National Geographic : 1991 Aug
Report from the President Washington, D. C., Reaches Its 200th Birthday Most American cities grew haphazardly from water side settlements with little overall planning; some turned into high-rise jungles of asphalt and concrete. But our nation's capital became one of the most attractive low-rise cities in the country, if not in the world. As a native Washing tonian, I am astonished by the city's faithfulness to its original design, a plan long out of public view. I attribute my city's good fortune to the vision of Pierre L'Enfant, who conceived the plan for the capi tal just 200 years ago, and to his suc cessors. L'Enfant selected the commanding hilltop site for the Capitol; other buildings since have stayed well below its height. He laid out our broad diagonal avenues long before the great radial boulevards of Paris were built. Today the only surviving map of Washington in L'Enfant's hand, a national treasure entrusted to the Library of Congress, is almost unreadable (page 122). To make it accessible, a computer-generated reproduction was initiated by the Li brary of Congress with the support BOTH BYSISSE BRIMBERG of the National Geographic Society, the United States Geological Sur vey, and the National Park Service.* Many months ago the cracked and faded map was taken to the USGS headquarters in Reston, Virginia, to be photographed. Photographs shot at different light levels to accentuate various details were digitized on computer tapes. Then cartographers led by William Schinkel called up each line and letter and carefully outlined them (left). Dirt specks on the original were a problem, says Schinkel. "Trying to distinguish them from penciled dots was a chal lenge." Here he checks the shadings along the Potomac shore (above). Thousands of man-hours pro duced a copy of the L'Enfant map that highlights the designer's explan atory notes and even makes legible previously unreadable notes by Thomas Jefferson (pages 125-6). This project also enhances the reputation of L'Enfant, a man whose contributions have been dimmed by time. I find him fascinat ing: a transplanted Frenchman who fought for us in the Revolution, a favorite of the ladies who never married, the prote6g of a powerful President. Yet he possessed all-too human flaws: He could not work easily with committees; he had an exaggerated view of his worth. Once, after completing a renovation in New York, he refused as inade quate a payment of ten undeveloped acres on Manhattan's East Side. What a curious irony that the land today is worth more than 300 mil lion dollars. SfA-- *THE COMPUTER-GENERATEDREPRODUCTIONOF L'ENFANT'S PLAN, A SEPARATEFACSIMILEOF THE ORIGINAL, AND A DESCRIPTIVEPAMPHLETARE AVAILABLEAS A SET FOR $35 FROMTHE PUBLISHINGOFFICE,LIBRARYOF CONGRESS,WASHINGTON,D. C. 20540.