Pierre Charles L’Enfant
I wish for promotion and it is on this principle I have taken the liberty to address this to you.”Captain Pierre Charles L’Enfant to General George Washington, February 18, 1782
L’Enfant the Designer
Because of his engineering and design skills, L’Enfant may have taken a keen interest in the Continental Army’s encampment at Verplanck’s Point, specifically the decorative bowers that the soldiers built. L’Enfant had some experience designing temporary structures. In April 1782, Anne-César, chevalier de La Luzerne, the French ambassador to the United States, recalled L’Enfant to Philadelphia and requested that he design an open-air pavilion to honor the birth of the Dauphin, the heir to the French throne. La Luzerne hosted a large celebration under L’Enfant’s structure on July 15, 1782. Hundreds of people attended, including George Washington and General Rochambeau, who also met to discuss their next campaign.
After the celebration, Washington returned to the Hudson Highlands and so did L’Enfant. The highly ornate pavilion that L’Enfant designed in Philadelphia and another large temporary bower that the Continental Army built at West Point in May 1782, also to celebrate the Dauphin, may have influenced the decorative bowers that the army built at Verplanck’s Point.
Image Credit: Museum of the American Revolution, Gift of the Landenberger Family Foundation
Hundreds crowded daily to see a large frame building which [La Luzerne] had erected for a dancing room on one side of his house. This building, which was sixty feet in front and forty feet deep, was supported by large painted pillars, and was open all around. The ceiling was decorated with several pieces of neat paintings emblematic of the design of the entertainment.”Dr. Benjamin Rush, July 16, 1782
L’Enfant designed one of the American Revolution’s most controversial insignias. In May 1783 at Fishkill, New York, the officers of the Continental Army formed a fraternal organization called the “Society of the Cincinnati.” The Society was named for the Roman General Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus who gave up his military command and returned to his farm. Only former French and Continental Army officers who had served at least three years could join. The members asked L’Enfant to design their badge. He designed a golden eagle-shaped decoration suspended from a blue ribbon. The badge was a hit at Versailles, where French members wore it proudly. In America, Continental Army officers who wore the badge met controversy because they voted to make Society membership hereditary.
Artist of Cities
Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s watercolors have significance for the history of urban planning in America. Though temporary, the Continental Army’s encampments were some of the largest “cities” of Revolutionary America. L’Enfant’s paintings of West Point and Verplanck’s Point allow us to see two encampments through the eyes of the man who became the new American republic’s most significant city planner. In 1791, President Washington appointed L’Enfant to design the new capital of the United States. The current locations of the White House, the Capitol, and the grid- and star-shaped diagonal street system of Washington, D.C., were all laid out by L’Enfant.