City Of Magnificent Imitations

The City of Magnificent Imitations
Marco Gomez

Washington, District of Columbia. Some described it as the "City of Magnificent Distances." Charles Dickens called it the "City of Magnificent Intentions" because the city reflected the desires of its creators with symbols of liberty, and innovation etched and represented by the monuments of fallen heroes. Ironically, the Founders wanted to create a government without the influences of autocratic empires and monarchies yet their capitol city would be filled with monuments and museums that heavily drew upon architecture from the Empires of old. Interlaced with intentions and reality, D.C's greatest showcase of a Union, The National Mall, was not a symbol of Magnificent Intentions but a symbol of Magnificent Imitations. The Founders wanted America’s Federal City to be a Mecca of the New World. They wanted to have the Mall as a place that would, as Sarah Luria writes, “Channel the flow of national space” and lure people from around the globe to come and bow at the steps of the Capitol. In achieving this purpose, the Mall and its surrounding edifices were created using various forms of European architecture. So while the Constitution and The Declaration of Independence claimed to break the ties with vile European monarchies, the Mall and its contents were buildings worthy of royal tyrants.

The contradiction of ideas begins at a larger scale than that of the Mall. It begins
with the plan for D.C. While Thomas Jefferson wanted to create “a capitol based upon a traditional grid of streets” as Luria writes, Pierre L’Enfant wanted more. He developed a plan grander than Jefferson’s. A plan that would, as Luria writes, “offer a concrete model of that ambiguous political structure called an ‘extended republic’ drafted in the Constitution and defended by The Federalist.” L’Enfant presented George Washington a city that was a physical representation of the documents that shaped our new nation. Washington was not just excited


by the grand scale of the project but of it’s representation of a new democratic nation, a nation standing high and proud after its victory over the empire that was Great Britain. Yet L’Enfant created the city based on one of the French Empire’s most beautiful creations, the city of Versailles. Pierre L’Enfant was inspired by his good friend André Le Nôtre to create a city with “an irregular grid of streets overlaid by a dazzling network of avenues that shot across the city in every direction,” as described by Sarah Luria. The Founders, wanting to create a government free from Imperialistic ideologies had to create a city based from the only thing they knew, European architecture. Looking at the Nation’s capitol, one can see how L’Enfant draws from Le Nôtre’s plan with diagonal streets and avenues, along with various circles and streets extending out of these circles like rays from the Sun. Even Louis XIV’s lavish royal Château, the Palace of Versailles was infused into the plan, in some ways becoming the Capitol building. Pierre L’Enfant once said, in regards to Jefferson’s plan for the city, that “I would reprobate the Idea of Imitating.” He would go on to add that, “It shall be my Endeavour to delineate on a new and original way the plan [for the Federal City.]” With his plan, L’Enfant created the symbol of a new democratic republic even though he used the layout of the city which once housed the longest tenured monarch in European history, Louis XIV. His “Idea of Imitating” would prove to be far more European based than Jefferson’s. Not only was his overall plan for the city inspired by European architecture, but his specific plans for the Mall were also influenced by the French.

The National Mall came to be through two men, Pierre L’Enfant and Senator James McMillan of Michigan. Though separated by 100 years, both men were the integral pieces of making the Mall. The visionary was L’Enfant who created the plan for the city and a wide and long avenue that


would become the Mall. McMillan was the man who brought it all to life. Both men wanted to create something beautiful that would amaze all. They wanted to create a symbol of a strong Union which had been formed by the Founding Fathers. A symbol of a Republic that could boast of its great power. Yet the Frenchman L’Enfant had to create the Mall based on his motherland. The French call it, La plus belle avenue du monde, “The most beautiful avenue in the world." The Avenue des Champs-Élysées is Paris’ most prestigious avenue and if it could speak it would call The National Mall an impostor. Clearly L’Enfant created The Mall based upon Champs- Élysées and McMillan further cemented it with his commission.


As the city’s centennial approached, the McMillan Commission decided to create a park system in D.C. McMillan then showed that he could also be like L’Enfant. Without the excuse of being French, McMillan and his commission decided that the Mall would be covered in grass to create a “national and civic place,” as Sarah Luria explains. They believed that with the grass they would accomplish L’Enfant’s vision of a “National Landscape,” a place where people could create a personal link not just to the monuments, but to government itself. A place where the civilians of the Nation could come to and participate in what Fergus M. Bordewhich called a “civic secular religion.” The Mall would become a monument in itself representing democracy. The idea of a lawn however, came from the monarchy approving, “aristocratic, tapis verts, of European country estates,” Luria writes. The unbroken expanse of lawn would cover the Mall and appeal to all. The idea specially came from the tapis verts of Versailles which give further reference to L’Enfant’s usage of Versailles. The actual grass however, was not in L’Enfant’s plan. He wanted the avenue to be the “lifeline” of the city. The avenues of the city would connect to the Mall which would in turn connect the people to the monuments.

All of these plans were ultimately planned to showcase America as a Republic which in definition is for the people and by the people making


everyone equal. However, Frederick Law Olmsted Sr. and his partner Calvert Vaux presented a theory comparing streets to civilization which could be applied to D.C. Their theory said that at the bottom of the scale were the “undifferentiated streets where foot traffic, horse traffic, and sewage all flowed together,” as Luria writes. These streets were not evenly paved and the commoners resided here. The next “step up in civilization” was the addition on sidewalks and gutters which represented the slightly middle class people living in the area. This was followed by a “narrow park like median strip,” as Luria explains. This “step up” represents a middle class area. At the highest part of the hierarchy was the parkway which represented “the highest advancement in ‘civilized town life,” Luria writes. The parkway consists of a central roadway used for “pleasure riding” the partners explained. Their theory cleverly ties in with the Mall as a grand avenue and symbol of a Republic. The Mall was conceived to be the highest advancement of civilized life and yet by making this reality, McMillan and L’Enfant once again resorted to the ways of the Empires before them. The Mall became the center stage of civilization at it’s finest but the further away you got from it, life would become less civilized and that sure is not an example of an equal Republic.


