‘A microcosm for the building of the nation’

Those responsible for severely underestimating the cost and duration of today’s Capitol Visitor Center project might seek solace in lofty precedent: The Capitol itself — indeed, the capital itself — was largely defined by setbacks early on.

At the dawn of the republic, acrimony raged over whether there should be a “federal city” at all, and if so, where it should go and what was proper in scale and design. Funding was a struggle even notwithstanding the political opposition. And actually carrying out the plans was fraught with legal disputes and power struggles among landowners, bureaucrats and builders.

Then, after some two decades of painfully slow progress, the British came and burned it all down in one day.

But according to historian Les Standiford, it took that raid, in the War of 1812, to finally unite Americans behind the city, to arouse in them a sense of Washington, D.C., as a national symbol.

“Lamentable, perhaps, that it had taken the destruction of the Federal City to achieve such unity ... but then again, of what matter were the petty distinctions of political preference when the very survival of the nation was at stake?” writes Standiford in his engaging new book, Washington Burning: How A Frenchman’s Vision For Our Nation’s Capital Survived Congress, the Founding Fathers, and the Invading British Army.

Pierre Charles L’Enfant, inspired by the American Revolution, sailed west to take a lieutenant’s post in the Continental Army, barely survived a war wound and was promoted to major. He then parlayed his connections with the Founding Fathers, and his intellectual interests, into the job of heading up the transformation of a wilderness into a world-class metropolis embodying the new nation’s ideals.

“Maddening, self-absorbed, out of touch and brilliant,” as Standiford describes him, L’Enfant studied architecture but had no training or experience in civil engineering upon arriving in his new land. After the Revolution, he was lauded for projects that included a renovation of New York’s City Hall into a temporary seat of Congress. At the time that he was surveying the federal city site under the supervision of President George Washington, he was also supposed to be designing coins for Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton.

But if L’Enfant’s rise was spectacular, so was his downfall. He regularly battled the three-member board charged with overseeing the city’s development, and finally told Washington he would quit if he had to answer to such a panel. The board members, in turn, not long after jailing L’Enfant’s assistant, told the president they were prepared to resign over L’Enfant. Recognizing the board’s power under the law that authorized the city’s creation, Washington regretfully accepted L’Enfant’s resignation.

But battling continued among L’Enfant’s successors and the current and subsequent board members — and others — as they endeavored to bring L’Enfant’s map to life. While one would expect such conflicts given the daunting logistics, property rights concerns and soaring costs, the discord was remarkable nonetheless.

Then came the British attack, and, in its wake, a reconciliation and resolve among Americans.

“In the end,” writes Standiford, “I came to see the efforts of Washington, L’Enfant, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe to build, defend, and rebuild Washington, D.C., in its fledgling years as a microcosm for the building of the nation itself, the first in a never-ending series of internal struggles to preserve our nation and its way of government ... that plague and inspire us to this day.”

In other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

After his resignation, L’Enfant had little to do with the city or other public projects. For decades he pressed in vain for what he considered fair pay for planning the city.

He depended on the charity of others in his later years, but posthumously he rose again. The city had developed haphazardly for years and, in 1901, a congressional commission was set up to plan future growth. Standiford tells us the blue-ribbon panel of experts unanimously agreed that “the perfect plan was already in place” — L’Enfant’s plan.

L’Enfant’s remains went from an unmarked grave to the Capitol rotunda, where thousands honored him as he lay in state. Today he “keeps watch over his city” from atop the highest point in Arlington National Cemetery.

While we expect to learn of L’Enfant’s fate, and we gain insight into his character by way of some background that Standiford provides, the author detours into L’Enfant’s non-Washington exploits to an extent that disrupts the flow of the essential story. Also, with so many people trying to build the city for decades — the Capitol alone was a “veritable graveyard for architects” — one wonders whether Standiford couldn’t package this more tightly.

Given the enormous challenge Standiford took on, however, the result here is outstanding: a meticulously researched, inviting, crisp and lively book.

We’re treated to some great anecdotes, including the ill-fated wish that John Adams penned in a letter to his wife. The first president to live in the White House (which was unfinished, naturally, upon his arrival in 1800), Adams prayed that “none but honest and wise men” would ever follow in his footsteps.

The book is moving at times, particularly regarding the British raid, which Standiford labels a terrorist attack and compares to Sept. 11, 2001 (a comparison he is careful to limit).

Standiford stirringly recalls how, with the British closing in on the White House, Dolley Madison insisted on rescuing Gilbert Stuart’s portrait of George Washington, which still hangs in the White House today.

Another arresting passage illustrates the unity of Americans that was sparked by the raid — and perhaps their sense of destiny as well: A thunderstorm had raged through the city that night, and a stunned British Adm. Cochran reportedly asked a local woman if such weather was common. “No, sir,” she replied. “This is a special imposition of Providence to drive our enemies from our city.”