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“Good order, good taste, and with due regard to public interests involved”: the origins of the Shipstead-Luce Act

 To view images full size & high resolution, left click on each

 By Matthew B. Gilmore*

 On May 16, 1930 Congress approved Public Law 231, “An Act to regulate the height, exterior design, and construction of private and semipublic buildings in certain areas of the National Capital” — now commonly referred to as the Shipstead-Luce Act.

Virtually unknown outside planning and real estate development circles, the Act is a foundational element of the matrix of planning laws and regulations which have shaped the unique urban design of the Washington we have today.

The law gave design review to the Commission of Fine Arts over private buildings adjacent to federal buildings, the first law imposing design review over private buildings in Washington. Unlike zoning and building regulations, it is the first legislation that allows the government to review and approve the actual design and materials of private construction (extending to color), rather than simply height, mass, and use. As such it is also the precursor to Washington’s historic preservation laws, particularly the Old Georgetown Act.

Building regulations in Washington are nearly as old as the city. 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.” [1]

Due to slow development of the city, the regulation was reluctantly suspended by the President in 1796 (a suspension renewed through at least 1816). This regulation was to ensure the appropriateness of new buildings in the city — indeed, it included minimum height limits, not maximum. Earliest buildings in federal Washington were taller than those built later (height was, and bricks were, expensive).

The regulations were suspended for years and Washington developed as economics dictated. In 1872 the Board of Public Works, led by Alexander Shepherd, devised a code of building construction regulations.

Height limits were enacted in the late 19th century, based on technological limitations of fire-fighting equipment. In 1894, the District Commissioners promulgated building height regulations under their “police regulation” public safety powers. To give those force of law Congress passed legislation at the request of the Commissioners in 1899, and revisions in 1910. These are the core of height regulation in DC to this day. With those laws impacting private development, the federal government was becoming a much bigger player in Washington’s building infrastructure scene.

Anniversaries have their uses and the centennial of Washington in 1900 led to the report developed by the Senate Park Commission (commonly known as the McMillan Commission). Seen as vastly influential now, the commission’s plan for Washington was a struggle to create and then make known. Charles Moore, an aide to Senator James McMillan and secretary of the commission, had to struggle to even get 50 copies printed — and decide who should receive them).

Members of the Commission of Fine Arts. ca. 1920s photo--Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

Members of the Commission of Fine Arts. ca. 1920s photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

Struggling to implement the McMillan plan

Redesign of the Mall was the key element of the McMillan Commission’s plans; visual unification called for sweeping away the naturalistic landscape for a more rational, ordered one was the goal — a mile-long greensward with straight walks running east and west from Capitol to Washington Monument, lined by elegant buildings.

This was an interpretation of Pierre L’Enfant’s intention for a “publicque walk . . . agreeable and convenient to the whole city . . . this place of general resort . . . [with] all such sort places as may be attractive to the larned and afford diversion to the idle.” (L’Enfant to Washington, August 1791). [2]

At the time, however, the Mall was not a single, integrated park but rather comprised several distinct reservations. From west to east there was the Washington Monument, the Agriculture Department, the Smithsonian, and the Botanic Gardens — each had its slice. Much of the Mall had been developed in the romantic style, spurred by the plans of Andrew Jackson Downing, with trees, shrubs, and pleasant winding paths.

The first battle to implement the ideas of the plan was over the location of the Department of Agriculture building. Agriculture had a handsome red brick, Second Empire-style building designed by Adolph Cluss, with extensive gardens and greenhouses on its section of the Mall.

Since the Commission plan was never adopted by Congress, it had no official existence. Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., Charles McKim, and Daniel Burnham kept a watchful eye on developments in Washington but they had no standing, just experience and reputation to try to persuade Congress to appropriate action. They won and the new Agriculture building (built 1903-08) respectfully deferred to the Mall plan. No other office buildings were located on the Mall.

The McMillan Commission envisioned the federal office buildings ringing the White House and the Capitol, (a kind of White House halo and Capitol halo) rather than lining up along the Mall.

The triangular area south of Pennsylvania Avenue and north of B Street from 6th to 15th Streets was to be dedicated to municipal (District) governmental uses, such as a new District Building (completed in 1908) and central market.

The Agriculture controversy prompted the creation of the Commission of Fine Arts (CFA) in 1910 which gave a legal embodiment to the McMillan commission ideas. The Commission had jurisdiction over federal buildings only. But the victory with the Agriculture building did not set a pattern of following McMillan Commission ideas.

