Construction Projects of the New Federal City and Its Layout Design


By Allen C. Guelzo, Ph. D.Gettysburg College

Washington’s engineer, Pierre L’Enfant had been commissioned to begin designing the best layout of streets and buildings in the new federal city. What he produced for Washington’s inspection on March 28, 1791, was a curious-looking plat of long avenues meeting at unusual angles to form circles. What happened in the next stages of the creation of the new federal city and the construction projects?

A statue of George Washington while riding his horse.
George Washington commissioned Pierre L’Enfant to design the city layout. (Image: Daderot/Public domain)

Pierre L’Enfant’s Plan

Compared to the plain and unassuming grid of Philadelphia’s streets, L’Enfant’s plan looked exotic. But Washington loved it, and L’Enfant went on to select “the most desirable position to erect the Public Edifices.” The principal of these locations was Jenkins’ Hill, where L’Enfant planned to build the “Congress House.” A mile due west, L’Enfant would construct the “President’s mansion,” possessing “the sumptuousness of a palace, the convenience of a house, and the Agreeableness of a country seat.” 

Connecting the two would be a wide boulevard—the present-day Pennsylvania Avenue—and north of the “President’s Mansion,” L’Enfant proposed to block out 15,000 building lots which, when auctioned, would provide more than enough revenue for the construction of the city, which, in deference to the president, Congress decreed in September would bear the name Washington which was a distinct improvement on William Loughton Smith’s enthusiasm for calling it Washington Opolis.

A portrait of Pierre L'Enfant.
Pierre L’Enfant thought that the auction was a big mistake. (Image: Abovfold/Public domain)

This is a transcript from the video series America’s Founding FathersWatch it now, on Wondrium.

The Failure of the First Town Auction

The first auction of town lots was scheduled for October 17, 1791. But at the last moment, L’Enfant decided that the auction was a big mistake. The commissioners should borrow the money they needed for L’Enfant’s construction projects and hold back the town lots to a later date when their value would have increased even more. 

And since L’Enfant owned the only copy of his street plan, he made sure “to prevent the exhibition of the general plan at the spot where the sale is made.” Naturally, the sale fizzled—only 35 lots were sold, and Washington had him fired in March 1792.

Learn more about Washington’s fears about post-Revolutionary America.

What Happened in the Second and Third Auctions?

Washington turned next to Samuel Blodget, “a man of much personal charm” who had bought several of the lots at the first auction on October 17 and who now proposed to Washington to take over management of the second auction in October 1792. Blodget’s auction was no more successful than its predecessor, selling only 70 more lots. In late September 1793, a third sell-off was held, this time under the direction of James Greenleaf, who had made a fortune during the Revolution as an agent for Dutch bankers. 

Greenleaf planned to buy 3,000 lots himself, along with two partners. Then, as these sales nudged the remaining lot prices higher, they bought another 1,000, then another 1,200, until they had acquired 7,325 town lots. All this would be financed by Greenleaf’s Dutch banking friends. And as they bought ever dearer, they would sell the lots they had purchased cheaply at great profits, continuing to drive the profits upward as they sold more and more lots.

Capitol Building’s Construction Project 

The first design of the U.S. Capitol Building by Dr. William Thornton.
Washington tried to start the construction of the Capitol Building, but there wasn’t enough cash. (Image:Library of Congress/Public domain)

But by 1793, the French Revolution had broken out, and with it, the war between France and the great European monarchies. Investment capital dried up, especially for American borrowers. By mid-August 1794, Greenleaf and his partners, who had relied on the Dutch, were bankrupt. And to make matters worse, Washington and the commissioners had given the go-ahead for construction to begin on the Capitol Building and the President’s House. 

There might not have been cash in the till to pay for the construction, but if the construction was not completed and ready for Congressional occupancy by the due date in 1800, the national capital would remain by default in Philadelphia. And all the fine hopes of “greatest returns of any speculation” would evaporate.

Learn more about Alexander Hamilton’s reports on America’s debts.

The Construction Project of Federal City and Its Failure

Finally, on January 8, 1796, Washington admitted defeat. He addressed a message to Congress that the plans for “locating a district for the Permanent Seat of the Government of the United States,” which he had hoped could “be completed,” had met “new and arduous difficulties.” 

He now had to submit a request from the commissioners for intervention—a loan—from Congress to the tune of $500,000 “to complete the Public Buildings in the City of Washington.” Naturally, the House of Representatives choked. But, warned Jeremiah Crabb of Maryland, without the loan, Congress “would strongly convey the idea, and enforce belief, that the General Government was not serious, not firmly fixed in their purpose of making the present location the permanent Seat of Congress.” 

On March 31, the House of Representatives, with Fisher Ames, James Madison, and even truculent William Findley voting yes—approved the loan. “By the obstructions continually thrown in its way, by friends or enemies, this city has had to pass through a fiery trial,” Washington remarked,  “Yet I trust it will ultimately escape the ordeal with éclat.”

And it would, in more ways than Washington could have imagined. And it would rest on a foundation laid, not by Washington, but by a black mathematician and his white employer.

Common Questions about the Construction Projects of the New Federal City and Its Layout Design

Q: Why was Pierre L’Enfant fired for continuing the construction project in the new federal city?

Pierre L’Enfant presented a map of the new federal city to Washington, which Washington also liked. In order to raise more revenue to continue the construction project of the new federal city, he held an auction for 15,000 building lots, in which only 35 lots were sold, leading to the dismissal of L’Enfant.

Q: What did James Greenleaf go bankrupt?

During the third auction, which was held to continue the construction project of the new federal city, James Greenleaf purchased about 7,325 building lots along with its two partners. Since the investment was financed by Greenleaf’s Dutch banking friends, the war in Europe made him go bankrupt.

Q: How did the federal city construction project go? 

The construction project of the new federal city didn’t go as planned by George Washington. One of the reasons was the unsuccessful auctions that took place during the construction process. Eventually, Washington had to ask Congress for a loan to continue building the federal city.

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