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Saturday
Aug162008

The Other Washington DC

I liked Washington DC when I was 15 years old.  At 20, a sophomore in Architecture School, I decided it was one of the best places in the US.  At 34, now well traveled domestically and abroad, and a nearby resident for 16 months, I am thoroughly convinced that  Washington DC is one of the most marvelous places in the United States.

However, it is not just the monumental core with acres of parkland and free museums. The residential neighborhoods and small commercial centers, the majestic small bridges, the true parkways -- these are off the beaten tourist path, but they resound with a vitality and beauty found far too rarely in American cities.

Rowhouses near Dupont Circle in Washington, DC

 

To be sure, there are parts of the city and neighboring suburbs that are not at all praiseworthy.  But tonight, I spent the evening walking around quiet but vibrant neighborhoods with magnificent architecture, busy restaurants, stores open late.  And you could still hear the crickets chirping.

Notably, the regulations which helped to shape this now-wonderful city were met with skepticism and complaint over the centuries.  George Washington may have been the first to create "architectural standards" for a neigborhood in the US. 

 "Long, rectangular lots were platted specifically to promote contiguously fronted buildings, but individual rowhouses initially outnumbered continuous rows built by developers. Both groups were governed by the city's building regulations, first enunciated by President Washington's proclamation of 17 October 1791 and amended frequently over the next two centuries.
The original eight articles stipulated building materials (brick and stone for party walls), access by city officials to regulate common areas, and two design criteria. The heights of houses were limited to forty feet with those built on the avenues to be at least 35 feet tall. All buildings were to be parallel to the streets, but set backs could be determined by the "improvers." (Pamela Scott. see link below for this text in it's original article)

For vastly more detail on Washington's oft-ignored residential splendor, visit this page from the Library of Congress.

http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/adecenter/essays/Scott.html

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