The next major federal departmental buildings locations gave heartburn to the CFA. 1908 legislation led to a competition in 1910 for prospective buildings for the Justice, Commerce, and State departments — to be located for several blocks along 15th Street between B and E Streets; the Interior Department (now General Services Administration, built 1915) was located in a spot “entirely foreign to any suggestion for Federal Building sites in the plan of 1901” at 19th and G Streets NW in Foggy Bottom. [3]

Federal office presence in Washington was reaching critical stages. In 1916 the Public Buildings Commission (PBC) was created to assess current federal office space use and future needs. Of course, the CFA wanted the PBC to locate new office buildings according to the McMillan Commission plans. The CFA’s advocacy to date had a mixed reception.

In 1917, as Congress debated the appropriations bill that included funding of the CFA, Congressman William S. Bennet said “. . . about anything the commission proposed this House we disapproved. As a matter of fact, I was divided in my opinion as between the judgment that we used the commission badly or that it was a useless body.” Congressman William S. Howard had introduced a bill to abolish the CFA and in this debate called it a “crowd of well-meaning, misguided, and highfaluting folks” and “extravagant, technical, and impracticable.” [4]

However, the first element of McMillan Commission’s proposed White House halo was put in place with the construction in 1918-’19 of the Treasury Annex on the corner of Madison Place and Pennsylvania Avenue. According to letters to Treasury Secretaries William McAdoo and Carter Glass in the Charles Moore papers archived at the Library of Congress, architect Cass Gilbert would continue to lobby for years for the continuation of the building northward along Madison Place.

The federal government acquired the remainder of the property along Madison Place in the intervening years — but federal building planning had changed and the classical design of the Treasury Annex was by then severely out of fashion.

The United States Chamber of Commerce did follow the McMillan-suggested Classical design at H Street and Connecticut Avenue. The Chamber hired Cass Gilbert to design their building beginning negotiations with him in 1919. He resisted and defeated the suggestions for a “conspicuously individual” building.

In 1920 zoning regulations were introduced in the District of Columbia to regulate building heights, lot occupancy (bulk), and for allowable uses. While this did not affect the federal building program directly it did add control over private real estate development.

Zoning was to be managed by the Zoning Commission, which so pleased Cass Gilbert at its introduction that he wrote to Charles Moore that he thought it would produce a Washington with “the general aspect of Paris rather than New York or Chicago. (Gilbert to Engineer Commission C.W. Kutz, August 21, 1920.) Gilbert also suggested that height around Lafayette Square be limited to 85 feet rather than 110 as in the new zoning regulations.

Flower power — Botanical Gardens strike back

In May of 1921 questions were raised by Congressman Edward H. Wason about CFA chairman Charles Moore’s trip to Europe. Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam swatted these away, but that was not the end of the matter. In 1922 a vicious personal attack was made on CFA Chairman Moore in Congress.

Charles Moore, secretary to Senator James McMillan; subsequently chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, also acting chief of the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress. undated photo--courtesy Commission of Fine Arts.

Charles Moore, secretary to Senator James McMillan; subsequently chairman of the Commission of Fine Arts, also acting chief of the Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress. undated photo–courtesy Commission of Fine Arts.

Moore was also acting Chief of the Manuscript Division at the Library of Congress. His work for the Library was both that of persuading families to donate the papers of significant historical figures and working on the conservation of government archives and the proposed new permanent Archives building.

Commission duties took him overseas during 1921. Moore had been secretary to Senator McMillan and a key part of the team which created the commission’s report and plan.

Congressmen Wason, William R. Wood and Thomas W. Harrison attacked the CFA and Moore. The agency appropriation was reduced. Moore was accused of impropriety in charging expenses for his travel — “petty graft” — and suggested he was neglecting his work at the Library. In addition, according to his attacker, “Mr. Moore has proven himself a meddlesome person assuming authority not warranted by law, and under such assumption does, and causes to be done [,] many things inimical to the best interested of the government.”

The proposed move of the Botanical Garden particularly incensed the attackers. Moore’s friends rallied to his cause. His boss, Herbert Putnam, Librarian of Congress, gave him his full support, thoroughly refuting charges against him. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Howard Taft wrote to the Senate budget conferees; he also advised Cass Gilbert on the source of the attack. George Hess, director of the Botanic Garden was the instigator of Moore’s “snowball of troubles.” [5]

George Hess in the greenhouse of the Botanic Gardens, Dec. 23, 1924. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

George Hess in the greenhouse of the Botanic Gardens, Dec. 23, 1924. Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

The McMillan Commission (and the CFA following in its footsteps) proposed relocating the Botanic Garden from the head of the Mall, at the foot of the west front of the Capitol (now the site of the Grant Memorial), to Mt. Hamilton in northeast Washington (now the site of the Arboretum). A responsibility of the Botanic Gardens was supplying flowers to members of Congress, a duty which earned them Congressional allies. The Botanic Garden also fell under the jurisdiction of the Congressional Joint Committee on the Library. George Hess opposed the move off the Mall to remote Mt. Hamilton and instigated the attack on Moore. (The Botanic Garden was relocated finally in 1933 to its current location).

