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Columbia Business Monthly

A Plan for Washington

Feb 08, 2018 09:39AM ● By Emily Stevenson
By John Temple Ligon
Principal, Gervais Studio

The 17C Dutch painter Vermeer is known by only 36 works scattered across the globe. I have a friend who has seen every painting by Vermeer, and that includes one hanging in Buckingham Palace. Ten of the 36 were on exhibition through the last weekend of January at Washington’s National Gallery of Art, and they were matched with contemporaries and influences, all putting the Vermeers on display in context. I visited the National Gallery and I walked off the Vermeer exhibition. Unfortunately, by the time you read this, Vermeer has closed, packed up and left.

You can buy the catalogue at the museum’s gift shop to see what you missed.

A further context at the same site is the City of Washington, D.C.. When I go to all the trouble to chase down paintings and sculptures, I also chase down buildings and street plans. I’m there, so I might as well take it all in, urban design and all, not just Vermeer’s 10 and their related works.

Like most great cities, Washington began as an idea, a concept President Washington wanted to see illustrated in an innovative street plan. By 1789, we Americans had a constitution, a president, and a site that was a compromise between the North and the South. The farther south the new capital was located, the easier it was to trim the South’s war debt. South Carolina alone saw more battles in the Revolutionary War than all the other states combined.

Now, honestly, mere skirmishes have to be counted to reach that statistic, but, still, a battle is a battle.

President Washington’s friend Pierre L’Enfant fought with other Frenchmen in kicking out the Brits by 1783, and by mid-September 1789, L’Enfant, a son of a court painter at Versailles for Louis XVI, got word that France’s returning aristocrats might not want to return to France for a bit.

L’Enfant wrote Washington a famous letter in September 1789, offering his paid services to lay out the street plan of the new country’s capital city.

L’Enfant grew up at Versailles, and after a life’s presence there, he had a full memory of the garden path plan as designed by the landscape architect Le Notre. L’Enfant explained to his employer Washington that the radial paths behind Versailles made for a great capital city street plan, one that made it obvious where to put the capitol, the president’s house, the central park with its water features and various commemorative monuments.

L’Enfant’s proposed street intersections and crossings set up a priority of places most suitable for a capital city. The 1786 grid street plan of Columbia, South Carolina, for instance, showed no priority placement for important buildings. A grid street plan has no major and minor intersections. They’re mostly the same.

South Carolina did get what it wanted, though, in that the name Columbia was chosen over Washington for the state’s capital city in 1786, four years before President Washington had to settle for the District of Columbia. It was after President Washington stepped down that the capital city took his name.

So, how is it the capital of the United States came to be known as Washington and the capital of South Carolina was named Columbia?

South Carolina had first choice.

L’Enfant’s street plan for Washington, then called a “fine Columbian capital,” was accepted by President Washington about the same time he fired L’Enfant. Like all creative types, L’Enfant was hell to work with.

Now that the Vermeer exhibition has left town and now that the origins of the Washington town plan have been reviewed, a guide of sorts is in the offing.

First, study L’Enfant’s town plan of Washington, then place it adjacent to Le Notre’s garden paths at Versailles. See the similarities and the direct copies. Then prepare to walk it off.

Been to Washington lately? It’s more walkable than you know.

A good place to start a Washington walking tour is Kramerbooks & Afterwards Café, 1517 Connecticut Ave., a bistro/bookstore/newsstand every city can lust after.

Walk Connecticut down to Dupont Circle and walk over to 1734 N Street NW to tour the Iron Gate Restaurant. It could be America’s most romantic restaurant. Across the street is the Tabard Inn, cheap and sophisticated - very European. Well in keeping with the romantic thing.

Go back to Dupont Circle and cross over to 21st Street and the Phillips Collection, home of Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” my favorite painting in all the world.  The Phillips Collection is America’s first modern art museum.

Then get to the Hay-Adams Hotel overlooking Lafayette Square and the White House. The Hay-Adams is Washington’s classiest hotel, and it has the best location. Go downstairs to the Off the Record bar, “the best place to be seen and not heard.”

Across 16th Street is St. John’s Episcopal Church, where Sunday services begin at 7:45 a.m., and guess who you’re likely to see seated near you?

Facing the north side of the White House, say something positive, you South Carolinian, because the White House was the chosen favorite in a design competition. The winning architect? South Carolina’s James Hoban.

Look to your left to see the Treasury Building by South Carolina’s Robert Mills, and behind Treasury in the National Mall is the Washington Monument, also by Mills.

Walk just past Treasury and enter the Hotel Washington. The restaurant is where economist Arthur Laffer sketched the Laffer Curve for the benefit of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney during the Ford Administration. While you’re there, take the elevator to the POV (Point of View) open rooftop bar for its view of the White House.

Head west along the National Mall, aiming for the Lincoln Memorial, but visit the Vietnam Veterans Memorial before you get there. I run down a few names whenever I am in Washington. Always tough.

Inside the Lincoln Memorial, read aloud the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural to see what impact history can have on you.

Work your way through George Washington University and get inside the Kennedy Center to see the bust of President Kennedy in the grand concourse. Come back in black tie on an opera’s opening night and work the crowd in the concourse.

That’s it. That’s how to visit a small part of Washington. Now put together your own route. You might want to start with the FDR Memorial on your way to the Jefferson Memorial, and then come back up to the Holocaust Museum and Ford’s Theater and...

(Editor’s note: John Temple Ligon’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily represent those of Columbia Business Monthly.)