A Critique of David Ovason's Book
" The Secret Architecture of Our Nation's Capital"

November 2006 - This set of pages represents my first attempt at a unified critique of Ovason's book. Up to this point I have addressed that in a piece-meal fashion, some of which was in the Mis-Information section of my DC Map Symbolisms web site. Here I wish to look at the book from a critical point of view, so I will examine the assumptions and conclusions of that, just as I do throughout the MI section.

The main point of the MI essay is that a lot of people pass on information, or use factoids in arguements that simply aren't factually true. Then other, less critical people, cut and paste that all over different media. Very few people ever check their 'facts'. (When this is done purposefully we call it 'dis-information'.)

One of my favorite bits of mis-information is the notion that the Capitol Building sits on lot number 666 in Washington DC. You only have to look at a map of the city that features lot number to prove this untrue. You should also know that the purpose for numbering lots was to sell them; lots with public buildings or squares were not numbered.

The corrolary of this is that people can write things in books, that others will cut and paste, regardless of how true it is. My critique is of the un-critical reading public as well as the author or book.

  • My view of David Ovason, in the simplest terms, is that he is intellectually dis-honest and can't seem to get his facts straight. That however has not kept the 'uncritical' masses, who don't know any different, from singing the praises of his work. Before you read any more here, I ask that you take a look at what someone else has written after having read "Secret Architecture".

  • Most all of what I have to say about the history of the planning and development of the Washington DC landscape can be included in a critique of this book. You will please note that this will be a lot easier to understand if you have read it and have a copy of that close at hand.

    As a counter-balance I recommend that you read "Through a Fiery Trial" by Bob Arnebeck (from which I quote extensively), who has a website entitled The Seat of Empire where he tells his story of the history of Washington DC. Arnebeck writes in a fact laden style that only a historian can love. His web pages feature windows where you can read the actual documents that he references. He is not prone to speculation as Ovason is.


    Who's Responsible For the Map Design Elements?

    Even though there is no real way to determine, at this late date, who 'really' did what in 1791 and 2, we can at least take a look at who might have been responsible for the placement of design elements in the map. Unfortunately, not only do some authors contradict each other, some even contradict themselves.

    The Chain of Command

  • We know that the main players were President George Washington, his Secretatry of State Thomas Jefferson, the three planning commissioners, the designer Pierre L'Enfant, and the surveyor Andrew Ellicott. (It should be pointed out that Ellicott was merely the surveyor when the project started, and did not assume a position of importance until he was needed to replace the willful L'Enfant.)

  • Of these, Washington is known to have been a Mason, L'Enfant was not. Jefferson? Ellicott? It's not clear. City commissioners Daniel Carroll and Dr. David Stewart were Masons while the third commissioner, Thomas Johnson, was not. Ben Franklin, an important Mason, had died in 1789.

  • Ovason suggests that, "In view of the chain of command, there may be little doubt that any major secret pattern will have to be discussed with George Washington (perhaps also with the secretary of state, Jefferson) and certainly with the commissioners, for their approval", and that "Washington and the commissioners had in mind certain things for the development of the city with which L'Enfant had not been acquanted". [Ovason p. 382] This seems to imply that Wash. and the commissioners were involved in the planning, does it not?

    [You will note that Ovason shows no evidence in the book to support this latter assertion about secrets kept from L'Enfant.

    Inspite of the fact that L'Enfant was the designer, Ovason does his best to demean him, while building up Ellicott for some reason; even to the point of attributing the June 22 ('91) version of the planning map to him instead of L'Enfant. His intent is to make Ellicott the star of this book. It seems extremely odd that someone would hire a designer and keep secrets from them, or allow the surveyor do the job of a designer that you already have.]

    Then there's this,

  • " The nature of city planning demands that surveying must precede the mapmaking... Of the three people involved with the design of the city - George Washington, L'Enfant and Ellicott - two were professional surveyors, and well qualified to do both... There are no indications whatsoever that L'Enfant had surveying knowledge, or that he had the sophisticated instruments that Ellicot owned... While there are indications that Washingon did ride over the grounds, looking at the land with a surveyor's eye, there is no indication that he was involved in the details of the design". [Ov. p. 332-3]

    Note that, at this point, he fails to mention Jefferson at all, while asserting that Washington was not inolved in the details of the design, theoretically eliminating two suspects; even though he had previously suggested that Washington was involved. The phrase "qualified to do both", means survey and design a city, and no one ever suggested that Ellicott was an artist or a designer.

  • Now add this to the mix, from page 42 of 'Secret Architecture', "In addition George Washington and Thomas Jefferson contributed their own ideas and in this way amended the original map considerably... the L'Enfant map (was) the result of the combined work of the Frenchman and of Andrew Ellicott, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington himself". There is a big difference between saying that there are no indications that someone was involved in the details of the design and that they contributed ideas that amended the map considerably. Remember that Ovason had suggested that Washington had certain things in mind for the city that he did not reveal to L'Enfant, which sounds like 'details of the design' to me.

    Like I said, Ovason has a hard time getting his facts straight. The truth is that you can use the book to support the idea that Wash contributed ideas to the map and that he was not involved in the details, both of which can't be true.

    L'Enfant vs. Ellicott

    Reading Ovason merely serves to 'muddy the water' when it comes to an understanding of who might have contributed what to the map design. What is clear is his attempt to promote Ellicott and undermine L'Enfant's image. First he suggests that L'E was not fully 'in the loop' when it came to the plan for the city, then he impugns his knowledge of surveying.

    Arnebeck states clearly that Jefferson sent L'Enfant initially 'to begin mapping' the area near the Eastern Branch (southeast DC), and that, as I will show, he was able to complete at least three different versions of the planning map, which apears to contradict what Ovason said about his lack of knowledge of surveying.

    The issue here, however, is not one of the ability to survey, but the ability to design a symbolic city landscape. Being a surveyor does not qualify one to do design work, necessarily, and demeaning L'Enfant does not elevate Ellicott to the artist's chair.

    Benjamin Banneker

    "There are specific records ...that while Ellicott was quite capable of calculating (celestial) orientations, he was more inclined and accuctomed to establishing survey lines, meridians and the like by direct observations of the stars." [Ovason p. 333] Establishing a meridian line merely refers to marking a north-south line on the ground (or in the air), like 16th Street in the DC map.

    In spite of what Ovason says, we know that "Benjamin Banneker... helped Ellicott with astonomical calculations and left the job some time in late April." [Arnebeck p. 39] Ovason suggests that Banneker was Ellicott's temporary assistant, never suggesting that he (Ellicott) might need help with the calculations. [Ovason p. 6] Jefferey Meyer tells us that "Banekker did the astronomical calculations" ("Myths in Stone" page 36). Remember that Banneker also compiled his own almanac.

    You may have seen stories that it was Banneker who drew the map from memory after L'Enfant was replaced; but those stories are clearly wrong, as Banneker left the job in April of 1791, long before L'Enfant did. The Benjamin who helped with the map was Benjamin Ellicott, Andrew's brother, who had been working closely with L'Enfant. In spite of that, we read in "A Smithsonian Book of the Nation's Capital" that:

    "L'Enfant was finally relieved of his job in March of 1792. Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banekker took up his work, making few changes in the original plan."

    You should note that the Banneker stories about him drawing a map from memory after L'Enfant left with the 'good' map suggests that there were no other copies of the plan around, which is not the case. By the time L'Enfant left, the map image had been engraved and published in papers and magazines; there was no need for memory tests, all that was needed was to fine tune the last version of the planning map. Ovason and others suggest that Ellicott made major changes to the map after L'E left, doing for Ellicott what others did for Banneker.


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