What Once Was
The City of Our Hopes and Desires: Zoning Comes to Washington DC
Published: October 26th, 2016
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By Matthew B. Gilmore*
It had a curious beginning. The tale begins with a bit of a mystery: The August 21, 1916 Evening Star reported that Senator Jacob Gallinger (R-NH) had introduced “a bill which would extend to Washington the building regulations adopted by New York city July 25, 1916. Gallinger announced he introduced the bill by request.” His remarks in the August 21st Congressional Record began, “. . . a gentleman greatly interested in the development of the District of Co lumbia has handed me a bill, requesting that I introduce it.” He continued, “It appears to be framed very largely along the lines of an ordinance of the city of New York. . . . I do not know that I approve of all the provisions of the bill but ask that it be received and referred to the Committee on the District of Columbia.”
With that mysterious introduction Senate Bill 6922 was introduced — explicitly and prolixly titled “To regulate and limit the height and hulk of buildings hereafter erected, and regulating and determining the area of yards, courts, and other open spaces, and regulating and restricting the location of trades and industries and the location of buildings designed for specified uses, and establishing the boundaries of districts for the said purposes in the District of Columbia.” It included three use districts, five height districts, and five area districts. It never emerged from the Committee.
Where did it come from? Who gave it to Gallinger? It may have been John Nolen who gave the bill to Gallinger. Nolen was the editor of the just released volume City Planning which compiled the latest thought in urban planning.
On July 26, 1916 the Star had reported the potential success of the new zoning law just gone into effect in New York City, a law designed to “check the invasion of retail districts by factories and of residential districts by business and at the same time concentrate manufacturing. . . .” It also restricted building heights and bulk to allow light and ventilation —-considerations not often recognized today.
Senator Gallinger died in 1918, eulogized by the Association of Oldest inhabitants as “loyal friend, advocate and supporter in all matters appertaining to the interests of the Capital city” (Star, Sep. 5, 1918). The newly-constructed municipal hospital was christened Gallinger Memorial Hospital (later DC General).
Regulations on buildings and land use were not new but had a venerable history stretching back to the city’s earliest days. Height was the first to be restricted. Regulation No. 1, issued by President George Washington on October 17, 1791, dictated that “the wall of no house to be higher than forty feet to the roof, in any part of the city; nor shall any be lower than thirty-five feet on any of the avenues.”  Due to slow development of the city the regulation was reluctantly suspended by the President in 1796 (a suspension renewed through at least 1816).
Increasingly dense residential uses in Washington in the late 19th century led to 1894 height regulations. Height restrictions were passed by Congress at the request of the District in 1899 and 1910. (See, Gilmore, “District of Columbia Building Height Timeline,” Washington DC History Resources.)
Restrictions on uses stem from the building regulations of the 1870s. A new term of art — “business street” — was coined, describing sections of streets occupied by businesses rather than residences. The definition was made to allow certain commercial uses of public parking space. (The term “public parking” is explained in the first paragraph of this writer’s July 2016 essay in this space.)
In the summer of 1919 new zoning legislation (ultimately successful) wended its way through the House and the Senate. Some tweaks were made, including dropping the chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) as a member and reducing the number of commission members to five. Perhaps CFA chairman Charles Moore didn’t mind since in the Commission’s articulation of a number of development priorities zoning was listed near the bottom at number 10:
(1) Removal of tempos and completion of the Mall according to L’Enfant and McMillan Plans;
(2) Completion of Anacostia Water Park and development of a national botanic garden (the arboretum);
(3) Completion of purchase of area of Pennsylvania Ave. between Capitol and Treasury;
(4) Increase in city water supply for utilitarian needs and for many fountains (the latter for recreation, refreshment in summer);
(5) Development of several parkways (listed);
(6) Completion of Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway (described, not named);
(7) Improvement of Water Street and Washington Canal as connection between Potomac Park and War College, and some other such connections;
(8) Widen and straighten Military Road as connection to Key Bridge;
(9) Establish garden suburbs around the City of Washington for government workers;
(10) A zoning system under which real estate values shall be equalized and protected, and the National Capital grow into a symmetrical arrangement of public and private utilities and conveniences of living;
(11) Development of the universities in Washington, encouragement of Corcoran Gallery and School, encouragement of other similar institutions. 
