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See DC from east of the river

Without question the most stunning and majestic perspectives of the city lie east of the Anacostia River. As we approach a new round of debates over the height limit, it's important to understand the contemporary and historic value of these astonishing sight lines.

View from atop Cedar Hill, the former home of Frederick Douglass. Photos by the author.

Views from the campuses of Cardozo High School in Northwest and McKinley Technology High School in Northeast cannot compare to those from Saint Elizabeths' West Campus. The panorama of the sunset from atop Cedar Hill, with the Capitol and the Washington Monument in the foreground, is surreal.

Despite the current stigma of many east of the river neighborhoods, Anacostia, Barry Farm, Buena Vista (Spanish for "good view"), Bellevue (French for "beautiful view") Fairlawn, Fort Stanton, and Hillsdale have a romantic naturalism that has been recognized in literature and paintings since the early 19th century.

Last week, Congressman Issa (R-CA) and Congresswoman Norton (D-DC) announced a study to re-examine the 1910 law which limits the height of buildings in Washington. There are strong, well-reasoned arguments to both maintain and revise the law. In that study, the National Capital Planning Commission is very concerned about preserving views of the monumental core from across the city.

1834 view of the Washington Navy Yard & US Capitol. Image from the Library of Congress.

In March 1873, 12 years before the Washington Monument was finally finished, Lippincott's Magazine of Popular Literature and Science waxed poetic about the sight lines:

"A stranger visiting the national capital should begin by leaving it. He should cross the Anacostia River at the Navy-yard, climb the heights behind the village of Uniontown, be careful to find exactly the right path, and seat himself on the parapet of old Fort Stanton.

His feeling of fatigue will be overcome by one of astonishment that the scene should contain so much that is beautiful in nature, so much that is exceedingly novel if not very good in art, and so much that has the deepest historical interest. From the blue hills of Prince George's county in Maryland winds the Anacostia, whose waters at his feet float all but the very largest vessels of our navy, while but six miles above they float nothing larger than a Bladensburg goose. To the left flows the Potomac, a mile wide. Between the rivers lies Washington.

A vast amphitheatre, its green or gray walls cloven only by the two rivers, appears to surround the city. 'Amphitheatre' is the word, for within the great circle, proportioned to it in size and magnificence, dwarfing all other objects, stands the veritable arena where our public gladiators and wild beasts hold their combats. This of course is the Capitol, whose white dome rises like a blossoming lily from the dark expanse below.

View of the Capitol Dome from the bluff of Saint Elizabeths' West Campus.

In form and feeling the symbols of federal Washington yield aesthetic and therapeutic influence on the east side of town. Across the other side of the deep divide of the river is where the political influence is felt and permeates daily life. East of the river you can feel the literal sense of geographic disengagement and detachment from official Washington. There's a sense of pride in this disconnection. Life still moves slowly here. The historic development of the community personifies this truth.

In 1855 the United States Government Hospital for the Insane, later renamed Saint Elizabeths, saw its first patient. The palatial landscape situated high on a bluff overlooked the Washington Navy Yard and the first efforts to erect the modern cast iron Capitol Dome, that now defines the city skyline. For the first inmates and staff, alike, the scene was as palliative then as it is today.

View of the Washington Monument from atop Howard Road SE.

Ascending Howard Road SE, in the Hillsdale neighborhood, the Washington Monument, illuminated at night, is the sentry keeping a vigilant eye over the "southside". Over on Morris Road SE is Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church, known to the go-go community as the Panorama Room. The name is purposeful, from here the entire city unfolds before your eyes, revealing itself. In the award-winning independent movie, "Slam," actor Saul Williams ponders his existence and future as a low-level drug dealer from this sweeping indigenous veranda.

View of the Capitol Dome from 15th Street SE in Historic Anacostia.

Down in historic Anacostia, the Statue of Freedom, crowning the Capitol Dome, has watched over folks of this inner-city suburban village with village folk watching right back for nearly 150 years. Whether on foot, peddle, bus, or car, formerly on horseback, carriage, and streetcar, glimpses of the Capitol often flash in and out of the periphery between buildings, alleys, and fences.

As feasibility studies and further analysis of the city's height limit moves forward, we hope the character of these vistas are protected and not ignored in favor of political calculus and economic expediency.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia


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What about the vistas that could be created if we had a few buildings of reasonable height? One of the things I miss most about my time in San Francisco is the grandeur of looking out at the city from a great height.

by Dan Miller on Nov 27, 2012 3:23 pm • linkreport

I like the idea of a height limit increase in the city, but in the back of my mind I worry about it destroying some of the great views east of the river, especially if that involves building these tall buildings at Poplar Point.

This is the view I enjoy from my living room (one of the reason's I bought my condo) and I'd be sad to see it go.

by Steve M on Nov 27, 2012 3:25 pm • linkreport

To me, this seems as much an argument to build taller downtown anyway. Anything at Poplar point would obscure much of what's pictured. But taller buildings North of the Washington Monument and west of the Capitol wouldn't block the view of those buildings. Much like how the dome of St. Pauls is very visible even in central london where there are very tall buildings east of the cathedral.

