeting upfront and a lack of planning afterward kept D.C. a half-finished malarial backwater for almost the entirety of the 1800s. Author Berg, an architect himself, perceives in L'Enfant a fatal combination of high-handedness and terrible communication skills; L'Enfant was "a master of the poorly constructed phrase." His Boratian language skills kept him considered a French foreigner to the end, even though he wintered at Valley Forge and took one in the leg at the Revolutionary War siege of Savanna. Berg speculates that the pain of the wound led L'Enfant to opium and even more fits of temper. With admittedly little documentation to go on, Berg silhouettes L'Enfant against the leading lights of his time. For instance, Berg proposes that the great city's location on the Potomac, so close to Mt. Vernon, is "a magnetic convergence of George Washington's public and private interest."

Review by Richard von Busack


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