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John Kelly's Washington

Answer Man: Wary of Heights

By John Kelly
Monday, December 6, 2004; Page C11

I n his espionage novel "Shadow Trade," Alan Furst writes: "There is a law in Washington, D.C., that no building may exceed the height of the Washington Monument, which rises thirteen stories."

At the monument's height of 555 feet, each of Furst's 13 stories would have to measure 41 feet high.

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John Thompson writes in the National Geographic Traveler guide to Washington: "In general, no city building is allowed to rise more than 20 feet higher than the width of the street on which it stands."

A third explanation holds that the maximum for District buildings is governed by the 288-foot height of "Freedom," Thomas Crawford's bronze statue atop the Capitol dome.

Which version stands tallest, truthwise?

Allan Fallow, Alexandria

Before we address the current height regulations, let us ponder the more interesting question: Why are buildings in Washington low, anyway? Why aren't they as high as those in New York, or even Baltimore, for Pete's sake?

There are those who believe the reason can be reduced to a single phrase: Blame the French.

It was George Washington himself who wrote his namesake city's first building codes, stipulating in 1791 that no building could be more than 40 feet high.

As for how our first president came to such an opinion, the wonderfully named Appleton P. Clark Jr., writing in the 1901 journal of the Columbia Historical Society, saw the handiwork of Pierre L'Enfant, the French architect responsible for the capital's overall design.

Though Clark could find no written proof that L'Enfant had urged Washington to set a height limit, "the idea of fixing the height of buildings is a French idea of long-standing." Furthermore, Clark wrote, "To repress the private citizen and make him conform to a general scheme is a Continental idea."

Maybe, but we know that Washington did consult fellow Founding Father Thomas Jefferson. And Tom, you'll recall, loved Paris. He especially loved its architecture, the way low buildings allowed for more light to reach the street and made it easier to fight fires.

As it happens, Washington's 1791 regulations were dropped in 1796. The city didn't have any height restrictions until 1877, when a law was passed limiting non-fireproof buildings to 75 feet high.

Then came the skyscraper. Its steel skeleton allowed architects to go higher and higher. And it was considered fireproof, meaning Washington's 1877 law suddenly didn't apply.

In 1894, a 14-story, 160-foot-tall apartment building called the Cairo was completed at 1615 Q St. NW. There were complaints that the Cairo blotted out the sun, casting a sinister shadow across its neighbors.

A law was quickly passed limiting a building's height to the width of the street it was on, and no higher than 90 feet on a residential street or 110 feet on a business street. The law was amended in 1910 to allow buildings to be the width of the street plus 20 feet, with a maximum of 130 feet. A special exception was made for buildings on the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue NW between First and 15th streets, which could be 160 feet high.

So why are so many buildings taller than that? Well, "street" means something different to a city planner than to a civilian. The regulations don't refer to just the part we drive cars on, but to distance from property line to property line, which includes the sidewalk in front of the building. That's how a 130-foot-tall building is allowed on a 90-foot-wide street.

Also, the 1910 law allows unoccupied decorative rooftop structures to extend above the limit. So D.C. architects are fond of tacking on spires, domes, towers, clocks, chimneys and the like to make their buildings more interesting.

For his part, Appleton Clark liked our horizontal city. He thought that Paris, and by extension Washington, was more attractive than the typical American city, "where everything is higgledy-piggledy, and where private individuals are allowed to erect huge masses overshadowing everything public and private."

Higgledy-piggledy: something to be avoided.

Hitting the Heights With Children's Hospital

Today is the one-week anniversary of my first-ever Children's Hospital campaign. If you're one of the new readers I've attracted to this corner of the Comics, it's your first-ever campaign, too.

Luckily, there are plenty of old-timers to show us the way. Their checks for $100, $50, $20 show that they recognize the important role Children's plays in the lives of children. I'm touched by their generosity. I hope you'll touch me with yours.

So far, we've raised $32,026.13. We have seven weeks to get to $600,000. Here's how to help:

Make a check or money order payable to "Children's Hospital" and mail it to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md. 21297-1390.

To contribute by credit card online, go to www.washingtonpost.com/childrenshospital and click on "Make a Donation." When you get to the Children's Hospital Foundation site, click on "Donate Now," then follow the instructions for online donation. Make sure to click on "Washington Post" in the pull-down designation window when you complete the form.

To contribute by Visa or MasterCard by phone, call Post-Haste at 301-313-2200, then punch in KIDS and follow the instructions.

Research assistant Julia Feldmeier contributed to this report. Send your questions to answerman@washpost.com.


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