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A haughty Frenchman designs a great American city

It's hard to imagine how Washington ever got the way it is today.

No, we're not referring to the never-ending partisan posturing carried out daily on the Hill in the name of government, or the sinister power struggles behind the seemingly extemporaneous Rose Garden sound bites. We're referring to the physical city: The dominating Capitol, the slightly off-center White House, broad Pennsylvania Avenue, and of course the National Mall, one of the most famous open spaces on Earth.

Most great cities sprouted from sheltered ports or river crossings, and over generations grew into supporting villages, and developed into large, breathing commercial metropolises that mirrored the unique character of its inhabitants.

But Washington was cut, against all odds, out of the Maryland and Virginia wilderness, out of whole cloth you might say. And that's the story chosen by Scott W. Berg, whose background in architecture frames the story of Washington, D.C., told under the guise of the failures and successes of Peter Charles L'Enfant, the Parisian immigrant who dared to dream bigger than our founding fathers.

Berg is an admitted apologist for Major L'Enfant, an irritating and egotistical Frenchman. Despite his talent and vision, he was dismissed by his patron George Washington 11 months after he set out to carve a federal capital equal to the nation it would epitomize out of the forest and tidewater swamp near the hamlet of Georgetown, Md.

Berg's account of the founding of Washington unwittingly tells us that not much has changed in 200 years. Maybe there's something in the water of the Potomac. No one could agree on a location for the federal city, and when agreement was reached, it lasted only as long as the current Congress. No one ever figured out how to pay for such a city.

Individual egos and the temptation of vast amounts of money to be made in land speculation turned L'Enfant's dream of a city to house upward of a million government workers and hangers on into a nightmare of anguish. The opposing federal philosophies of Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton caught the artist in the bull's eye of a controversy he didn't even try to understand. It's amazing how Washington politics could overtake a city that wasn't even built yet.

Of special interest to the Buffalo reader are characters Andrew Ellicott, Rick Olmsted and David Burnham. Ellicott, L'Enfant's chief surveyor, was the older brother of Joseph Ellicott who was too busy in Western New York to take much of a part in the federal city.

Landscape architect Rick Olmsted, the son and protege of Frederick Law Olmsted, is credited with rescuing L'Enfant's reputation and his grand plan for the city a century later, with the help of architect Daniel Burnham, whose firm was responsible for the under-appreciated Ellicott Square Building in Downtown Buffalo.

Berg's book isn't all architecture and city planning by any means.

It serves as an historical look into the struggling infant federal government and its leading characters at the turn of the 18th Century. And in the telling, it offers fascinating bonus glimpses into the 18th Century cities of Paris, Rome, New York and Philadelphia.

It is in looking at these cities that the reader begins to comprehend L'Enfant's vision of a new city with it's Grand Avenue -- the National Mall -- that would have looked more like the Champs-Elysees, lined with shops and full of coaches and horses, than Versailles' Royal Avenue and Tapis Vert, as it turned out.

This story is told in a prose heavy with architectural references and sometimes slowed by a need to justify L'Enfant's logic. But it never compromises its historicity or falls into a popular tale of villains versus white knights.

The result is: The reader never will be able to walk the streets of Washington again without envisioning the haughty genius of Major L'Enfant on horseback, oblivious to the rain and cold, looking down from Jenkins Hill, and with a vision of pre-revolutionary Paris in his mind's eye, seeing one of the world's great capital cities spread out before him.

Edward Cuddihy is a former managing editor of The News.

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Grand Avenues:The Story of the French

Visionary Who DesignedWashington, D.C.

By Scott W. Berg

Pantheon Books, 352 pages, $25.00

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