Geographically, downtown Washington is broadly considered to be anything north of Constitution Avenue - this tour takes in the part of downtown between Pennsylvania Avenue and Massachusetts Avenue between the Capitol and the White House. It is a land of office buildings and hotels, Chinatown and the Verizon Center, home of Washington’s professional indoor sports teams.
Unlike other large cities in America, Washington’s downtown has a low skyline. In 1899, Congress passed the Heights of Buildings Act in response to the 14-story Cairo apartment tower, which at the time was reviled as a monstrosity overshadowing its Dupont Circle neighborhood. (It is now admired as one of Washington’s most beautiful residential buildings.) The original law limited buildings to the height of the Capitol, but was amended in 1910 to the width of the adjacent street plus 20 feet, so a building facing a 90-foot-wide street could be only 110 feet tall. The basic intent was the same: No skyscrapers.
The result is a boxy appearance to the streetscape - as you walk around you can see older buildings that had extra floors built on their roofs to maximize the space allotted to them by law. The tallest commercial building in Washington DC is at One Franklin Square, only 210 feet high.
Our walking tour will begin at its northernmost point, in Mount Vernon Square...
Mount Vernon Square, south side
The movement to provide a public library for Washingtonians began in the mid-1890s. In 1896, after considerable citizen effort led by Evening Star publisher Theodore Noyes and others, Congress passed a bill to establish a free public library and reading room in the city. About that time Andrew Carnegie was selling his U.S. Steel Company for $400 million and was looking for ways to give away his money. One of his pet projects was libraries; he would eventually fund some 2,700 of them around the world, including $375,000 for this one on Mount Vernon Square. New York architects William S. Ackerman and Albert Randolph Ross provided the Beaux Arts design and the first books were checked out in 1903. Today the classically inspired building does duty for theHistorical Society of Washington, D.C.
WALK DOWN NEW YORK AVENUE TOWARDS THE WHITE HOUSE.
Greyhound Bus Terminal
1100 New York Avenue
This splash of Art Deco appeared on the Washington streetscape in 1940, based on the streamlined designs of Louisville-based architect William Arrasmith. The terminal came to be known as the “Ellis Island of Washington” since it welcomed so many African Americans moving from the American South. The limestone and terra-cotta terminal endured an insensitive makeover in the 1970s that so infuriated preservationists that a new way of landmarking a building was invented - 42 feet of the old station were saved and restored.
National Museum of Women in the Arts
New York Avenue and 13th Street, NW
The Grand Lodge of Free And Accepted Masons of the District of Columbia was established in 1811 with Valentine Reintzel as its first Grand Master. In the intervening two centuries 40 Lodges have formed across the region. The Masons, the world’s oldest fraternal organization, moved into this limestone and granite trapezoid in 1908, liberally decorated with Masonic symbols. The Neoclassical hall survived a stretch of vacancy and indifference and lives on as a museum.
TURN LEFT ON 13TH STREET NW. TURN RIGHT ON G STREET NW.
Church of the Epiphany
1317 G Street, NW
An organization meeting on the Feast of the Epiphany in 1842 gave the parish its name. The following year the town’s leading church builder, John C. Harkness, got busy erecting a one-story brick building for the congregation. In 1857, local architect A.B. Young constructed a new tower, transepts on the east and west of the nave, a shallow chancel and added gas lighting. Celebrated church designer Henry Dudley came down from New York City in 1874 to beef up the building’s dimensions to its present appearance.
1341 G Street, NW
It is hard to find many flat spaces on this exuberant 10-story yellow brick and limestone confection, the handiwork of New York architect Ralph S. Townsend in 1922.
TURN RIGHT ON 14TH STREET NW. TURN LEFT ON NEW YORK AVENUE.
14th Street and New York Avenue NW
Another decorative corner landmark, the Bond Building was designed in 1901 by George S. Cooper. It was among the first commercial spaces downtown that had additional floors added to its height to take advantage of relaxed zoning restrictions in the late 19th century.
TURN RIGHT ON 15TH STREET NW.
W.B. Hibbs and Company Building/Folger Building
725-727 15th Street NW
French-born architect Jules Henri de Sibour executed this tasty French Second Empire mid-block building in white marble for a brokerage firm in 1907. The decorative entrance next door fronting an unadorned modern addition is the remnant of the Playhouse Theater, designed by Paul Pelz.
TURN AROUND AND WALK DOWN 15TH STREET NW.
PNC Bank/Bank of America
1501 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
Occupying one of the most prestigious corners in the capital city, this bank was built in the shadow of the White House in the early 1900s by America’s foremost bank architects, Edward York and Philip Sawyer. In fact, the building could be glimpsed on the back of the old $10 bill that featured an engraving of the Treasury Building across the street.
