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On the Shelf – D.C.’s Building Height Restrictions

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I never know where the inspiration of an On the Shelf post will come from.

Today’s stems from a patron request for an item which Ann Hemmens subsequently brought back to me for preservation work.

As the 1941 D.C. Building Code sat on my desk, I thought about how many times I’ve told friends and family touring our nation’s capital that no building can overshadow the Washington Monument, therefore there were strict height limits on buildings.

So I perused the code. Nowhere did I find mention of the Washington Monument. But I did find some incredibly detailed regulations regarding maximum building heights. Along with information about residential and commercial buildings, there are 17 paragraphs describing the rules for “buildings adjacent to public buildings.” Though not specifically stated, each of these regulations keeps building heights well below that of the Monument.

District of Columbia Building Code, §102 (1941). Photo by Betty Lupinacci.

The section also referenced the promulgating U.S. statute: An Act To regulate the height of buildings in the District of Columbia, ch. 322, 30 Stat (1899). The statute does not specifically mention the Washington Monument either, but limits heights to 110 feet – far less than the 555 foot monument.

As a last resort, I thought I’d take a quick look at the Congressional Record to see if there were any reasons given for the restrictions in the remarks of the representative who had introduced the 1899 bill. Not only was there no mention, the Record did not delve into any discussion or opening remarks regarding this bill, simply stating that the bill was introduced.

I did however, find mention of a House Report (H.R.Rep. No. 55-1704 (1898)), which focuses solely on safety issues, stating that:

The question of limiting the height of buildings is comparatively a recent one. lt is only in late years that buildings have been erected to such heights and in such numbers as to attract serious public attention, and the high buildings themselves have not yet had that test of time necessary to convince the more conservative of the entire safety and lasting power of the class of construction employed in their erection. In general terms, they are constructed of iron or steel framework with a veneer of brick or stone, all electric light and power wires and pipes for steam, gas, water, etc., being carried up through the structural ironwork. The metal is hidden from view, where it is subject to corrosion and electrolytic action, which could easily cause serious and fatal defects before its presence became known. In view of these conditions the best authorities agree that under unfavorable circumstances the life of these structures might not be more than seventy five years.

So maybe the original height restrictions weren’t related to the Washington Monument, but what about later amendments to the code?  Searching a bit further, I found another House Report, this one from the 113th Congress (H.R.Rep. No. 113-418 (2014).). In it, they describe the legislative history behind the bill being proposed, stating that:

Although the popular belief is that Congress acted to preserve and protect views of the monuments, memorials, and other significant national landmarks in the city, it is more likely that the principal cause for legislation was to address environmental and public safety concerns, as the concept of “skyscrapers” was still new to the country.

Hmmm. Maybe it’s time to rethink my tour guide patter.



  1. 08 November 2017

    Good morning Ms.Betty Lupinacci:

    I thank you for sharing your information concerning building height restrictions imposed in the D. of C. I too always understood that such height restrictions were in the building code, but there was always doubt as to what those restrictions imposed. I recall idle discussions with other lawyers and came away with the idea that the building’s roof height was a measurement calculated as a function of the width of the street (curb to curb width) that the proposed building was to face on.

    I do want to know as a certainty what the current code provides and will make time to read to code now that you bring the subject up.

    Thank you kindly, Ms. Lupinacci.

    Warren E. Brown, Esq.
    Washington, D. C.

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