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Grand Avenues: The Story of Pierre Charles L'Enfant, the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C.

3.64  ·  Rating Details ·  185 Ratings  ·  28 Reviews
In 1791, shortly after the United States won its independence, George Washington personally asked Pierre Charles L’Enfant—a young French artisan turned American revolutionary soldier who gained many friends among the Founding Fathers—to design the new nation's capital. L’Enfant approached this task with unparalleled vigor and passion; however, his imperious and unyielding ...more
ebook, 352 pages
Published March 11th 2009 by Vintage (first published February 13th 2007)
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Dec 03, 2009 Angie marked it as abandoned  ·  review of another edition
July 6th, 2013:

Nope. I just can't do it. Even when I'm at work on a slow Saturday afternoon with nothing to do. It's just so... Boring. Ugh.

I may never (attempt to) read this again. And I feel bad, because he signed it, to me! Argh guilt books are the worst books.


July 21st, 2012:

It's funny how I've been living in DC for over a year and have yet to finish this book. (I even still have my bookmark in it, about halfway through!) Time to give this another go.

Jason Pettus
Nov 25, 2007 Jason Pettus rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
(My full review of this book is larger than GoodRead's word-count limitations. Find it at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography [].)

Of all the relatively "modern" topics to develop since the rise of the Industrial Age in the early 1800s, the subject of city planning is one I think particularly fascinating, since by its very nature it seems almost like science-fiction; the attempt to pack millions of humans into a space clearly not designed to naturally hold that many,
Jun 07, 2007 Laynie rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: not so much
I picked this up, with the primary interest in learning the history of the planning and development of Washington D.C. With the exception of one signle chapter, the book reviewed the eccentric character of Pierre L'Enfante, and the challenges he faced in implementing his plan without compromise. The writing is good, but the story theme is repetitive... miscommunication, miscommunication, miscommunication. Go ahead and skip it.
I love reading historical stuff that I can relate to, and it's pretty interesting to find out about how DC was built. However, this book focuses more on Pierre L'enfant, and it's hard, honestly, to read about his difficulty getting people to care about "the federal city" as much as he did. He died penniless, and was still owed money by the government at the time of his death. I really enjoyed this book, and will be checking out more DC history next time I go to the libs.
Aug 05, 2009 Michael rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The plan to read this prior to a tourista week in DC never panned out. This is ok though as, after reading this I discovered nary a trivial factoid that would have impressed my family, friends, nor the DC Ducks driver (not a recommended investment, btw.). Nonetheless, this is a swell book. With the predictable dearth of documentation – and necessarily focusing only on specific aspects of L’Enfant’s life – Berg manages something that reads as a complete biography of the pouty, pompous Frenchman. ...more
Jul 19, 2013 Jessica rated it liked it
This book is story of the design and manifestation of Washington, DC. The main focus is Pierre L'Enfant, but also includes many surveyors, landscape architects and city planners who created Washington, DC. My main gripe of the book is not telling you the location of major monuments in context of the original layout. Example: Jenkins Hill. You don't find out until the last section of the book that it's now known as Capitol Hill. This would explain why L'Enfant not only stopped the building on Dud ...more
Dec 26, 2008 Gina rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Too boring and slow. There is an interesting story in here, sort of, or there should be, but there are a few problems holding it back.

