There’s been quite a boom in books about the founding fathers in recent years, with titans of popular history—David McCullough and Joseph J. Ellis among them—selling reams of books about people named Hamilton and Adams and Washington. But, flipping through the indexes of these books, Scott W. Berg noticed one crucial Revolution-era figure who didn’t get much attention: Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the architect of Washington, D.C.
“Invariably, there’d be no mention of L’Enfant, or there’d be one page,” Berg says.
Berg first encountered L’Enfant’s work as a young architecture student at the University of Minnesota in the mid-’80s, and when Berg—by then a George Mason University writing professor—dug into a 2002 assignment for the Washington Post’s Weekend section on the legacy and remnants of L’Enfant’s city, his curiosity was rekindled.
As Berg researched his piece, he realized there was a lot to the Pierre L’Enfant story that had never been published outside of scholarly venues. “I was thinking, Book, book,” says the 40-year-old Reston resident. “It was a little bit confounding to me that no one had ever put this book together.”
Berg has finally remedied that problem with Grand Avenues: The Story of the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C., a 300-plus-page book some four-and-a-half years in the making. “What I wanted to do is consolidate and synthesize the elements of L’Enfant’s story and put it in a narrative form,” he says.
Grand Avenues indeed tells a story, from L’Enfant’s formative years in Paris as a painter’s son to the remarkable five-month period in which he developed his famous plan for the city. (“That has to be a land-speed record for urban planners,” Berg quips.) The story is just as detailed during the long descent of L’Enfant’s career into his near-penniless 1825 death on a Prince George’s County estate—and on to his eventual redemption in the early 20th century, when his remains were exhumed and lain in state at the Capitol.
Though not trained as an academic historian, Berg in his research read widely about the Revolutionary era, including the definitive scholarly biographies of Washington and Jefferson. “You have to know what Philadelphia was like, what New York was like, what Savannah was like,” Berg says, “and who Jefferson was, who Hamilton was, who Washington was.”
He also visited Paris, where he “followed in L’Enfant’s footsteps” with an Australia-based expert on pre-revolutionary France serving as a guide. While Berg wasn’t able to spend months scouring French archives for elusive scraps of information about L’Enfant that may or may not exist, as a monomaniacal scholar might, he did spend plenty of time in the National Archives and Library of Congress poring over collections of L’Enfant’s letters and personal effects, down to receipts he kept. Along the way, Berg was guided by preeminent L’Enfant scholar Kenneth Bowling—himself the author of a scholarly book about the architect.
“I think this is the best book on…L’Enfant that’s ever been written,” says Bowling, a member of the George Washington University faculty. “When I read the manuscript, I was stunned; I didn’t expect the level of scholarship.”
Since its release last month, Grand Avenues has garnered plenty of other praise. Renowned architecture writer Witold Rybczynski gushed about the book in a Wall Street Journal review earlier this month. But most thrilling, says Berg: A release party last week was livened by the hire of a Mount Vernon reenactor to embody L’Enfant for the evening.
Currently, Berg is looking to make a career in the popular-history shelves. He’s now interested in doing a project dealing with the Civil War era, and he hopes to one day move into more contemporary historical matters. Anything, he says, to keep him in the library.
“My life is split between talking to students and sitting in front of a microfilm machine,” Berg says. “When I go there and do that, I sometimes forget to eat.”
Berg discusses and signs copies of his work at 6 p.m. at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919.