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Secrets of the City: D.C.

Revealing all the untold stories of our Nation’s Capital. From all the best local spots to where we got our beloved Cherry Blossoms, check out the stories that make the District unique!

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The Tallest Building in D.C.

While you’re visiting, you might hear someone ask, “What is the tallest building in D.C.?” People will debate about the city’s building height regulation, the definition of a building, whether we should account for sea level… The list goes on.

While there may not be a right answer, there certainly is a common wrong answer. The United States Capitol building is not the tallest, by any definition. In fact, there are three buildings in the District of Columbia that are taller: the Basilica, the Old Post Office Pavilion, and the Washington National Cathedral.

Original Design, Library of Congress (1846)

Original Design, Library of Congress (1846)

But if you expand your definition of “building” to include monuments, the Washington Monument towers over the rest as the tallest building in DC. If there’s one thing you can’t miss while walking around the city, it’s the monument to our first president, George Washington. It stands at 555 feet, 5 1/8 inches, making it the tallest obelisk in the world. For about five years, it was the tallest building in the world, until Paris came along with the Eiffel Tower.

It actually could have held the title much longer if it had been constructed according to the original plan. That plan called for a tower closer to 600 feet and included a colonnaded rotunda underneath the obelisk. But the issue with this monument has always been funding. The original plan was estimated to cost about $200,000 (almost $8 million in modern money!), but before construction even began we had to scale down the design to stay within budget.

That’s how we got the more minimalist version that you see today. Construction for the iconic stone obelisk in the middle of our nation’s capital began on July 4, 1848. Within the cornerstone the builders placed a time capsule holding newspapers, coins, and copies of some of our favorite documents: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, of course!

When you take a close look at the monument, you’ll notice that the stone changes color about a quarter of the way up, and that’s not from a flood.

About 150 feet into the construction, the Washington National Monument Society ran out of money, and the monument was left unfinished for 22 years. While it waited, the area was used as a cattle yard during the Civil War. Finally, in 1876 the Federal Government took over the project and the land, but they couldn’t match the color of the stone. Hence the color change.

a clock tower in the background with Washington Monument in the background

Stone Color Change, National Park Service

In 1888, the Washington Monument finally opened to the public, complete with a 12-minute elevator ride to the top. These days you can get to the top in about a minute, and once you’re up there the views are like no other.

Before we let you go, we have a confession to make. Technically, there are four towers in DC that are even taller than the Monument. But they don’t have elevators or backstories nearly as cool, so we don’t count them!

Written by Jessica, our local expert guide. Jessica is a Historian, Archivist, and Tour Guide living and working in the District who loves sharing the secrets of the city with tourists and locals alike. Want to learn more? Join us on an Insider’s Pub Crawl!

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