D.C.’s Historic Districts and the Architecture of Gentrification

Washington, D.C. Historic DistrictsThe District of Columbia has some of the the strongest historic preservation laws of any major U.S. city with thousands of structures preserved either as individual sites or part of historic districts. In the city’s 27 historic districts, construction of any type must be approved by the city’s Historic Preservation Office. Major projects or new construction in Historic Districts must receive approval by the city’s Historic Preservation Review Board which includes citizens, architects, historians, and even an archeologist. According to their annual report for FY 2004 (the most recent available), the office reviewed 4,313 permit applications and issued 224 stop work orders for work commenced without proper approval in that year.

Since I could find no good map illustrating the city’s historic districts, I created one using city GIS data. Shown above, the map shows the districts cover large swaths of the city including Georgetown, portions of downtown, Cleveland Park, Mount Pleasant, Dupont Circle, Logal Circle, U Street, and Capitol Hill. (Click here for a closer look.) I also created this map of the Midcity neighborhoods near where I live:
Washington, D.C. Historic Districts - Midcity Neighborhoods

The city’s design guidelines for new construction in Historic Districts urges builders to design structures “compatible with the existing environment without exactly duplicating existing buildings,” meaning many new structures within historic districts generally re-use existing historic facades or carefully blend in with their surroundings. This project, located off 14th Street in the Greater U Street Historic District provides a good example of the impact of city law. Although clearly contemporary, the new structure to the right is clad in decorative brick and contains other elements linking it with the surrounding structures, and developers have preserved the facade of one row home:

Off 14th St

Just a few blocks away, just north of the Historic District boundary, many new luxury condo projects show quite different design. Thanks to high density zoning, the presence of empty lots, and a strong incentive for developers to convey excitement to condo buyers, a series of striking contemporary residential structures are rising just north of the U Street corridor. Here on Belmont Street just steps from Meridian Hill Park, the clean lines of City Overlook nestles between 19th century brick rowhomes:
Belmont St.

Farther east, just off U Street near the 9:30 Club, the Floridian and Rhapsody (pictured here) rise amid modest brick rowhomes:

Vermont and Florida

This project on V Street also shows the contrasting scale of some of the new projects in the neighborhood:

Off U Street

The neighborhood also includes a number of smaller projects in contemporary stylea. The W Street Residence, at the corner of W and 11th Streets, caught my eye:

Off U StreetOff U Street

Although such architecturally incongruous construction may offend preservation purists, it injects into the urban fabric an architectural variety and vitality I find lacking from many of the closely policed Historic Districts. What seems most important to me is not the specific architectural styles but how these new structures relate to the sidewalk, streets, and buildings around them.

For information on new condos and lofts in the region see the website DC Lofts

Author: Rob Goodspeed


  1. Tasteful modern architecture should respect neighboring building stock. Developers today tend to max our their footprint. This disrupts the clean lines laid out by Victorian and Deco developers of old and makes the new structures look offensive. Developers should follow the neighboring offsets from sidewalk to facade. Variety is good if done tastefully.

  2. Steve, do you have any examples in mind? While I agree with your comment in some cases, differences in mass and setback apply less in dense urban settings such as the neighborhoods I describe here. In many cases I think the setbacks required by suburban zoning codes actually impede a pedestrian character.

  3. Actually 43 historic districts, now.
    See: http://www.h-net.org/~dclist/histdist.html
    for maps of each.

    I’m not sure “ever-expanding” is correct interpretation of recent events. Brookland and Armesleigh Park both rejected historic district designation. Washington Heights was recently designated, and a small area near Mount Vernon Square. Lanier Heights (the residential area north of Adams Morgan) is being surveyed.

  4. Love the blog, if i may ask, what software are you using? how much does it cost? where do you get it? If it’s not a secret email me some details wouldya?

    thanks in advance!

  5. By the way, you should be able to get historic district maps and lots of other information about the Historic Preservation Review Board cases on the Historic Preservation Office website.

    Go to http://www.planning.dc.gov and click on the link for Historic Preservaiton.

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