Moore’s reappointment had been thrown into question, but he was eventually reappointed in November, and on November 3, 1922 he triumphantly telegraphed the one word “Reappointed” to Cass Gilbert.

The Tide Shifts

In 1924 a new body joined the CFA on the Washington, DC planning regulatory scene — the National Capital Park and Planning Commission (NCPPC). It, too, inherited from the McMillan Commission initially just the park planning. NCPPC became an ally to the CFA’s efforts.

In 1926 the Public Buildings Act designated the location of new federal buildings in what is now the Federal Triangle. This location change was momentous. It brought the proposed new buildings face-to-face with the privately developed commercial corridor along the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Rather than arraying government buildings around Lafayette Square in a self-contained solid classical backdrop to the White House, the Triangle was exposed on all sides, needing its own sympathetic periphery, particularly the north side of the avenue.

As originally planned, the ring of federal buildings built around Lafayette Square would have excluded private development and they would have faced the White House with their backs to adjacent private development.

“Certain degree of protection”

The initial legislation which became the Shipstead-Luce Act was first introduced a few months later, in January of 1927. Senator Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota would later relate that he’d consulted with the Architect of the Capitol who referred him to Colonel Ulysses S. Grant of the NCPPC. The bill provided for CFA review of construction permits for buildings “within two hundred feet of any public building or any public park, parkway, or reservation, except space for street parking. . . .” Considering how many federal parks and reservations there were in the District and how much of the District fell within that 200-foot buffer, the business community — mainly the Board of Trade and Chamber of Commerce — as well as private property owners opposed the bill.

Senator Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota. <em>undated photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.</em>

Senator Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota. undated photo--Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

Senator Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota. undated photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

The primary concern of the planners and legislators was originally (and always) the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue facing the Federal Triangle project. When the federal government planned to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in federal office buildings on the south side of the avenue they did not want inappropriate development on the north side (a concern persisting for decades, down to President Kennedy’s and his informal, as it was known, “President’s Council on Pennsylvania Avenue” in the 1960s).

There had been a struggle between the CFA and the United Cigar Stores over appropriate design when they decided to rebuild their store on 14th and Pennsylvania Avenue. The proposed building design was seen as out of character with its neighbors and the proposed Federal Triangle. It took a tremendous amount of persuasion on the part of the Board of Trade, American Institute of Architects, and the CFA to get a better design voluntarily. Shipstead’s bill would empower CFA review over similar cases.

Senator W. Cabell Bruce of Maryland. undated photo--Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

Senator W. Cabell Bruce of Maryland. undated photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

But the flashpoint was Lafayette Square. A special clause was added regarding the square, as noted in the Senate committee report:

“Provided, That buildings fronting on or located opposite Lafayette Square shall not exceed in height eighty-five feet, but when the height is to be in excess of forty feet, the exterior design and construction shall be first approved by the Commission of Fine Arts.

“It is felt that as a measure of protection to the beauty and dignity of the White House and its setting there should be an 85-foot limitation provided by law rather than the mere zoning regulation which could be readily changed and which does not impose restrictions on exterior design or construction. Already commercial structures are being erected adjoining Lafayette Square and additional ones are planned which do not harmonize with the existing buildings.”

This prompted opposition from property owners on and adjacent to Lafayette Square, including some of the most prominent names of old Washington.

Lawyer and antiquarian Gist Blair (owner of Blair House) registered opposition, as did former diplomat Truxton Beale (owner of Decatur House); former Senator Blair Lee spoke out, alarmed at the prospect of his property being put in “deep freeze” until the federal government needed it; Senator W. Cabell Bruce of Maryland spoke against the plan — his opposition sank the bill which never made it to the floor of the Senate. Others having real estate interests on the square may also have played a role behind the scenes.

Washington Post headline, February 11, 1927. The Evening Star’s coverage the same day was a bit less inflammatory: “Lively fight over buildings around Lafayette Square.”

Washington Post headline, February 11, 1927. The Evening Star’s coverage the same day was a bit less inflammatory: “Lively fight over buildings around Lafayette Square.”