L’Enfant’s design for the U.S. Capitol building would finally stray away from the French inspiration but would imitate two different monarchies separated by around two millennia. The primary inspiration for the U.S. Capitol came from Saint Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg, Russia. Both the dome and the body of the edifice came directly from the church’s design. L’Enfant created the place that would house the legislative branch of government based on a church which contradicts the idea of separating church from state. The U.S. Capitol which represents the true essence of a democracy, a bicameral legislature in which 535 people vote on laws, is a mere imitation of a church created from an order by Alexander I of Russia, Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias, King of Poland; Grand Duke of Finland. Not only was the Tsar unknowingly tyrannical, he also would not have approved of a legislative congress that would reduce his power. L’Enfant then decided to make the Capitol a little less cathedral like and


incorporated another Empire from around 2 millennia before that of the Russian’s. L’Enfant chose to use what Sarah Luria describes as, “exaggerated Roman architecture” to finish off the Capitol’s design. The white sandstone used to make the Capitol and the columns that are in the Capitol both come from Roman architecture. Some might come to believe that this might be the reason Congress never gets things done, their place of work is based on an empire in which a Caesar ruled all and the Senate had little power. Mix in a tyrannical Tsar and suddenly Congress seems cursed to bow to one man. L’Enfant with his determination to “outdo European precedents and taste,” as Luria writes, had only way to be better, and that was to imitate the best creations of the past, and make them his own.


Ironically, the location of the U.S. Capitol, the Arlington House (Robert E. Lee Memorial), and the Lincoln Memorial in relation to the proposed extension of the Mall seem to physically dispel the Mall as a symbol of a Union. It also physically depicts a true monument to the Civil War unlike the monuments that show peace and animosity between North and South. In her book, Capital Speculations, Sarah Luria states that the construction of the Roman-Russian inspired US Capitol was overseen by Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. This man would later become President of the Confederate States of America. At the time there was yet to be a Lincoln Memorial so directly across from Memorial Bridge was the Greek inspired Arlington House, home of General Robert E. Lee, the general who would become Davis’ commanding general during the Civil War. Finally in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial opened directly across Memorial Bridge and the Arlington House. So with all this in mind, one can now picture the true Civil War memorial, Jefferson Davis directly across from Robert E. Lee and then Abraham Lincoln stepping in and turning his back to the Arlington House, to Robert E. Lee, and to the South’s ideologies. Jefferson Davis was kicked out of the building he oversaw and although the Capitol is Roman styled while the Lincoln Memorial is Greek, it was Lincoln who turned the tables and beat Jefferson Davis to prevent a Greek tragedy. Washington and L’Enfant wanted to create a Federal City that would symbolize not just freedom but after fighting the Revolutionary War, they wanted to show unity as well. They could not predict however, that centuries later a war would be fought between the North and South. For all their planned monuments, they could not have predicted the creation of a secret monument, symbolizing the true events of the American Civil War and laced with Greek and Roman architecture to add some drama.

The Washington Monument. The world’s tallest obelisk stands at an outstanding 555 feet above ground. In L’Enfant’s original plan the center of the Mall would contain a statue of George Washington. This plan was later dropped and changed for the Egyptian like obelisk we have today. It seems that although L’Enfant’s plan was dropped, his inclusion of Versailles in other parts of his plans leaked into the creation of the


monument. Beside the fact that the Avenue des Champs-Élysées has an obelisk on one end of its avenue, Sarah Luria compares it more to another monument on the avenue, the Arch of Triumph. Norva Evenson describes her experience with the Arch, “…I found the Arch of Triumph forming a part of my daily experience in the city…I suddenly loomed up with almost hallucinatory splendor when I emerged from the metro on my way to have root canal work.” Everson implies that although the Arch was filled with historical significance, to her the experience was more personal. The Arch was part of her life and that’s the purpose of the Washington Monument. Although the intension was for the Capitol’s front to be the main attraction, it’s the Washington


Monument that takes that title because it has become the axis on which the city revolves. Just like Champs-Élysées, the National Mall was created based on centrality with the Washington Monument as its center piece. Yet with all the symbolism that this monument represents it once again fails to promote a true democratic republic. Based on the Egyptian obelisks, the Washington Monument is a symbol of despotism, the form of government used by the Pharaohs of Egypt. Therefore, the Washington Monument is most contradicting monument on the Mall. The Declaration of Independence clearly references the term despotism when talking about Great Britain. It says, "But when a long train of abuses


and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.” The Declaration clearly shows hatred toward despotic views, the views of a King acting on his own accord without abiding to law. However, the Washington Monument still stands as the tallest obelisk in the world, the tallest showcase of a Pharaoh’s will and a constant showcase of our government’s ironic contradictions.

In conclusion, the decisions of L’Enfant and McMillan to create a city symbolizing a Republic while still using the murals made for tyrants was not done accidentally. They intended to do this because it was all they knew. They were able to create a city from a symbol which had no picture yet. Washington and company ultimately hoped that within the future the symbol a true democratic republic, for the people, by the people would by symbolized with a picture of Washington D.C. That is why D.C. is not the City of Magnificent Intentions because their intentions were clear; it was the fact that they imitated Europe’s greatest architectural achievements that made them stand out. With the founding fathers long gone it is up to the people of the United States of America to decide whether or not Washington D.C. has become the true symbol of equality for all or if the monuments of tyrants still reflect our very own image.

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