The Debunker: Why Does Washington, D.C. Have Its Strict Limit on Building Height?

by Ken Jennings

On August 28, 1565, the feast day of St. Augustine, a Spanish admiral named Pedro Menéndez de Avilés sighted land in Florida. His men founded a settlement there which is still called St. Augustine, making it the oldest European-founded city in the United States. This August, we've asked Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings to cast his keen, cosmopolitan eye on American cities coast to coast, the better to debunk some misinformation about them that's as old as the hills, almost as old as St. Augustine itself.

The Debunker: Why Does Washington, D.C. Have Its Strict Limit on Building Height?

Visitors to the nation's capital often remark on Washington's broad boulevards and lovely vistas of the city's monuments, just like city planner Pierre L'Enfant drew things up in 1791. Washington's spacious vibe wasn't a happy accident; it was a result of Congress passing the Height of Buildings Act of 1899, which keeps high-rise development out of the District of Columbia. As many Washingtonians will tell you, backed by any number of books and articles and tourism bureaus, this far-sighted measure was taken to preserve the supremacy of the city's landmarks—by law, they say, no building in town can be higher than the Capitol dome. But that's not why the height limit was enacted at all.

The Debunker

The minutes for Congressional debate on the 1899 Height of Buildings Act are freely available, and the height of the Capitol dome was not mentioned once. Instead, the lawmakers we worried about safety. Steel-framed skyscrapers were a new development, and it was widely believed that they were a dangerous fad. "The life of these structures might not be more than seventy-five years!" one senator fretted that same year.

Cities were also worried about fire safety, since buildings were exceeding, for the first time, the reach of fire hoses. Note that the Height of Buildings Act did not limit Washington buildings to 289 feet, the height of the Capitol dome. Instead, it chose a much lower ceiling of 130 feet, borrowed from the fire safety codes that cities like Chicago and Boston had instituted at the same time. The invention of sprinkler systems and other new safety technologies led most American cities to repeal their limits, but Washington stood firm, since residents liked the "light and airy" character that Thomas Jefferson famously wanted for the city. Today, when historians mention the fire safety facts, Washingtonians tend to rankle. If outmoded fears about skyscrapers are revealed to be the real reason for the law, then it could get repealed…and what would happen to their views and property values then?

Quick Quiz: Due to the ego of Huey Long, what U.S. state's Capitol is a 450-foot Art Deco skyscraper, and not a dome at all?

Ken Jennings is the author of eleven books, most recently his Junior Genius Guides, Because I Said So!, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.