According to a 2009 article, the 1899 statute "established that no structure may be taller than the Capitol," but the 1910 act limited heights to 20 feet over the width of the surrounding roadway. Therefore, yes, buildings can be taller than the Capitol.
The Federal City was designed by George Washington himself and has had nearly every century-old building destroyed or altered since then. The only modern structures on the National Mall are two small museums built in the 1960s.
The city was planned with streets at different levels for pedestrians and vehicles, with shops on the ground floor and residential apartments or offices on the floors above. There are also large public squares where people could gather to watch performances or demonstrations.
There is not much left from before the Civil War, except for the Capitol itself. After the war, wealthy citizens built larger houses with fine furniture inside. These are found mainly in Georgetown, which is located across the Potomac River from downtown Washington.
In 1871, the government moved into new administrative offices built by James McWillie near what is now called L'Enfant Plaza. In 1897, Congress approved funds to build the Supreme Court building, which is now home to the United States Senate. It is one of the few skyscrapers in the city center.
Height restrictions were very popular in American cities at the period, including Boston and Chicago. The 1899 Height of Buildings Act stated that no structure may be taller than the Capitol (289 feet), yet why don't we have a city full of 28-story buildings if that's the case? The act was part of a general movement toward urban planning that included streets, parks, and public facilities.
The answer is that these height restrictions prevented developers from taking advantage of new technology that made high buildings economically viable for the first time in history. With the advent of mass production techniques, it became possible to build much taller structures than ever before, especially given the use of reinforced concrete as the main material for skyscrapers.
In fact, between 1887 and 1897, almost every other major American city went up at least one skyscraper, with some cities adding as many as six or seven. But in Boston this development was prohibited by law until the early 20th century. By then, most other cities had passed their own height limits, so builders just moved out to Coney Island, Brooklyn; Chicago; Philadelphia; New York City.
In Boston, the legal limit was 40 feet, which meant that nobody could build anything higher than that - even if they had the money and desire to do so. Skyscrapers were not only forbidden by law, but also banned by custom within the city limits!
This is due to the fact that there is a height restriction in Washington. The 1910 Height of Buildings Act in Washington, D.C. takes height from the width of the street on which a structure is located. As a result, it is an urban design principle. We also have a commercial area cap of 130, which is around...
The other reason is that most office buildings in Washington are rented, not owned. Renting office space is common here because of the lack of availability of office space and the cost of building ownership. Rents are usually lower in smaller cities like Washington.
In addition, land prices are high in Washington, so building owners need to make sure they can afford to sell their space when it is time to move out. This keeps rental rates low enough for businesses to be able to afford to live there too.
Finally, zoning laws are generally more restrictive in larger cities with older architecture, such as Boston, Chicago, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Toronto. Zoning regulations aim to preserve the character of neighborhoods by keeping new buildings compatible with nearby structures. A lot of money is needed to go before planning commissions and city councils to get changes made or new licenses issued. This process can take years before anything is approved or rejected.
So, skyscrapers are rare in Washington, DC because of restrictions on height and usage of space, along with the nature of the market for office rentals.
However, in 1910, Congress amended the law, creating a new and current height restriction that limits commercial buildings to 130 feet, or roughly 11 stories, according to Lucy Kempf from the National Capital Planning Commission. This limit applies to all buildings, including office towers, apartment houses, and retail stores.
The original law was meant to protect residents by preventing overcrowding and slums. But now that we know about skyscrapers, this rule seems hard to meet. There are actually more than 1000 feet of floor space in major office buildings in Washington, DC. This is more than two blocks long!
And even if you cut off all those excess floors, there's no way any building could fit everything important that people want or need from life: work, community, education, entertainment -- within its walls. Of course, nobody plans to build such a big building anymore. We just don't live like this anymore. We go around blocks and around corners and up stairs when we need to get away from something or someone.
But what if we could pack every bit of life we need into one huge building? The question is not whether we want such a building, but how would we feel living in it?
Such a building does not yet exist, but some architects think it might be possible in the future.