Height Limits Make Great Places

By Kim Williams

Around the turn of the 20th century civic activist, urban visionary, and developer Mary Henderson clearly got city planning. Among other things, she understood that by controlling building heights, you can create great places for the benefit of the public.  A stroll through Meridian Hill Park with its low-scale buildings framing the park to either side confirms this attitude.

According to the 1910 Height Act, buildings at the time could rise 85 feet on residential streets.  For the strong-minded Mary Henderson, 85 feet was too high, especially for Meridian Hill Park where views to the city were a major part of its allure.  Henderson argued that buildings that rise above the standard skyline cut off light, air and harmony of height.  In her flamboyantly written editorials and oral testimonies, she claimed these streets were diseased and suffered from what she labeled “pulmonary consumption of residential avenues.”  Henderson also often noted that buildings that rose above a certain height made “pygmies” out of existing building stock—quite a visual image illustrated by the historic photograph here.

As a reference point for building heights along residential avenues, Henderson looked to the Champs Elysees in Paris, noting that it always maintains a “comparative general height of 65 feet, which is enough for four or five stories.”   So, with 65 feet thus established as a maximum height in her own mind, Henderson set out to maintain it around Meridian Hill.  To either side of the park, along both 15th and 16th Streets, she built nine private mansions and foreign legations all conforming to this height limit, some of them shown here: 

When other developers deviated from her established norm, she interfered.  In 1915, for instance, she negotiated the purchase of land away from developer Harry Wardman who planned the construction of three apartment buildings overlooking Meridian Hill Park at 15th and Euclid Streets.  After completing the deal, she expressed satisfaction that the park was “now protected from any surrounding which could fall below a certain standard of beauty.”   The following year, when the Kennedy Brothers proposed construction of the Meridian Mansions apartments (now the Envoy) at 2400 16th Street at a height exceeding Henderson’s ideal notion, she sought to stop its construction.  When she found she couldn’t prevent it, she instead negotiated to collaborate on the building’s design, to “have a hand in helping it fit into the pattern.”

When it came to the Hadleigh Apartments (now the Roosevelt), she took her fight against its 77-foot height to Congress.  In her Congressional testimony, Henderson argued that the view from Meridian Hill Park was “the only one remaining in the capital” and is comparable to similar outlooks in Paris and Rome, which she claimed “have been preserved for posterity.”  Although it was built higher than she would have liked, the owners were required to eliminate pergolas that rose above the roofline, cutting off those precious views.

As long as Mary Henderson was alive, it seems, the height of buildings on Meridian Hill was held in check.  After her 1931 death, however, developers were free to exercise their zoning rights, introducing several aberrations into Henderson’s vision for Meridian Hill, the most egregious example of which is found at the base of the park, eliminating the views Henderson fought so hard to protect.

Despite such intrusions, the scale of buildings surrounding Meridian Hill Park as imposed by Mary Henderson makes the park one of the city’s great places.

2 thoughts on “Height Limits Make Great Places

  1. Kim, Totally agree with your post when it comes to the escarpment. It’s too bad the McMillan Commission didn’t formalize its inclination to protect viewsheds on the west side of the Anacostia River. Fortunately the Fort Circle parks protect the views on the east side of the river. And when it comes to the apartment building at 15th and W, I will gladly contribute to any fund you establish to demolish its top two floors.
    Steve Cochran

    • Why stop at just the top two floors? Prior to its construction, there was a garden area associated with the Roosevelt Hotel on the site–we should be ambitious and campaign Mary Henderson-style to demolish the entire building and re-introduce the green space.

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