Les Standiford's entertaining and eloquent "Washington Burning" tells the story of the difficult breach birth of our nation's capital, presenting the political, diplomatic, military and technical factors that shaped it -- especially its architects.
Mr. Standiford, the director of the Creative Writing Program at Florida International University, writes gracefully, and the story he weaves around the building of Federal City offers fresh perspectives, despite the vast literature on the founding fathers that has gone before.
The author addresses some less familiar issues of the history of our federal buildings, throwing light upon their rain soaked nooks and crumbling crannies.
Mr. Standiford has done his homework, and rests his views on the study of several primary sources. He has profitably mined the letters of architect Pierre Charles L'Enfant and George Washington in the Library of Congress. His detailed narrative is in part composed painstakingly from the French-born L'Enfant's poorly worded, confusing correspondence.
A little over two centuries ago, Washington D.C. occupied an insignificant place in the world; today, things are very different. He tells us its story with sympathy, humor and a rubbish pile of fascinating detail.
Mr. Standiford's central point is simple: "The efforts of Washington, L'Enfant, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, and Hamilton to build, defend, and rebuild Washington D.C., in its fledgling years is 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 plagues and inspires us to this day."
The author is well aware of the political minefield that awaits any unflattering study of our founding fathers -- especially Washington and Jefferson.
In the "Author's Note" Mr. Standiford tells us how the idea for this book originated in the days following the 9/11 attacks as he was reminded of the British destruction of Washington D.C. in 1814 -- too bad he overreached in trying to draw parallels with today's acts of terrorism and the British occupation and destruction of Washington D.C. 187 years before. This story is good enough to stand on its own.
Mr. Standiford details the choosing of the site and procurement of land for the capital city itself, day by day: the deals, the funding, the successes, the losses and the shifting political and financial arguments. The genius of George Washington's leadership in these difficult negotiations is clear.
Mr. Standiford's principle character, Frenchman Pierre Charles L'Enfant, famously known as the "Architect of Washington City," is the stuff of legend. L'Enfant was, as Mr. Standiford shows, "eccentric and passionate and difficult," which makes for fascinating reading.
Future presidents, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe make mostly cameo appearances, in deference to L'Enfant and the other passionate overworked architects.
The early years -- long before he undertook the redesign of Fort Washington on the Potomac, long before he and Hamilton planned the six square mile S.U.M. headquarters site in New Jersey, long before he masqueraded as America's foremost military engineer -- the early years during the Revolutionary War were L'Enfant's best.
Nor does Mr. Standiford slight the relatively unheralded but vitally important contributions of the long line of other mercurial architects: Hallet, Thornton, Hadfield, Latrobe, and Bullfinch. Completing the nation's capital was a giant task -- too much for one individual -- architect or president. Although the initial planning was the inspiration of Pierre Charles L'Enfant, many others were needed to successfully finish the task. Still, Mr. Standiford has provided a tantalizing glimpse into all their passionate temperaments.
The author takes us skillfully through the prehistory of Federal City -- from the choosing of the site for the new capital, to acquisition of the land, to the city planning by L'Enfant and his dismissal, to the design contests for the President's Palace and the Congress House in 1792. The resulting book is informative, readable and concise.
But beyond the familiar tale of wars and presidents, Mr. Standiford deftly underscores the frugal, rustic, even foolish nature of the age.
"Washington Burning" is enormously entertaining, especially in the deft descriptions of L'Enfant's personality and his life under the scrutiny of the founding fathers.
But all the way through, Mr. Standiford offers incisive details and insights that make "Washington Burning" a measured. deeply sympathetic and well balanced; it is a great read.
His tale is a catalog of disappointment and frustration, brimming with plenty of useful insights and anecdotes. It is always absorbing, frequently moving and sometimes funny.
It is impossible not to be struck by how unmanageable L'Enfant was. It is clear that for L'Enfant, "supervision" meant nothing whatsoever other than to be opposed to him. The picture that emerges from L'Enfant is both disturbing and perplexing -- a haughty man of soaring ideas working on behalf of a penniless government, he struggled with labor shortages, project funding and never receiving adequate compensation in return.
He was always at odds with his overseers it seemed -- he ordered marble, they wanted brick.
L'Enfant's whole career as an architect was one of vast over expenditures. His huge cost overruns constructing a grand house for America's richest man landed Robert Morris in the poor house.
L'Enfant's lifetime was spent in dogged pursuit of the founding fathers for compensation, into the very halls of Congress, makes the book worth reading.
With no steady income, he found himself slipping in poverty. But at least L'Enfant's arrogant story has a happy ending with his rescue from extreme poverty in old age by William Dudley Digges, who "revered the major's contributions."
As in his latest book, Last Train to Paradise: Henry Flagler and the Spectacular Rise and Fall of the Railroad that Crossed an Ocean, Mr. Standiford loads his pages with interesting information: Opposing the 100 square mile federal district proposed by L'Enfant, the frugal Thomas Jefferson had touted a site on the Potomac that comprised only 50 acres -- John Adams "groused" his whole life over how the nearby Washington and Custis property was increased in value "100 percent" by adjoining Washington City -- The new U.S. Capitol featured an adjoining 70x8x13 ft. privy built for congressman's convenience -- Originally planned as a commercial canal, the Tiber River was filled in to make Constitution Ave.
The last part of the book. particularly after the removal of L'Enfant, has a somewhat rushed, superficial feel to it as a long line of architects come and go struggling to complete the work under intolerable circumstances especially starting over after the British raid in 1814.
Nevertheless, "Washington Burning" is a skillful, absorbing, often moving contribution to the understanding of one of the few episodes in history to live on unknown and misunderstood in our collective memory.
In fact, this unusual tale should be read by anyone who wants real insights into the design of the White House and U.S. Capitol. It is as good a primer on the hopeless bureaucracy and shameless haggling of the times as you will find.
As Mr. Standiford notes at the end of his book, "While the most able and revered of statesmen established the philosophical underpinnings and devised the laws that guide the United States, its was a self-trained architect and lover of liberty named L'Enfant who created the vessel that carries them down through time."