On March 1, 1920 the legislation was signed to introduce zoning to Washington — “An Act to regulate the height, area, and use of buildings in the District of Columbia and to create a Zoning Commission and for other purposes.” The new Zoning Commission, was composed of the District Board of Commissioners (Col. Charles W. Kutz and Louis Brownlow) with the addition of the Superintendent of Public Grounds (Col. C.S. Ridley) and the Superintendent of the Capitol (Elliott Woods). It was charged devise the plan in less than six months. Public hearings were required before regulations were to be approved.
In fact, this was no Congressional imposition. The 1920 Commissioners’ annual report noted they had “for a number of years been interested in the subject of zoning, which is now universally regarded one of the essential features of a comprehensive city plan.”
In its new story of August 22, 1920, headlined “Want D.C. Zoning Model for Nation: Commission Hard at Work On Rules to Be Announced About September 1. Bizarre Ideas Eschewed,” the Washington Post chronicled the history of the effort, beginning with the Gallinger bill, another draft bill in 1917, a proposed study commission in 1918, and concluding with the commissioners’ efforts in 1919.
The commissioners held a conference in January of 1919, solicited public input, appointed a study committee composed of representatives of the real estate and construction industries (E.C. Graham, Judge James F. Smith, Appleton P. Clark, Jr., Frank L. Wagner, and John L. Weaver). The commissioners wrote and submitted the legislation for Congress to approve.
Engineer Commissioner Col. Charles W. Kutz became the chairman of the Commission. One of its first acts was to hire noted expert city planner Harland Bartholomew to assist them (Star, May 2, 1920). The legislation had authorized $5,000 for expert services. Bartholomew had consulted in St. Louis where he made his name, and in Detroit and Pittsburgh. Former Assistant Engineer Commissioner Maj. Roger G. Powell was brought back for his expertise on Washington.
What resulted was the first Comprehensive Plan for the District of Columbia. (Note: revision of the current DC Comprehensive Plan, now divorced from zoning, is underway. The DC Office of Planning’s website provides complete information).
The DC Chamber of Commerce was one of the groups in the discussions — primarily lobbying for expansion of commercial and industrial districts (Star, Aug. 11, 1920). Columnist William Price in the Washington Times had high hopes (and prescient words):
“Zoning is not an experiment. It has been tried out in many large cities, and there has nowhere been a desire to return to slipshod methods of city planning. Washington, of all cities, ought to benefit immensely if the system is broad and liberal and not so idealistic as to hamper construction plans. The District cannot develop if too much red tape thwarts those who desire to build. There has long been complaint that existing building regulations were restrictive of development owing to an accumulation of unnecessary red tape and petty interference. (May 11, 1920).”
The resulting zoning plan of 1920 had an elegant simplicity (concealing a much more complex reality). Zoning had three elements: area, height, and use. Each had a separate map visualizing the regulations.
Area restrictions were initially just divided into four categories: A, B, C, and D; each allowed for a different percentage of lot occupancy (basically 40, 60, 75, and 90 percent). Height restrictions were also divided into four categories: 110, 85, 55, and 40-foot height limits, respectively. Use restrictions also were divided into four categories: residential, first commercial, second commercial, and industrial. (Post, Feb. 13, 1921)
Use restrictions were the most complex. Residential areas allowed residential and related uses such as churches and clubs, but also farms and sand, gravel, or clay pits. First commercial restrictions allowed small-scale commercial use, with 14 specific activities ruled out. Second commercial had a much longer list of 63 restrictions which included manufacturing activities such as blast furnaces, fat rendering, and saw mills. Industrial districts were allowed everything not otherwise restricted under current law or regulations. Thoroughfares were all zoned as along their entire length but for the exception of Connecticut Avenue NW. 
