The skyscraper is a signature American building, and every burg aspiring to the status of major city has several, except one — Washington.
The national capital lacks America’s trademark towers because it imposes height limits on buildings. The result has been a spacious, airy, sunlit city with a low skyline punctuated by the U.S. Capitol and the Washington Monument.
The custom of height restrictions in the capital goes back to its founder, George Washington, and the open plan of Pierre L’Enfant, but it didn’t become actual law until 1910.
The law was passed after Congress became alarmed at the construction of the Cairo Hotel in 1894, which made it by far the city’s tallest privately owned building and to this day there is none taller. Since then, the height limit has effectively been 130 feet with some 160-foot exceptions.
The legend is that Congress wanted the 555-foot Washington Monument to remain the tallest building in the capital and it did not want the 288-foot Capitol dome eclipsed by surrounding taller buildings.
That’s probably giving Congress credit for being more visionary than it in fact was, but now those early fears are not so unrealistic. Almost insidiously, there is a move afoot to abolish the height limits for all the usual reasons behind increased development, including the lure of increased tax revenues for the city.
And there is something of a land pinch in downtown Washington, with several buildings with room under the height cap adding floors. But by the same token, the lack of available land downtown has pushed development into blighted, underused light industrial areas.
One plan being quietly bruited would remove the height restrictions only around subway stops, but as The Washington Post noted, the residents around one busy stop are fiercely protesting plans for a 79-foot building. Our national capital is a distinctive and quite beautiful city. Let’s hope the residents, Congress, the tourists and the preservationists can keep it that way.