DC has too many hills to ever be like chicago or Denver where you can see the skyline from miles away.

Don't forget about the view from Our Lady of Perpetual Help

by drumz on Nov 27, 2012 3:35 pm • linkreport

Hands down EOTR has some of the best views in the city. You should try to capture the top of the hill near Washington View the those from the new townhome-condo at MetroTowns. Nothing short of amazing.

@Steve, breathtaking...absolutely breathtaking.

by HogWash on Nov 27, 2012 3:37 pm • linkreport

What is so great about that view?

by beatbox on Nov 27, 2012 3:55 pm • linkreport

It seems to me having a few taller buildings, skyscrapers, mixed into the low-lying, hard to see skyline would actually improve the view from EOTR and elsewhere. It hardly looks like there's a major city there in some of the photos.

by MrTinDC on Nov 27, 2012 3:56 pm • linkreport

i think we're doing sufficient pandering to the newcomers and developers without changing the skyline of dc, which is one of the crucial elements of its identity as a world-class city. The city is not "full." We do not have to build up, except for those who want to score more $$ per square foot downtown. I don't actually think there are great arguments on both sides, just a play by developers to destroy the hallmark of what makes DC what it is. If you want more vibrant neighborhoods, invest in small businesses and jobs to reduce unemployement, crime and inequality. More tall buildings ain't gonna do it.

by a change gon' come on Nov 27, 2012 3:58 pm • linkreport

An idea for a GIS project: model areas of the city where heights could be raised without impacting views. Theoretically possible to model with freely-available DC GIS data.

by Froggie on Nov 27, 2012 3:59 pm • linkreport

The Capitol dome, the Washington Monument, and the tops of some low-slung buildings that all look alike, whether old or new.

Where's the "stunning and "majestic" view in that?

by ceefer66 on Nov 27, 2012 4:08 pm • linkreport

I agree, I don't see much to appreciate, especially in the first picture. I don't care how tall as long as the capitol building doesn't end up looking like Philly's city hall.

by m2fc on Nov 27, 2012 4:15 pm • linkreport

The views from EoTR are nice, but I wouldn't say "Without question the most stunning and majestic perspectives of the city lie east of the Anacostia River." I think the most stunning and majestic views are from Arlington and a few other parts of the city.

@ a change gon' come on

I don't see what being a native has to do with supporting taller buildings in the city. I think those who want to put skyscrapers at places like Anacostia and charming residential neighborhoods are probably the most out of touch. I agree with MrTinDC; if you built taller building in parts of the CBD, these views might be enhanced, let alone obstructed.

Most cities views have changed, even the ones that are low-rise. I think we should consider sight lines, but we shouldn't make it the be-all, end-all.

by Vik on Nov 27, 2012 4:20 pm • linkreport

There's an interesting debate on this issue at Altantic Magazine Cities blog if anyone's interested.

by Thayer-D on Nov 27, 2012 4:28 pm • linkreport

Can't wait til we gentrify over there too!

by Rage on Nov 27, 2012 4:52 pm • linkreport

The Atlantic article, which isn't a debate, but firmly on the side of lifting height restrictions, loses credibility right away with "$1300 for 850 s.f. in Anacostia." Many apartments that size for less than 1K East of the River. Some landlords jack up the rent because they're getting subsidized by DC govt., too, and going for the maximum based on voucher allowances.

The best fantasy # is the "shadow revenue" one: on the one hand, the author claims there wouldn't be immediate skyscrapers, but then pulls this number literally out of the air without offering any description of what kind of building assumptions it's based on. Clicking through the Economist anti-regulation article to the original academic article takes me to a document whose math is frankly beyond me.

How about if we had built up in the 90's? Would U Street, Columbia Heights, 14th Street, and Petworth, not to mention Bloomingdale and H Street, have changed as they have? I'm neither an economist nor an urban planner but this doesn't seem like an unrelated question.

by a change gon' come on Nov 27, 2012 5:01 pm • linkreport

I don't find those views to be particularly majestic or stunning. They kind of make the city feel more functional and even polluted than beautiful. I think there are better views of Rock Creek Park and the National Cathedral or from the monuments across the Potomac in Arlington.

by Abott on Nov 27, 2012 5:10 pm • linkreport

Gotta agree with the last few commenters, I don't see anything in those photos that justify not raising the height limit or even that they're the quote unquote hands-down best views of the city. It looks the same as when I'm on the 9th tee at East Potomac and I'm looking straight into the Washington Monument. I'm not sure how adding buildings to Wards 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8 and the western border of 2 and eastern border of 6 would change any of that. If anything it may lead to better architecture in this city and then even greater vistas.

by Shipsa01 on Nov 27, 2012 5:13 pm • linkreport

@a change gon' come on

"How about if we had built up in the 90's? Would U Street, Columbia Heights, 14th Street, and Petworth, not to mention Bloomingdale and H Street, have changed as they have?"