National Savings and Trust Company
15th Street and New York Avenue, NW
This Victorian respite from its Neoclassical neighbors slipped into the neighborhood in 1888. Philadelphia architect James Windrim drew up the plans for the Queen Anne-styled vault, executed in red brick with copper and terra-cotta trim. More than twelve decades later bank deposits are still being taken here.
Old Ebbitt Grill
675 15th Street
Established in 1856, Old Ebbitt Grill, just a few steps from the White House, was a favorite of Presidents Grant, Cleveland, Harding and Theodore Roosevelt and is still a popular meeting spot for political insiders and pundits. Its Beaux-Arts facade, mahogany and velvet booths and bars set in marble, brass and beveled glass are Washington at its finest and The Oyster Bar is one of the town’s most famous noshing spots.
15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
The Neoclassical hostelry was built in 1917 by master New York architects John Carrère and Thomas Hastings. Look up to see images of United States Presidents along a frieze under the cornice. The rooftop terrace of the Hotel Washington took star turns for Hollywood in the sequel nonpareil, The Godfather Part II, and the 1987 Kevin Costner and Gene Hackman thriller, No Way Out.
TURN LEFT ON PENNSYLVANIA AVENUE.
1401-1409 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW
American author Nathaniel Hawthorne observed in the 1860s that “the Willard Hotel more justly could be called the center of Washington than either the Capitol or the White House or the State Department.” The site upon which the Willard stands was originally part of the farm of David Burnes. In 1816 John Tayloe built a row of six two-story-and-attic houses as an investment but by 1818 the corner was being used as a hotel. In 1847 Benjamin Ogle Tayloe leased the establishment to Henry A. Willard and his brother, Edwin. After several expansions over the next 50 years, at the turn of the century, the Willard underwent a massive transformation. When New York architect Henry Janeway Hardenbergh was finished Washington had its first skyscraper. Presidents Taylor, Fillmore, Pierce, Buchanan, Lincoln, Grant, Taft, Wilson, Coolidge and Harding and scores of celebrities all signed the guest register at the Willard. Walt Whitman included the hotel in his verses and Mark Twain wrote two books there in the early 1900s. It was Vice President Thomas R. Marshall, irritated at the Willard’s inflated prices, who coined the phrase “What this country needs is a good 5-cent cigar.”
TURN LEFT ON 14TH STREET NW.
National Press Building
529 14th Street NW
In 1925, National Press Club president Henry L. Sweinhart negotiated with the Ebbitt Hotel which allowed the Ebbitt to move to the Albee building and allowing the National Press Club to demolish the hotel to build the National Press Building. The building included shops and office space for Washington news bureaus while the Club nestled into the 13th and 14th floors. In order to increase their funding, the National Press Club struck a deal with Fox to build a theatre (now the National Theater on Pennsylvania Avenue) as part of the building. The National Press Building opened its doors in August of 1927.
1401 F Street NW
33-year old Julius Garfinckel went into the mercantile business in 1905, originally employing 10 clerks. By 1929 the company was spending $2,000,000 to open this flagship store. The Washington retailing institution made it to 1990 before going the way of so many big downtown department stores into bankruptcy. Placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995, Garfinckel’s has been redeveloped into a modern office building and shopping center.
TURN RIGHT F STREET NW.
Baltimore Sun Building
1317 F Street NW
When Alfred Bult Mullett was 32 years old in 1866 he was named head of the agency of the United States Treasury Department that designed federal government buildings. His tenure was a stormy one, wrapped in controversy for the elaborately showy Victorian piles he produced, most notably the French Second Empire Executive Office Building next to the White House. Mullett shepherded 40 government buildings to completion - the ones still standing are celebrated today but in their time were often branded “monstrosities.” In financial distress, Mullett took his own life in 1890. This commercial building from Mullett with oriel windows climbing the facade from the street to the roofline is an 1887 creation.
TURN RIGHT ON 10TH STREET NW.
511 10th Street, NW
This three-story brick structure moved from the obscurity of one of John T. Ford’s theater properties into American infamy on the night of April 14, 1865, while the President Abraham Lincoln and Mrs. Lincoln were attending a performance of the play, Our American Cousin. Actor and Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth burst into the presidential box and committed the first presidential assassination in the country’s history. The National Park Service acquired the theater, that began life in 1833 as the First Baptist Church, in 1933. Today only the exterior walls remain from the 19th century theater and the entire interior has been reconstructed to recreate its appearance on the night of the assassination.