Alice Hay Wadsworth had already put her real estate development deal into motion. Daughter of former Secretary of State John Hay, she inherited the family home and purchased the adjacent Adams House, intent to tear them down. Plans were afoot for what became the Hay-Adams Hotel as early as 1924. “Wardman to Build $3,000,000 Hotel” announced the Washington Post on October 25, 1924; plans were for the Carlton Hotel at 800 16th Street, NW. (Wardman built a Carlton Hotel nearby at 16th and K Streets in 1926.)

The real estate transactions took several more years, but guaranteed Mrs. Wadsworth $600,000. On August 29, 1926 the Evening Star reported the imminent demolition of the Hay and Adams houses under the headline, “Lafayette Square to lose 2 Shrines.” The story noted the transformations around the historic square with the construction on the north, H Street, side of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Veterans Affairs buildings.

Lafayette Square was such a contentious issue because it formed the visual backdrop to the White House. The Public Buildings Act removed the threat (or opportunity) of concerted federal office redevelopment around the square which had begun with Cass Gilbert’s classical-style  Treasury Annex of 1918 and continued (architecturally) with his U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

The threat of an unsympathetic “skyscraper” loomed over Lafayette Square since 1912. The red brick Second Empire-style Arlington Hotel, facing the square on the northwest corner of Vermont Avenue and H Street had been extended north taking the entire block on Vermont Avenue. Torn down in 1912, plans were for a block-long, 12 story office building — not at all in keeping with Gilbert’s classical façades nearby. In 1917 construction began on what became the home of the federal War-Risk Insurance Bureau, now the Veterans Administration. At 130 feet high, it was quite out of line with all plans for buildings around Lafayette Square.

Arlington Hotel at H Street and Vermont Avenue, NW. circa 1870 photo--courtesy John DeFerrari.

Arlington Hotel at H Street and Vermont Avenue, NW. circa 1870 photo–courtesy John DeFerrari.

War-Risk Insurance Building (now Veterans Administration) as seen from Vermont Avenue and I Street, NW. circa 1922 photo--Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div..

War-Risk Insurance Building (now Veterans Administration) as seen from Vermont Avenue and I Street, NW. circa 1922 photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div..

In 1929 a revised version of the bill was introduced, with the aim “to provide a certain degree of protection against improper architectural development in conspicuous places in the National Capital.” This was the third time around and it was the charm. To address critics who considered the original, 1927 bill too intrusive, the area of coverage was reduced to “more important public areas” by excluding the many small federally-owned parks and reservations across the city. “The interests of the Federal Government, the artist, the architect, the property owner, and the general public, resident and visitor, are served in this bill. National pride and common sense call for its enactment.” The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and NCPPC’s U.S. Grant III endorsed the bill. The CFA played a very-low key role this time around (perhaps Moore feeling a bit snake-bit after his previous Congressional encounters), with NCPPC taking the lead advocating for the legislation, with NCPPC secretary Fred G. Coldren would be given credit for drafting it, as well as for the 1924 legislation creating NCPPC). [6]

Congressman Robert Luce of Massachusetts sponsored the bill in the house, ultimately lending it his name along with that of Senator Shipstead.

Congressman Henry Luce of Massachusetts. undated photo--Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

Congressman Henry Luce of Massachusetts. undated photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

Reducing the scope of the bill reduced opposition, as did the departure of several opponents from Congress. Lafayette Square was excluded from coverage. Senator Bruce of Maryland was gone from the Senate. President Hoover supported the legislation in his annual message to Congress (and even suggested broader coverage — the entire District).

The Act passed in 1930 stated that development “should proceed along the lines of good order, good taste, and with due regards to the public interests involved. . .” and control to be exerted over architecture of building adjacent to significant public buildings. The areas included were those fronting or abutting the Capitol and White House grounds, Pennsylvania Avenue between the White House and Capitol, Rock Creek Park, Zoological Park, Rock Creek and Potomac Parkway, Potomac Park, “the Mall Park System and public buildings adjacent thereto,” and abutting on any street bordering the previously named.

The Commissioners of the District of Columbia were directed to submit to the CFA the plans relating to height and appearance, color, and texture of material. CFA had thirty days to review the plan and approve, disapprove, or request changes. After 30 days, approval was assumed and permits could be issued, if the CFA had not responded. The Act was by 1937 included in the published District of Columbia Zoning Regulations.

Regulations implementing the Act were issued in 1932 (but the Commission could not afford to publish them until 1938). Projections into public space were prohibited; signs required specific approval; and “continuity with blocks” was insisted upon — design elements including fenestration, cornice and base course heights, and color. Diagrams and illustration of approved buildings were included, as was the schedule of heights from the 1910 Height of Buildings Act.

