Travel to U.S.: East: Washington, D.C. Height Limit
This chapter explores how Washington has accommodated itself to a law severely circumscribing the height of its private buildings.
We could begin with the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool--the City Monumental.
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.
Despite its grand avenues, Washington through the 19th century was a modest city, generally of two or three story townhouses.
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.
Many of these old buildings have slowly decayed for a century, especially as the fashionable part of town migrated west of the White House. As the construction fences suggest, that's changing now.
Despite this century of decay, the city has steadily grown, both in population and pretension. Here's an early example: Bursting the confines of town houses, this Italianate duplex was built in 1880 by President Grant's son on a gore at Logan Circle.
Nearby, architects by the 1880s had a production-line going.
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.
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.
Built as an apartment house, the Cairo became The Cairo Hotel about 1900. At 16th and Q, it was close to the 14th street arterial, running north to Baltimore and points beyond.
The SW corner again, with gargoyles supporting the lower cornice.
The rear, without ornament but with more light than you might expect.
The entrance was modelled less on Cairo than the 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. The Architectural Record sneered.
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 bland condominiums. The facade at least was preserved.
The building has fared better than the mansion that Schneider built for himself at 18th and Q. About 1900 he moved into the Cairo. The mansion eventually became a school but was torn down in 1958 and replaced by the East Dupont apartments.
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 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 had an impact on Schneider himself: here's his Iowa apartment building of 1900, truncated in comparison to its nearby predecessor.
Judging from the Iowa's entrance, Schneider was demoralized. He could do things so much more opulent than this! He already had.
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.
From the tower, you can't miss the commanding influence of the building-height law.
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.
A few blocks away, more of the sawn-off same.
Despite its exemption, the federal government has generally laid low in its own undertakings. Here's the lineup at L'Enfant Plaza. No fun at all.
Nearby, and in the height of irony: the headquarters of HUD, the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Cozy? Inspiring? Watch it jump on those little feet!
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.
Here, columns border a flattened bay, flanked by waffles.
Deco towers minimally relieve what would otherwise be an unremitting block. (The height law does make an exception for towers like these, which are allowed to rise above the limit.)
Pulling out the stops: 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?
Here, the architect has thrown in the towel with this new set of loft apartments.
New apartments shoulder up to a few surviving townhouses.
Since perhaps 1980, Washington has begun mining the past in an effort to bring some character to the work of its otherwise severely challenged architects. Here, at 13th and M, a new building is about to rise next to a brave and freshly restored survivor.
Here, a new townhouse has been fused to the old.
One of the most dramatic neighborhood changes is taking place near the MCI Center, in what's become known as Penn Quarter. Among the redone faces is the block-sized Tariff Building of 1839. This northern side was designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, designer of the U.S. capital dome. 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 but is now operating as the Monaco Hotel under the terms of an agreement between GSA and the Kimpton Hotel group.
A block away, an old bank (Riggs) is now a Marriott Courtyard.
Nearby, a line of apartments invokes every geometrical shape known to man as it desperately seeks to establish some variety along its facade.
To help relieve high-rise sterility, old buildings have been preserved in front of new ones.
OK: maybe it's better to have the old facades than not.
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.
The apex of the gimmick? Perhaps: this is the retained facade of the Atlantic Building. What's it going to be?
The answer is a couple of doors down.
The approach can be used with newer facades, too. Is this a Disneyesque sendoff or the real thing? Hard to tell, 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. There must be a fancy term for all this coming to terms with the legacy of The Cairo. How about, with a nod to Clifford Geertz's Agricultural Involution, Architectural Involution?
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