The Story Behind Washington’s Low Skyline

Photo: Ted Eytan

Most big cities in the US are marked by towering buildings and high-rises, but that’s certainly not the case with Washington, DC. You’ll probably notice right away that DC boasts a much lower skyline than other places with a similar population.

A frequently repeated rumor says it’s because of a mandated height restriction, which limits buildings in DC to be no taller than the Capitol Dome or the Washington Monument. That description, however, is more fiction than reality.

In truth, the Height of Buildings Act does place height restrictions on structures in DC, but not ones based on existing monuments or historic buildings, alone. Instead, turn-of-the-century- act mandates that buildings are capped in height by the width of the street in which they face. 

While the original act was written in the late 1800s, it was amended in 1910. On commercial streets, it generally means capping the height at 130 feet, and for residential streets its usually capped at 90 feet. 

For reference, 130 feet is about 11 to 12 stories tall. It’s said that was the height that firefighting equipment at the time could reach. The exception, of course, is along Pennsylvania Avenue NW, where the height maximum can range up to 160 feet on certain stretches of the roadway.

The height restriction law came about for a couple of reasons. One had to do with firefighting. Most firefighting equipment at the time was designed to be used on low-rise buildings, and it was thought firefighters might have a difficult time if a building were too tall.

There was also some concern about new methods of construction. Buildings were able to be taller and lighter. That brought about concerns regarding structural integrity and longevity.

No matter the reason, buildings in DC are noticeably lower even today. Of course, it probably doesn’t hurt that a low skyline means additional opportunities to take in unique views.

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