1. There are a lot of blanks in the history of L'Enfant, where the author needs to turn to speculation or assumption.
2. L'Enfant has a really self-destructive personality, making it hard to get invested in him.
3. The author is very invested in the subject, which should help, and apologia can be good, but what it really leads to is weaknesses being detailed then ju
Apr 17, 2010 Ben rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: architecture, history
This book was decent. The language at times was a little grandiloquent but I think that was actually a good touch considering the subject. I would've appreciated more information about Washington D.C. Past L'Enfant's involvement in the project, the book was a little sparse with the development of the city. I understand that it was more of a biography, but Washington was L'Enfant's creation, and without Washington, Berg would've probably found someone else to write about, so a little more history ...more
A comprehensive look at the life of the man who designed the original layout of Washington D.C. An interesting look at the series of patrons and events that led him to this position and eventually how eleven months into to the project he was fired. My favorite chapters had to have been the resurrection of his role in the shaping of DC at the turn of the 19th century and the Olmsted the younger and Burnham's role in getting him the credit and attention he deserved for his vision of America throug ...more
Jul 11, 2016 T. rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
Having traveled to many of the world's capitals, and living near our's I found this book very interesting. There is an element of sadness to it; in his lifetime L'Enfant never received the credit for either his hard work or his incredible vision. I found it especially interesting how our capital arose from nothing, although it was influenced by the great world cities, such as Paris or Rome, or even the cities of Boston and Phila. that were already in existence at the time of the American Revolu ...more
Mar 12, 2011 Adrienne rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I loved reading about the history of how Washington came to be, partly because its fun to look around and see how it could have turned out differently. But I think my favorite part was reading about the founding fathers when they were interacting about where the White House would be or what a landowner should be compensating. Everyone has heard about the disputes between Jefferson and Hamilton, or Adams and Jefferson, but I had never really thought about George Washington's relationship with all ...more
Whitney Hassell
May 29, 2014 Whitney Hassell rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I learned so much! I will say that things got a bit jumbled now and then, going back and forth with dates, but I never knew the magnitude and extent of the turmoil L'Enfant went through during and after his time as architect or DC. What a story of triumph, even nearly 90 years after his death. I recommend it to anyone interested in the true history of DC and L'Enfant. Very informative and well written. Learning about the other key players was a great insight. What a feat to bring DC back to L'En ...more
Anne Van
A very interesting book about the design of Washington, DC. The writer, who first trained in architecture, brings a knowing (and heart breaking) account of how L'enfant's passion for the beauty and intricacy of his design becomes his undoing with the land commissioners (short sighted and commercial minded). L'enfant is fired (and his life ruined, really), then redeemed a century later by Frederick Law Olmstead. Hang in there, designers everywhere!
Jun 13, 2011 Al rated it really liked it
As a D.C. resident, I especially appreciated the true story of Pierre L'Enfant's vision for the new American capital, and his struggles to see the realization of his plans. Berg provides a fascinating study of the trials and tribulations that L'Enfant faced, leading ultimately to a sad ending where he was all but forgotten. This is a part of history every lover of D.C. should read. Recommended.
Steven Yenzer
Oct 02, 2013 Steven Yenzer rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Considering the length of L'Enfant's life, this book feels surprisingly short. It suffers, as L'Enfant's own life did, from repetition -- the man never seemed to learn from his mistakes. But the book does a great job of providing both a history of Washington, D.C. and the life of Pierre L'Enfant. I found it quick to read and very interesting.
Tim Weakley
This was an excellent book to read this weekend in combination with watching the John Adams mini-series.

A well done historic point of view of the designer of Washington DC. It also gives a bit of insight into the careers of President's Washington and Jefferson. Enough in fact to make me somewhat anxious to obtain biographies of both of them as a follow up read.
Feb 29, 2016 Joanna rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Having recently moved to D.C., I was curious to know more about the man that planned this amazing city, one that is incredibly French aesthetically. I learned a great deal, including the fact that he barely got to see any of his plans come to fruition. It makes me even more eager to explore the city and to learn more about both the history of our country and the building of its capital.
Jan 19, 2013 Debra rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction, dc
This book really should have been called a biography of Pierre Charles L'Enfant. As I was expecting a book about the development of DC, I was disappointed in so much back story about L'Enfant. But it turned out to be an interesting story about how he finally gained recognition for his design of DC. And he's buried at Arlington Cemetery, who knew?
Scott Fuchs
May 07, 2011 Scott Fuchs rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Those in the man himself, enthusiasts of city planning and design, architects and Washingtonians.
Recommended to Scott by: a not remembered online mention
Shelves: biography, washington
My enthusiasm for this book is greatly colored by the fact that I'm a native Washingtonian.
I've read masny dozens of books about Washington and its history, but this one was filled with a plethora of information and incidents unknown to me. Of course, the subtitle tells it all; this is a fascinating look at the character of L'Enfant.
A wonderful history lesson.
Matt Schirano
An interesting look at the man who designed Washington DC. I enjoyed seeing our founding fathers from a different perspective, as well as a truly insider's look at how DC was envisioned versus how it was implemented. I don't read historical books like this often, but it makes me want to change that habit.
Tony Taylor
Mar 12, 2010 Tony Taylor rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
For anyone who loves Washington, DC, the city, this is a fascinating story about the trials and tribulations of Pierre L'Enfant in designing the city and getting it built. Another history story that should be read.
Aug 02, 2011 G. rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Well researched. The first third and the final third about L'Enfant's plan after his death read quickly and are fascinating. The middle section dragged for me and could have used a bit of summarizing.
Apr 19, 2012 Kellie rated it really liked it
This was a great book for the history of how Washington DC was designed - and fun to read while we were visiting.
Aug 24, 2008 Xdw rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
drags in quite a few places
Louis Frillman
fabulous story of a visionary
Aug 01, 2007 Katie rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Great if you like history books and even better if you've lived in D.C.!
Aimee rated it really liked it
Jan 13, 2010
Feb 20, 2008 Rocky rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I am a D.C. this was like manna for me. Great read for serious history geeks.
Joshua Disneyq
Joshua Disneyq rated it really liked it
Jun 16, 2017
Karly Satkowiak
Karly Satkowiak rated it liked it
Aug 16, 2014
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Born and raised in the Twin Cities, SCOTT W. BERG holds a BA in architecture from the University of Minnesota, an MA from Miami University of Ohio, and an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, where he now teaches nonfiction writing and literature. He is a regular contributor to The Washington Post.
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