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Why There Are No Skyscrapers in Washington DC?

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If you have ever visited our nation’s capital you certainly noticed aside from the Washington Monument (555-feet tallest in the city) and a few other landmarks including the US Capitol (289-feet ranked 5th tallest) there are no real tall high-rise or skyscraper buildings. Look across the Potomac River to Crystal City and Rosslyn and you’ll see them. Journey into the more distant suburbs of Maryland and Virginia and you’ll see them. So why are there no skyscrapers in Washington DC? Quite simply it is because there is a law restricting building height.

In 1894, the 12-story, 160-foot Cairo later Cairo Hotel opened at 1615 “Q” Street NW near Dupont Circle. An uproar from area citizens followed as many feared large monolithic buildings would dwarf the monuments and other buildings. The uproar leads the D.C. Commissioners to issue regulations limiting height to 90 feet for residential and 110 feet for business, or to the width of the street in front, whatever was smaller. Further lobbying caused the US Congress to pass the Heights of Buildings Act in 1899. This removed the front street restriction, but reaffirmed height limits to 90 feet on residential streets and 110 feet on business streets. It made an exception for buildings on business streets 160 feet wide along which buildings were permitted to be up to 130 feet tall.

In 1910 the act was amended restricting the height of any building to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet. Therefore a building facing a 130-foot-wide street could now be 150 feet tall. Other stipulations allowed for under certain conditions unoccupied spires, domes, towers, minarets, pinnacles, ventilation shafts, chimneys, smokestacks, penthouses over elevator shafts and fire sprinkler tanks be erected to a greater height if approved by the Mayor and of fireproof construction.

While Washington’s skyline rarely tops the 12th floor there a few tall exceptions listed in order of height. The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (329-feet) ranks behind the Washington Monument. The Old Post Office Building (315-feet) with clock tower is next then the Washington National Cathedral (301-feet). The tallest commercial building is One Franklin Square (210-feet) ranked the 6th tallest after the US Capitol. While some contend this lack of vertical growth has contributed to greater sprawl, it is certain the many monuments of Washington DC are not overshadowed.

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