The rescue of Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the French architect who designed Washington, D.C., from obscure infamy began in 1900, 75 years after his death. At a meeting of the American Institute of Architects, Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., son to the great savior of New York's urban landscape, presented L'Enfant's original vision for the city to a group of men who had convened to discuss the capital's lack of any organized urban unity. L'Enfant's original plan, they immediately realized, was quite different from the Washington, D.C., they then knew.
The moral of Scott Berg's biography of L'Enfant, "Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C." (Pantheon, 352 pages, $25), is that personality determines success more than talent. L'Enfant found a royal patron in President Washington, but even his suitability for the job, and Washington's goodwill and patience, could not compensate for an utter lack of tact and grace.
L'Enfant came to America from France in 1777 to volunteer as an engineer in the Continental Army. He camped at Valley Forge with Hamilton, Monroe, and Washington himself. After remodeling New York's City Hall for Washington's inauguration, L'Enfant wrote to Washington in 1789 expressing a wish in the "share of the undertaking" of the future federal city. He began work surveying the land between the Eastern Branch and the Potomac in 1791. This was the spot chosen by Washington, who had come to love the territory at Mount Vernon. The city was as much a tribute to Washington's greatness — "a city for its owner," Mr. Berg writes — as to that of the nation itself. No one had asked for a design, but L'Enfant knew what he was doing, and soon Washington and Thomas Jefferson gave him the goahead to design a federal city on 4,000 acres — in two months time.
A city that would eventually overtake the entire district and hold 1 million people was more grandiose than anyone dared to imagine, but such was L'Enfant's great ambition. Jefferson himself had wanted little more than a "town." In "Grand Avenues" Mr. Berg balances the history and the design detail of L'Enfant's urban vision without getting too bogged down in either. The wide boulevards intersecting a gridiron plan that describes the basic lineaments of today's Washington, D.C., conforms to L'Enfant's original plan. The city layout was meant to be baroque, like Rome, with long lines of site leading to Capitol Hill. These boulevards, where they met smaller streets, would accommodate 15 state squares — green spaces for an expressly public city. And around these spaces L'Enfant imagined independent and proud neighborhoods would arise.
In working at such a breakneck pace and under so much pressure, L'Enfant managed to accomplish more than just a plan in 11 months. Heoversaw the clearing of land, divided it into lots, and conceived of a proposal for how to fund the project best through loans and lot sales. But along the way, he ignored others' concerns and made enemies who later fought for his dismissal. The drawing of the city progressed and those overseeing it, namely Jefferson and Washington, endeavored to sell off lots as quickly as possible to fund the building of a city, and not over a longer period of time as L'Enfant suggested. This was in L'Enfant's eyes an attempt to sabotage the plan, to subordinate the entire endeavor to the lesser question of funding rather than the artistic vision to which he alone was privy.
L'Enfant tested over and over the loyalty of his patron and acted as though he were irreplaceable. As it turns out, he was, as the string of uninspired replacements that followed him showed — none of whom seemed to grasp the grandness of his plan. Washington was the last person to give up on L'Enfant (Jefferson had always been an enemy), though surely not without some sadness, as Washington understood better than anyone else that L'Enfant was the only person capable of the work. Replaced by his chief surveyor, Andrew Ellicott, L'Enfant's name was erased from the plan (though Washington tried to undo this, without success). L'Enfant never recovered from this blow; he was never paid for his work on the design and fell into poverty for the rest of his days. "He had become very much a beggar," Mr. Berg writes, "even a living ghost, probably the capital's first."
"Grand Avenues" is a story not just of a frenzied urban endeavor but a model for historical biography. And it's a reminder that while genius may be the stuff of history, the present has other priorities.
Mr. Yarnell is an editor at Culture & Travel magazine.