Maybe they would not have changed as they have, but they certainly would have changed. Quite a few formerly declining and traditionally urban cities have dramatically improved since the '90s. Most neighborhoods near a Metro station would have improved, and places like the 14th St. corridor, Mt. Vernon Square, and U St. are geographically close enough to the CBD that it's safe to say that they would have improved.

To imply that DC, absent height restrictions, would not have seen any spillover development to areas outside the CBD is wrong. And I'm not sure how you'd do it, but perhaps it's possible to estimate the net gain or loss of residents, office space, and tax revenue under different height limit scenarios.

by Vik on Nov 27, 2012 5:19 pm • linkreport

@ change

That piece was a response to an earlier piece defending the height limit. I assume that is why thayer referred to it as a debate.

by AWalkerInTheCity on Nov 27, 2012 5:22 pm • linkreport

Personally I think the vistas from the Virginia side of the Potomac are more stunning, but I'm from Northern Virginia. I still agree with the other posters and don't see any reason that raising the height limit on the periphery would impact the skyline or views of or from downtown. In the case of Anacostia, Rosslyn-sized buildings might be visible from the Mall or Downtown, but there are plenty of other parts of the District where 500 foot buildings wouldn't be visible unless you were on a rooftop.

by xtr657 on Nov 27, 2012 5:24 pm • linkreport

@Shipsa01: I'm not sure how adding buildings to Wards 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8 and the western border of 2 and eastern border of 6 would change any of that.

Georgetown University is at the western border of Ward 2. Good luck getting the neighborhood to let you build anything new and huge there.

by iaom on Nov 27, 2012 5:29 pm • linkreport

Another good view from Anacostia -- Maple View Place

by View from Historic Anacostia on Nov 27, 2012 5:30 pm • linkreport

@iaom - yeah, you're right - Ward 2 is probably out.

@view from historic anacostia - when you say "good," you mean that sarcastically, right?

by Shipsa01 on Nov 27, 2012 5:41 pm • linkreport


I think the revitalization of those areas in the 90's would probably have gone on as planned considering that DC is a fast growing region and people are interested in living in the city again. Maybe the form would be different but people would still want the victorian townhouses.

Plus the people who were moving into U street were trying to find cheaper housing when they couldn't afford DuPont anymore and that's why Rhode Island Avenue and such are now the new revitalizing areas.

by drumz on Nov 27, 2012 6:25 pm • linkreport

There's no reason that relaxing the DC height restrictions has to result in a free-for-all. There's been a lot of work on protecting viewsheds in various cities around the country - Austin, Seattle, Sacramento, etc. The key is to identify the areas where increased height would have the least (or greatest) impact and tailor the regulations to fit. The National Preservation League's information center has material on it.

by DC20009 on Nov 28, 2012 9:28 am • linkreport

Respect the history of DC. A bunch of yuppies move into the city and want to change everything. The allure of DC IS no tall buildings. DUGH! You want NY or San Fran - GO THERE!

by SWDCres on Nov 28, 2012 11:23 am • linkreport

Is the allure of DC really no tall buildings? Not the job opportunities, night life, museums, sports, cultural opportunities and what have you?

Are there people who really come to DC just so they can see what it's like to be in a city with shorter buildings?

by drumz on Nov 28, 2012 11:26 am • linkreport

@drumz you have all that stuff in any major city in America. Again, if that is all you want choose another city. Respect the history

by SWDCres on Nov 28, 2012 11:38 am • linkreport

So what's disrespectful about taller buildings in an area of town that already has the tallest buildings?

by drumz on Nov 28, 2012 11:54 am • linkreport

I'm having a difficult time understanding since when have views of the capitol and the monument ever become "unimpressive" or became subject to "not that good of a view" debate.

I didn't think the immediate area dictates what makes a great least I've never noticed such in any marketing about DC or any other city's skyline.

by HogWash on Nov 28, 2012 12:08 pm • linkreport

EOTR does have some amazing views. I think Deanwood is underrated for their views. I just looked at a place on Jay St NE and the views were pretty amazing in all directions. It almost felt like a mini SF.

by H Street LL on Nov 28, 2012 2:13 pm • linkreport

Honestly the views from across the Potomac River are a little more stunning, specifically in Rosslyn or the GW Parkway north of between Rte. 50 and I-395

by King Terrapin on Nov 28, 2012 4:28 pm • linkreport

Height debate aside, I still don't get the views people are speaking about from across the Anacostia. The four photos John Muller added to this post are anything but beautiful - or for that matter even unique. I don't get what the point of the post is - to just show a view that some people will never see? Seems odd to devote an entire blog post to that - maybe it would have been better as a Friday in the Flickr pool post.

by Shipsa01 on Nov 28, 2012 4:45 pm • linkreport

You know, the picture of the view from Howard Road, if anything, shows that the needs to bury power lines is something that shouldn't be limited to the L'Enfant City. Drop those lines underground on Howard and that view becomes much, much, much better.

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Dec 19, 2012 4:06 pm • linkreport

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