Understanding the new regulations required a bit of matrix thinking since each property in the District fell into three different zones; the combination of the restrictions from all three determined what you were allowed to do with that property. Three sets of four options led to 64 combinations. Some uses, like grocery and drug stores would be grouped, rather than scattered, throughout a neighborhood (Star, May 3, 1920)
Restrictions on lot occupancy were for lesser or greater light and ventilation, important in the days of coal-fired heat and no air-conditioning.
Property restrictions had not yet been tested in the courts when the District enacted its regulations; however, they would soon see such a challenge.
Mrs. Annie Steerman had sued the building inspector and commissioners when they refused to issue a permit for commercial use at 1656-60 Columbia Road NW (Star, July 6, 1925). She lost when in 1925 the DC Supreme Court ruled that zoning restrictions are constitutional. Edward M. Bassett, a zoning expert from New York City, had assisted the District with its defeat the challenge.
Challenges elsewhere wound their way to the United States Supreme Court, and it was the November 22, 1926 decision in Village of Euclid v Ambler Realty Co. which established the constitutionality of land use zoning. 
The initial years were not kind to the District’s zoning plan. By 1927 the Star could report “Revision of Zoning Rules Urged to Mold Capital” when none other than that same expert, Harland Bartholomew (who had been hired seven years earlier by then Engineer Commissioner Kutz), called the regulations inadequate and needed to be strengthened to mold and direct DC’s development. His analysis of seven years of zoning would be echoed repeatedly over the next decade.
In 1930 a curious (and very rare) document, “Experiences with Zoning in Washington, D.C. Sept. 1, 1920 – Dec. 31, 1929 – recorded by S.G. Lindholm, Engineer to the Zoning Commission,” was released. The typescript seems never to have been officially published.  Svante Lindholm describes zoning as “. . . one of the methods by which the modern city tries to promote the comfort and convenience of the people and the stability of real estate values. . . . Good zoning must be guided by a vision of the future city and by the experience of the past.”
Lindholm’s goal was to analyze Washington’s experience with zoning to learn lessons from experience and improve that zoning. He was looking at a population projection of 895,000 and foresaw difficulties managing that with the current zoning, noting that “Washington should be zoned as becoming the nation’s capital.” His concern was (perceived and potential) about overcrowding.
He noted that 1,170 cases had come before the Commission, with 988 petitioning for greater privileges versus 182 requesting most restricted zoning: “To be arbiters in such cases, to be entirely deaf to the pleas of the petitioners and to listen only to the dictates of good zoning, and to act upon information and judgment what is good for the community is not easy.” He suggested the creation of a board of adjustment to handle the routine administration. This kind of board had been suggested by the “Standard Zoning Enabling Act” devised by the U.S. Department of in 1926. Builders’ organizations had Commerce lobbied for the appeals board in 1929, presenting a plan to the commissioners in 1929 (Star, Oct. 10, 1929).
His first point of analysis was that the growth of apartment living had not been foreseen in the zoning plan. The simplicity of the four categories of uses became more complex. The “A” area which had been for single family homes only, excluding row houses and hotels, saw the creation of an “A” restricted area and then an “A” semi-detached area which excluded multifamily and community facility uses (apartments, hospitals, sanitariums, boarding houses, flats, hotels). “B” areas were similarly divided between “B” and “B”-restricted where apartments and flats were not allowed.
A frequent criticism of the 1920 Zoning plan was the overabundance of commercially zoned land (which had been encouraged by both the DC Chamber of Commerce and DC Board of Trade). Height was a greater concern for commercial buildings. Height restrictions were capped by the regulations of the 1910 Height of Buildings Act, noted Lindholm; he found records of 98 buildings which were 90 feet tall or over in the 110-designated areas. So, he noted, “The ‘sky scraper’ is, therefore, not formidable.” He pointed out that the commercial center of Washington was shifting from the existing commercial center along F Street westward to Connecticut Avenue.