As the 1930s progressed the CFA’s implementation of the regulations was seen as a success. Citizen groups outside of the downtown area covered advocated for extending the boundaries to protect their neighborhoods, as new development spread in the District. Thought was to add coverage of areas around smaller federal parks in the District, excluded from the legislation as finally passed in 1930.

On December 20, 1937 CFA chairman Gilmore Clarke wrote to Engineer Commissioner Col. Dan I. Sultan suggesting that the Shipstead-Luce jurisdiction might be expanded to include the following 16 squares, circles, and parks across the District: Lafayette, Farragut, McPherson, Seward Squares; Washington, Dupont, Scott, Thomas, Logan, Barney Circles; Meridian Hill, Lincoln, Stanton, Folger Parks.

Chairman Clarke had been prompted to make the suggestion by CFA Secretary H.P. Caemmerer. Clarke urged a conservative approach, lest the CFA bite off more than it could chew. Commissioner Sultan, however, after consulting with DC’s Director of Inspections Hugh P. Orem (the official responsible for ensuring that building plans were forwarded to the CFA) thought it unwise to pursue this idea at that moment. Few changes have been made since, but in 1939 Lafayette Square was finally added to Shipstead-Luce area of coverage.

The example provided by Shipstead-Luce was used in supporting development of historic districts around the United States. The extension of the Act’s jurisdiction to cover Georgetown was suggested to protect the historic features of that neighborhood. And in 1950 Congress passed the “Old Georgetown” Act, Public Law 808- “An Act to regulate height, exterior design, and construction of private and semipublic buildings in the Georgetown area of the National Capital.”

Georgetown resident New York Congressman James W. Wadsworth, Jr. (husband of Alice Hay Wadsworth, developer of Hay-Adams Hotel on Lafayette Square!) had introduced it.

Portion of the “Map of the area covered by the Shipstead Act, District of Columbia” as revised to 1932; thick white line indicates boundary.

Portion of the “Map of the area covered by the Shipstead Act, District of Columbia” as revised to 1932; thick white line indicates boundary.


 [1] Thomas Munroe, Office of the Superintendent of the City of Washington, “Regulations of Building &c.” (Oct. 31, 1815).

[2] Pierre L’Enfant to President George Washington, August 1791. Cited by Randi Minetor,  Washington, D.C. a guided tour through history. (GPP Press, 2009, p.57).

[3] Kurt G.F. Helfrich, “’Beloved Ancien’: William T. Partridge’s recollections of the Senate Park Commission and the subsequent Mall development” in Designing the Nation’s Capital: The 1901 Plan for Washington, DC, p.321 (Commission of Fine Arts, 2007).

[4] Congressional Record, pp.4337-38 (Feb. 26, 1917).

[5] Undated typed manuscript in Charles Moore Papers, Moore to Robert Lincoln O’Brien, February 2, 1922. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division). [6] Senate report on bill S. 2400, “Regulating the height, exterior design, and construction of private and semipublic buildings in certain areas of the National Capital” (December 18, 1929).



Thanks to Kay Fanning and Susan Raposa of the Commission of Fine Arts staff, architectural historian Don Hawkins, and “Streets of Washington” blogger John DeFerrari.

References & Resources

“Shipstead-Luce Act. May 16, 1930.” In “Architectural regulations – District of Columbia – 1932. Issued by the Commissioners of the District of Columbia and the National Commission of Fine Arts.” Typescript. Commission of Fine Arts Records. National Archives.

To Regulate Construction of Buildings Near Public Building or Public Park. Hearings Before the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, United States Senate. On S. 1681, A Bill to Regulate the Height and Exterior Design and Construction of Public and Private Buildings in The National Capital Fronting on Or Located Within Two Hundred Feet of a Public Building or Public Park. February 3, 1928.

Public Buildings in The District of Columbia, Report of The Public Buildings Commission. Washington DC, GPO, 1918.

Jeremy W. Dutra, “You Can’t Tear It Down: the Origins of the D.C. Historic Preservation Act.” (2002). Georgetown Law Historic Preservation Papers Series 1.

Thomas E. Luebke (ed.), Civic Art: A Centennial History of The U.S. Commission of Fine Arts. (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013.)

Sue Kohler & Pamela Scott (eds.), Designing the Nation’s Capital: The 1901 Plan for Washington, DC (U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, 2007).

Beale family papers from Decatur House. (Library of Congress, Manuscript Division).

Charles Moore papers, Commission of Fine Arts Records. (National Archives, Record Group 66.)