Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Who Needs A Skyline Filled With Skyscrapers Anyways

There are two things most major American cities have in common, silly laws and skyscrapers, among other things as well, but that is another topic. For example, New York City's tallest building is One World Trade Center at 1776 feet, and the city has a law, which has probably never been enforced, were a fine of $25 can be levied for flirting. In Chicago, the tallest building is the Willis Tower, aka the Sears Tower, at 1451 feet and a city ordinance that kites may not be flown within the city limits. In Los Angeles the tallest building is the U.S. Bank Tower standing at 1018 feet and just in case you were wondering it is still illegal for dogs to mate within 500 yards of a church. I think you are getting the point, but could there be a major American city that set a height limit on its buildings? Doesn't that sound kind of un-American? Well, there is such a city and that city is ironically, Washington DC and it's Heights Building Act of 1910.

Most people have heard that buildings in Washington DC can not stand higher that the Capital Building. This is where fact meets myth. It is true there is a height restriction but the limit is not the Capital Building. In reality the law comes from the previous Heights of Building Act of 1899, that and the construction of the Cairo Apartment Building. The Cairo was built in 1894 and was 12 stories higher than the surrounding buildings, and stood at 164 feet tall. This caused two things to happen, first residents of DC freak out and dub the build "Schneider's Folly," after the buildings designer, Thomas Franklin Schneider. Second the upset residents petitioned Congress to stop other potential "skyscrapers" from being built. The Heights Act of 1899 was passed and enforced under the idea that the new technologies used in building these "skyscrapers' were untested and ultimately doomed to fail. Not wanting the nation's capital to become a chaotic scene of destruction from faulty construction the law stood and no residential building could pass 90 feet, while commercial buildings were allowed to be as high as 110 feet.

By 1910, Washington DC was growing and the city need more building space. Instead of scraping the Heights Act of 1899 they simply amended it. Section 5 was added in 1910 and made a few adjustments.I won't bore you with the measurement details but basically buildings in DC would now be allowed to be built a few feet taller and wider, but it depended on where the building was as well. Now, why did the city wait ten years later to change their building codes? Well, the building techniques were shown to be safe and the city wished to keep up with the architectural times of the 1910s. But it's been over 100 years since the Act was put into law, so why has there never been a push to build up the skyline of our nations capital?

There have been several attempts to change the Heights Act of 1910 since its enacting, but they have all been turned down. The most notable was in 1991 when Congress disapproved of a DC Council law that would amend the Heights Act. Most recently in 2012 there was the "Changes to the Height Act: Shaping Washington, D.C., for the Future" hearing. Once they hearing is completed, which should have been on November 14th of 2013, the finalized outline and documents will be given to the chairman Darrell Issa (R) of California for a possible update of the Heights Act. Along with lawmakers, developers have been licking the chops and can hardly hold control themselves when it comes to the idea of building in DC. The developers claim that amending the Heights Act will benefit the city and at the same time update it. But local residents beg to differ claiming that the law has made DC a unique place unlike any other nations capital and they also don't seem to mind the city being so short either.

The idea that Washington DC's skyline has been effected by the Heights Act of 1910 is just bunk. And the idea that buildings in DC can not be built higher than the Capital Building is also just silly. However, the idea has been spread by articles in the Washington Post, The American Surveyor Magazine and even the WE Love DC blog which just proves that these guys just don't know how to fact check. But, back to DC's skyline. The skyline of DC is something unique in America. Instead of being lined with buildings that are a testament to making money, the DC skyline is filled with buildings and monuments that are a testament to America. When you walk around the city and look up and see the Capital Building's dome, the Washington Monument or the National Archives Building you see structures that honor the spirit of America. Or if you see the Cairo Hotel, the Old Post Office Pavilion or  Healy Hall you can see architectural history come to life without straining your neck. The idea the DC needs to have buildings as tall as New York or Chicago or Los Angeles is wrong. DC is the nationals capital and should have a certain aesthetic to it, tree lined streets, open spaces, clear skies, a vibrant city that all, Americans and visitors, can enjoy and not just another concrete jungle. Sometimes simplicity is the best design.

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