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What’s The Tallest Building In Washington, DC?

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.

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Yep, that is the tallest in DC.

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!

~ Adam

Additional Reading:

Heights of Buildings Act

Debate on High Rises in DC

photo by: Big Berto


3 Responses to What’s The Tallest Building In Washington, DC?

  1. Cory says:

    Do you know of any other cities in the US that have similar laws? I feel like a lot of other big cities do not have the towering sky scrapers like you see in New York and wondered if it is because of laws like this.

    • Adam says:

      I couldn’t find anything about other cities. I did see that some of them had height restrictions before but they later abolished the law. I think Chicago and Boston had them.

  2. Crystal says:

    I’ve never actually been to D.C. but I would have asked the same question about all the low buildings because I’ve never known of a tall one in or really around the city that has ever made a headline (as NY has many that get mentioned). Interesting facts about the laws on the height requirements! lol

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