I’ve visited Washington DC several times as a kid and now, I work there. Something that always struck me as fascinating was that there were/are no tall buildings in the city. So, I was curious and decided to look it up!
The Tallest Building
If you go by pure height, the tallest structure is the Washington Monument at 555 feet. However, I wouldn’t really consider that a “building”, would you? It’s just more of a landmark to me.
If you look at structures that have successive habitable floors (which means you can move around a little), the tallest building is the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception (phew). The building is also the largest Catholic Church in America. It “towers” 329 feet into the air. For comparison, the tallest building in the US is the
Sears Willis Tower in Chicago which stands 1,451 feet. So, why are the buildings so short in Washington DC?
Heights of Buildings Act of 1910
Hop in the way back machine and let me take you to the late 1800’s. After the construction of the Cairo Hotel in 1894 (164 feet!), Congress felt it necessary to limit the height of the buildings in the city with the Heights of Buildings Act. There are several conspiracy theories out there as to why this Act was put in place. People say it was to ensure that the Washington Monument remained the tallest structure while others claim it was so you could still see the Capital from several locations throughout the city. However, most say it was just to limit the height of buildings so the city could be low key, sort of like Paris.
The law itself is still in affect today and is debated frequently. Basically, it limits the height of the building to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet (oh you lawmakers!). So, a building facing a 100 foot wide street can be up to 120 feet tall.
Does the Law Cause a Higher Cost of Living?
This question gets brought up quite frequently. Since the law limits the size of residential buildings such as apartments and condos, it also limits the amount of space to fit residents (hence it being a large commuting city). People argue that if they just lift this “ban”, the surrounding area around the city would be less congested. If you’ve ever been stuck in traffic on the beltway, you know what I mean!
photo by: Big Berto