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Notes on the Geography of The Eastern United States: Washington, D.C.'s Height Limit

A look at how Washington accommodated itself to a law limiting the height of private buildings. In short, the story of a sawed-off skyline.

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We could begin with the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool--the City Monumental.

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Instead, let's go a mile northeast, to what looks like a small house in some small Pennsylvania town.  We're perhaps ten blocks from the White House. 

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Despite its grand avenues, Washington through the 19th century was a town composed mostly of two or three story townhouses. 

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From the rear, they were even more modest.  Hardly the stuff of a grand republic's capital?  That was what George Washington feared, too.  We're still within a 10-minute walk of the White House.

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As the fashionable part of town migrated west of the White House, the old core began decaying. That's changing now, as the fences suggest, but it's been a long time coming, and the buildings that will arise on this site won't be as tall as you'd expect. There's a reason.

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We have to go back a bit, however. Here's an Italianate duplex built in 1880 by President Grant's son on a gore at Logan Circle.

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Nearby, architects by the 1880s had a production-line going.

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Ambitions and pretensions.  Among the most prolific of these architects was Tom Schneider, who built 2,000 houses in Washington.  He had bigger things in mind, though.

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What he had in mind was this: the Cairo, erected in 1894 and at 160 feet towering over every other residential building in the city.

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Built as an apartment house, the Cairo became The Cairo Hotel about 1900.  At 16th and Q, it was close to the 14th street, the arterial running north to Baltimore.

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The SW corner again, with gargoyles supporting the lower cornice.

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The rear, without ornament but with more light than you might expect.

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The entrance was modelled less on Cairo than Spain's Alhambra. (In the 1890s people were still reading Washington Irving's Tales from the Alhambra.)  Schneider was inspired more directly, however, by the very similar entrance to the Transportation Building at the Chicago World's Fair, which he saw in 1893.  Not afraid of a little eclecticism, Schneider also installed an Anglo-Indian Oriental Room next to the lobby.

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The Cairo remained in the Schneider family until 1955, when it was sold for $3 million. It then began a long slide that terminated only after 1974, when the building was sold again, gutted, and converted into condominiums.  The facade was preserved, but not the interiors.

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About 1900 Schneider moved into the Cairo.  The mansion he had previously called home, at 18th and Q, became a school but was torn down in 1958 and replaced by the East Dupont apartments.  

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Still, as this picture hints, the Cairo wasn't popular with its neighbors.  That's an understatement, and it explains why Congress passed a Heights of Building Act in 1899, prohibiting private buildings in the District from rising above government buildings.  The law was revised in 1910 to cap private buildings at a height no greater than 20 feet more than the width of the street they fronted. Nearly a century later, that law is still in force. It sounds a lot like the Paris of Baron Haussmann.

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One of the law's first victims was Scheider himself. Here's his Iowa apartment building of 1900, truncated in comparison to its nearby predecessor.

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Schneider seems to have been demoralized.  He could do things so much more opulent than this!  He already had.

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The law didn't apply to federal buildings, like this post office opened in 1899 at 12th and Pennsylvania.  It's the tallest building in the city, unless you count the Washington Monument, and it was designed not by H. H. Richardson but by civil servants, chiefly Willoughby Edbrooke.  It hasn't been a post office since 1934, but it's been lots of other things, most recently the headquarters of the National Endowment for the Arts.

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From the tower, you can't miss seeing the influence of the building-height law.

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From the street outside, you get more testimony.  That's the J.W. Marriott hotel on the right and the venerable Willard on the left.  Opened in 1901 on the site of a still older Willard (and reminiscent of New York's Plaza Hotel because it was designed by the same hand, Henry Hardenbergh's), the Willard closed in 1968 but reopened as an Intercontinental hotel in 1986.

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A few blocks away, more of the sawn-off same.

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Despite its exemption, the federal government has generally kept its own buildings low.  Here's the lineup at L'Enfant Plaza.  No fun at all.

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Nearby, and in the height of irony, this is the headquarters of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.  Watch it jump on those little feet!

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You have to sympathize with the city's architects.  Here a poor fellow has altered the facade to install some grandiose columns and a bevelled roofline.

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Here, columns border a flattened bay, flanked by waffles.

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Deco towers offer a bit of relief. The height law does make an exception for towers like these.

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Here's the headquarters of the AARP, and it's a masterpiece of phony-baloney architectural fantasy.  Can you imagine what Le Corbusier would say? 

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Here, the architect has thrown in the towel. How do you say "Let a box be a box" in Latin?

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New apartments cozy up to surviving townhouses.

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Here, at 13th and M, a new building is about to rise next to a determined and freshly restored survivor.

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Here, a new townhouse has been fused to the old.

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One of the most dramatic neighborhood changes is taking place near the MCI Center, in what's become known as Penn Quarter.  Here's the Monaco Hotel, occupying what began in 1839 as the Tariff Building.  The building was a post office for many years; it's also housed the General Land Office and General Pershing.  Decommissioned in 1996, it still belongs to the General Services Administration, though the Kimpton Hotel group has leased it. This northern side was designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, designer of the U.S. capitol dome. 

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A block away, an old bank (Riggs) is now a Marriott Courtyard.

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Nearby, a line of apartments invokes every geometrical shape known to man as it desperately seeks to establish some variety along its facade.  

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To help relieve the sterility, old buildings have been preserved in front of new ones.

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Facadism.

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OK: maybe it's better to have the old facades than not.

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But it does grow wearying, no?  All this deference to shells of the past--and shells that have little to recommend them except that they are old.

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The apex of the gimmick?  The steel frame is stabilizing the facade of the Atlantic Building. 

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You can sort of make out what's going on. What you can't see is that the Atlantic Building was the headquarters of the Forest Service in the days of Gifford Pinchot. That makes it a little special, at least for people who treasure the national forests.

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Is this a Disneyesque sendoff or the real thing?  Hard to tell at first glance, but it really is Washington's old Greyhound bus station, built in 1940.  It was covered up in 1976 and closed in 1987.  Then, in 1991, it was restored and made the entrance to a new building, called 1100 New York Avenue. 


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