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First Posted: Nov 13, 2012
Jan 31, 2015

Heights of Buildings Act of 1910/Washington, DC

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Construction of the Cairo Hotel resulted in the proposal and passing of the act.

The Heights of Buildings Act of 1910 (DC ST § 6-601) was an Act of Congress passed by the 61st United States Congress on June 1, 1910 to limit the height of buildings in Washington, D.C. The original act was passed in 1899 when the 55th United States Congress passed the Heights of Buildings Act of 1899. The original act restricted the heights of any type of building in the United States capital city of Washington, D.C., to be no higher than 110 feet (90 feet for residential buildings). In 1910, the 61st United States Congress enacted a new law limiting building heights to the width of the right-of-way of the street or avenue on which a building fronts, which is the main law presented by this act.

Background

In response to the construction of the 164-foot (50-meter) Cairo Hotel in 1894, D.C. Commissioners issued height regulations for buildings in D.C., limiting their height to 90 feet (27 m) for residential and 110 feet (34 m) for business, or to the width of the street in front, whatever was smaller. The original Height of Buildings Act, passed by Congress in 1899, removed the front street restriction, but reaffirmed limiting buildings to 90 feet (27 m) on residential streets and 110 feet (34 m) on business streets. It also made an exception for buildings on business streets 160 feet (49 m) wide, which were permitted to be 130 feet (40 m) tall. The 1899 act was amended in 1910 to add the restriction that the height of any building would be limited to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet (6.1 m) up to a maximum of 90 feet (27 m) on residential streets, 130 feet (40 m) on commercial streets, and 160 feet (49 m) on a small portion of Pennsylvania Avenue; thus, a building facing a 90-foot (27 m)-wide commercial street could be 120 feet (37 m) tall.

Section 5

The amendment contains nine sections, though Section 5 enforces the restriction of heights of buildings in the city. Section 5 of the Building Height Amendment Act of 1910, 36 Stat. 452 (formerly codified as amended at D.C. Code Ann. § 5-405 (1994)) ("Height Act"), contains limitations on the permissible heights of buildings in the District of Columbia. Those limitations depend on the width of the street on which a building will front, and on whether the street is a business or a residential street. In addition, the Height Act provides that the maximum height of buildings on blocks adjacent to public buildings "shall be regulated by a schedule adopted by the Council of the District of Columbia." Since 1910, the Commissioners of the District of Columbia, and subsequently the Council, have exercised their authority to set such further height limitations under a Schedule of Heights in 15 different areas of the District adjacent to public buildings, including the blocks around the White House, the Supreme Court building, and the congressional office buildings.

Section 5 of the Height Act, as amended, provides in pertinent part: (a) No building shall be erected, altered, or raised in the District of Columbia in any manner so as to exceed in height above the sidewalk the width of the street, avenue, or highway in its front, increased by 20 feet (6.1 m); but where a building or proposed building confronts a public space or reservation formed at the intersection of 2 or more streets, avenues, or highways, the course of which is not interrupted by said public space or reservation, the limit of height of the building shall be determined from the width of the widest street, avenue, or highway. (b) No buildings shall be erected, altered, or raised in any manner as to exceed the height of 130 feet (40 m) on a business street or avenue...except on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue between 1st and 15th Streets Northwest, where an extreme height of 160 feet (49 m) will be permitted. (c) On a residence street, avenue, or highway no building shall be erected, altered, or raised in any manner so as to be over 90 feet (27 m) in height at the highest part of the roof or parapet...(d) The height of a building on a corner lot will be determined by the width of the wider street. . . . . (f) On blocks immediately adjacent to public buildings or to the side of any public building for which plans have been prepared and money appropriated at the time of the application for the permit to construct said building, the maximum height shall be regulated by a schedule adopted by the Council of the District of Columbia. (g) Buildings erected after June 1, 1910, to front or abut on the plaza in front of the new Union Station provided for by Act of Congress approved February 28, 1903, shall be fireproof and shall not be of a greater height than 80 feet (24 m). (h) Spires, towers, domes, minarets, pinnacles, penthouses over elevator shafts, ventilation shafts, chimneys, smokestacks, and fire sprinkler tanks may be erected to a greater height than any limit prescribed in this subchapter when and as the same may be approved by the Mayor of the District of Columbia; provided, however, that such structures when above such limit of height shall be fireproof, and no floor or compartment thereof shall be constructed or used for human occupancy above the top story of the building upon which such structures are placed; and provided, that penthouses, ventilation shafts, and tanks shall be set back from the exterior walls distances equal to their respective heights above the adjacent roof; and provided further, that a building be permitted to be erected to a height not to exceed 130 feet (40 m) on lots 15, 804, and 805, square 322, located on the southeast corner of 12th and E Streets Northwest, said building to conform in height and to be used as an addition to the hotel building located to the east thereof on lot 18, square 322; and further provided, that the building to be erected on lots 813, 814, and 820, in square 254, located on the southeast corner of 14th and F Streets Northwest, be permitted to be erected to a height not to exceed 140 feet (43 m) above the F Street curb; and provided further, that the building to be erected on property known as the Dean Tract, comprising nine and one-fourth acres, bounded on the west by Connecticut Avenue and Columbia Road, on the south by Florida Avenue, and the east by 19th Street, and on the north by a property line running east and west 564 feet (172 m) in length, said building to cover an area not exceeding 14,000 square feet (1,300 m2) and to be located on said property not less than 40 feet (12 m) distant from the north property line, not less than 320 feet (98 m) distant from the Connecticut Avenue property line, not less than 160 feet (49 m) distant from the 19th Street property line, and not less than 360 feet (110 m) distant from the Florida Avenue line, measured at the point on the Florida Avenue boundary where the center line of 20th Street meets said boundary, be permitted to be erected to a height not to exceed 180 feet (55 m) above the level of the existing grade at the center of the location above described; and provided further, that the design of said building and the layout of said ground be subject to approval by the Fine Arts Commission and the National Capital Planning Commission, both of the District of Columbia; and further provided, that the building to be erected by the Georgetown University for a hospital as a part of the Georgetown University Medical School on parcels 28/31, 28/36 and 28/37 located on the south side of Reservoir Road Northwest in the District of Columbia, approximately opposite 39th Street, plans for which building are on file in the Office of the Inspector of Buildings of the District of Columbia, be permitted to be erected to a height of not to exceed 110 feet (34 m) above the finished grade of the land, as shown on said plans, at the middle of the front of the building. óD.C. Code Ann § 6-601.05

For the other eight sections, see DC ST § 6-601.

Tallest buildings in Washington, D.C.

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View of the east side of the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, completed in 1959, was granted an exemption to the law by the District Zoning Commission. The National Shrine stands as the tallest building in Washington, D.C., excluding the Washington Monument. When the original act was passed in 1899, the Old Post Office Building was grandfathered in, and remains as the tallest high-rise federal building in the city. The tallest commercial building in Washington, D.C. (another one granted an exception) is One Franklin Square, the fifth highest building in the city, which was completed in 1989 and rises to 210 feet (64 m).

For More Information:

CBS/Planners to study DC building height restrictions

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