Lindholm was concerned with overcrowding — for residential uses he was concerned for apartment overcrowding. He noted that apartments were clustering along major thoroughfares as allowed by higher density zoned strips. But the combination of height limits and fire regulations (more stringently enforced at five stories and higher) had encouraged smaller, lower capacity apartment buildings. The regulations were amended to allow more stories providing less lot area was occupied.
Lindholm also addressed “problems of administration.” These included “decline of residential streets,” interior lots, home occupation, irregular lots, charity requests (both charitable organizations and hardship cases), lot lines and zoning boundary mismatches.
Nothing immediately came from Lindholm’s analysis; in 1934 he produced an extended version. Eventually zoning districts were refined with use and area districts split. Despite this increasing complexity there was no unified zoning map until real estate mogul Rufus S. Lusk published his outstanding cartographic masterpiece — a “Joseph’s Coat of Many Colors” map in 1936.
But pressure to make zoning more effective led to new legislation in 1938 which authorized a Board of Zoning Appeals charged with consideration and granting of special exceptions and variations in cases of hardship, particularly due to geographic considerations such as odd-shaped lots. Zoning would continue to evolve and additional laws and government bodies would take their place in the planning of Washington.
 Thomas Munroe, Office of the Superintendent of the City of Washington. “Regulations of Building &c.” (Oct. 31, 1815).
 Commission of Fine Arts, Annual Report (8th Report), page 22 (Jan. 1918 – July 1, 1919) .
 Matthew J. Bell, “The Linear City: A Case Study of Connecticut Avenue” (unpublished mss.).
 Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., “The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History.”
 Lindholm released another version, updated through 1934 but the author has been unable to locate an existing copy, that of the Library of Congress is not on shelf; the copy in the DC Public Library’s Washingtoniana Division has been missing for decades.
The collections in the Washingtoniana Division were critical for this research. Again, thanks to Kay Fanning at the Commission of Fine Arts for her help; Adam Berenbak at the National Archives provided speedy assistance; and Matthew Bell resurrected an unpublished paper of his we’d discussed many years ago.
Matthew J. Bell, “The Linear City: A Case Study of Connecticut Avenue.” Unpublished mss.
“Business streets in the District of Columbia.” Report to accompany S. 4118 (Feb. 14, 1908).
U.S. Department of Commerce Advisory Committee on City Planning and Zoning, “A Standard City Planning Enabling Act” (Washington, DC (1927).
Sonia Hirt, “Mixed Use by Default: How the Europeans (Don’t) Zone,” Journal of Planning Literature, 27 (4), pp. 375-393. (2012).
“A Resolution regulating and limiting the height and bulk of buildings hereafter erected and regulating and determining the area of yards, courts and other open spaces, and regulating and restricting the location of trades and industries and the location of buildings designed for specified uses and establishing the boundaries of districts for the said purposes,” City of New York Board of Estimate and Apportionment (July 25, 1916). See also accompanying “Building Zone Plan” issued by the Board of Estimate and Apportionment.
John Nolen, “City Planning: A Series of Papers Presenting the Essential Elements of a City Plan” (Appleton & Co., New York & London, 1916).
Keith Revell, “The Road to Euclid v. Ambler: City Planning, State-Building, and the Changing Scope of the Police Power” (Studies in American Political Development 13(01):50-145 (Apr. 1999).
Senate Bill S. 6922 “To regulate and limit the height and hulk of buildings hereafter erected, and regulating and determining the area of yards, courts, and other open spaces, and regulating and restricting the location of trades and industries and the location of buildings designed for specified uses, and establishing the boundaries of districts for the said purposes in the District of Columbia” (Aug. 21, 1916).
Jay Wickersham, “The Birth of Zoning: From The City Planning Conferences to The Euclid Decision.” Harvard Graduate School of Design (Sep. 2009).
“Zoning regulations of the District of Columbia” (Aug. 30, 1920).
*Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.
© 2016 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.
All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part, including for commercial purposes, without permission is prohibited.