Is There Really a Law in Washington D.C. That No Building Can Be As Tall As the Washington Monument?

Here is the latest in a series of examinations into urban legends related to architecture and whether they are true or false. Click here to view an archive of the architecture urban legends featured so far.

ARCHITECTURE URBAN LEGEND: There is a law in Washington D.C. that states that no building be as tall as the Washington Monument.

A common “fact” that gets bandied about often when visiting the District of Columbia is that there is a law that states that no building in Washington D.C. be as tall as the Washington Monument.

Is that true?

It IS true that there are no buildings in Washington D.C. as tall as the 555 foot tall Washington Monument, and it is also true that the heights of buildings within the district ARE restricted. However, the two are not necessarily connected.

I say “necessarily” because, yes, since there IS a restriction on the heights of buildings, then, by extension, there is, in fact, a law that keeps buildings shorter than the Washington Monument. The law just happens to not invoke the monument at all.

The original Height of Buildings Act was passed by the United States Congress in 1899 (in response to the building of the Cairo Hotel in 1894, the 164 foot building was surely only the first in a number of buildings designed to, well, scrape the sky), and at the time, it used the United States Capitol, not the Washington Monument, as its measurement.

This was later adapted by the 1910 version of the Act (D.C. Code § 6-601.05), which is the current version.

Under the current law, buildings are restricted to be no taller than 20 feet higher than the width of the adjacent street (with further restrictions the closer you get to the White House). There have been a few exceptions made over the years, mostly for religious buildings.

So yes, due to the law, the Washington Monument remains the tallest structure in Washington D.C., but that is coincidence, not intention.

The legend is…

STATUS: False, but in practice, True

Feel free (heck, I implore you!) to write in with your suggestions for future installments! My e-mail address is [email protected]

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