516 10th Street, NW
The Petersen House is the house where Lincoln died. At the time of Lincoln’s death, the house across from Ford’s Theater was owned by William A. Petersen, a German tailor. Petersen constructed the plain, red brick three-story and basement townhouse in 1849. The National Park Service acquired the house in 1933, and has maintained it as a historic house museum, recreating the scene at the time of Lincoln’s death.
TURN AROUND, CROSS F STREET NW AND TURN RIGHT ON G STREET NW.
Martin Luther King Memorial Library
901 G Street, NW
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, the main building of the District of Columbia Public Library, opened in August 1972. It replaced the original Carnegie Library, where we started in Mount Vernon Square.
TURN RIGHT ON 9TH STREET NW.
Old Masonic Temple
901 F Street, NW; northeast corner of 9th Street
This picturesque Italian Renaissance palazzo was a big deal when it was built in 1868. Fourteen United States presidents were Masons and Andrew Johnson laid the cornerstone. German-born architects Adolf Cluss and Joseph Wildrich von Kammerhueber, who did much to shape the mid-19th century Washington streetscape, availed themselves of a $100,000 building fund to adorn the facade with multi-colored stone and cast-iron. Some of the capital’s toniest banquets took place here until the Masons left in 1908. The next century wasn’t treated the once-grand hall roughly but it has lately been taken over and preserved by the Gallup Organization.
Riggs National Bank
900 F Street, NW; northwest corner of 9th Street
James G. Hill followed Alfred Mullett as the head of the Office of the Supervising Architect of the United States Department of the Treasury and served from 1876 to 1883. He was accustomed to developing beefy office buildings like this Romanesque-styled effort which he executed in granite and brick in 1891. Riggs Bank traces its roots to a brokerage operated by William Wilson Corcoran. George Washington Riggs bought into the business in 1840 and eventually became known as “The President’s Banker.” Twenty-three United States Presidents or their families maintained accounts at Riggs.
Le Droit Building
southwest corner of 8th and F streets, NW
Designed in 1875 by James McGill in the Italianate commercial style, the Le Droit Building displays such hallmarks of the style as richly decorated window hoods and ornate roof brackets. Its first tenants included J. Bradley Adams and William H. Boyd (publisher of Boyd’s Directory), a barber, two auctioneers, various agents, twenty lawyers and others, including the architect, James McGill until 1880. It is one of the few large office structures from the 1800s without an elevator to survive until today when it is home to the International Spy Museum.
TURN LEFT ON F STREET NW.
Old Patent Office/National Portrait Gallery
8th and F streets, NW
William Elliott and Robert Mills, the first American-born professional architect, teamed to design and build the Patent Office Building, the third-oldest federal building in Washington, in 1836. The superb portico by Mills is supposedly an exact replica of the Greek Parthenon. Mills died in 1855 with the structure still unfinished and it took a small army of new architects and another dozen years to complete the city’s largest office building at that time. Despite several fires, it has been occupied by a succession of government agencies, including the Patent Office, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (where poet Walt Whitman was briefly employed as a clerk), and the Civil Service Commission. While it was the Patent Office, displays of patent models in galleries on the top floor could be said to be the city’s first museum.
4th and F streets, NW
Designed by Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C. Meigs, an innovator in 19th-century building technology, in 1881, critics derided the Pension Building as “Meigs old red barn.” Today, the Italian Renaissance Revival composition is acknowledged as one of the District’s undisputed architectural masterpieces. Meigs designed the building to provide natural air-conditioning and light for its employees. By using air vents in the exterior walls hot air was encouraged to escape through the skylights in the roof. The Great Hall boasts massive Corinthian piers that are among the tallest interior columns in the world. An act of Congress in 1980 turned the Pension Building into the National Building Museum, celebrating architecture, design, engineering, construction and urban planning.
TURN LEFT ON 3RD STREET NW.
Adas Israel Synagogue
701 3rd Street, NW
This is Washington’s oldest synagogue, dedicated in 1876. The building originally stood at 600 5th Street but the congregation left in 1908, leaving title to the District. Facing a date with the wrecking ball, the government gave the historic structure to the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Washington if they would move it. And so it came here. The exterior decoration is limited to whimsical iron fence.
TURN LEFT ON H STREET NW.
7th and H streets, NW
The world’s largest single-span Chinese arch forms the gateway to an array of colorful restaurants. Alfred Liu designed this huge seven-roofed, wooden archway at the behest of the governments of Washington, DC, and the Municipality of Beijing, Washington’s sister city. The Chinese characters on the arch read, “zhongguo cheng” - from left to right - which means Chinese city or Chinese quarters. Each winter, the Chinese New Year is celebrated in grand fashion with a parade and firecrackers, drawing crowds from the entire metropolitan area.
TURN RIGHT ON 7TH STREET NW TO RETURN TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT MOUNT VERNON SQUARE.