The Architecture of Washington, DC

Washington, D. C. Cityscapes And City Views
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The United States is often called a cultural melting pot, and the architecture of its capital city, Washington, D.C., is truly an international blend. Famous buildings in the District incorporate influences from ancient Egypt, classical Greece and Rome, medieval Europe, and 19th-century France.

The White House

South Portico of the White House, beyond landscaped fountain
Photo by Aldo Altamirano / Moment / Getty Images (cropped)

The White House is the elegant mansion of America's president, but its beginnings were humble. Irish-born architect James Hoban may have modeled the initial structure after the Leinster House, a Georgian style estate in Dublin, Ireland. Made of Aquia sandstone painted white, the White House was more austere when it was first built from 1792 to 1800. After the British famously burned it in 1814, Hoban rebuilt the White House, and architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe added the porticoes in 1824. Latrobe's renovations transformed the White House from a modest Georgian house into a neoclassical mansion.

Union Station

Washington, DC
Union Station in Washington, DC.

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Modeled after buildings in ancient Rome, Union Station features elaborate sculptures, ionic columns, gold leaf, and grand marble corridors in a mix of neoclassical and Beaux-Arts designs.

In the 1800s, major railway terminals like Euston Station in London were often constructed with a monumental arch, which suggested a grand entrance to the city. Architect Daniel Burnham, assisted by Pierce Anderson, modeled the arch for Union Station after the classical Arch of Constantine in Rome. Inside, he designed grand vaulted spaces that resembled the ancient Roman Baths of Diocletian.

Near the entrance, a row of six massive statues by Louis St. Gaudens stand above a row of Ionic columns. Titled "The Progress of Railroading," the statues are mythical gods chosen to represent inspirational themes related to the railway.

The US Capitol

Capitol Building
United States Capitol Building, Washington, DC, Supreme Court (L) and Library of Congress (R) in Background.

Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge Archive Photos/Getty Images (cropped)

For almost two centuries, America's governing bodies, the Senate and the House of Representatives, have gathered under the dome of the US Capitol.

When French engineer Pierre Charles L'Enfant planned the new city of Washington, he was expected to design the Capitol. But L'Enfant refused to submit plans and would not yield to the authority of the commissioners. L'Enfant was dismissed and Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson proposed a public competition.

Most of the designers who entered the competition and submitted plans for the U.S. Capitol were inspired by Renaissance ideas. However, three entries were modeled after ancient classical buildings. Thomas Jefferson favored the classical plans and suggested that the Capitol be modeled after the Roman Pantheon, with a circular domed rotunda.

Burned by British troops in 1814, the Capitol went through several major renovations. As with many buildings constructed during the founding of Washington D.C., most of the labor was done by enslaved African Americans.

The most famous feature of the U.S. Capitol, the cast-iron neoclassical dome by Thomas Ustick Walter, was not added until the mid-1800s. The original dome by Charles Bulfinch was smaller and made of wood and copper.

The Smithsonian Institute Castle

The Smithsonian Institute
The Smithsonian Institute Castle The Smithsonian Institute Castle.

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Victorian architect James Renwick, Jr. gave this Smithsonian Institute building the air of a medieval castle. Designed as a home for the secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, the Smithsonian Castle now houses administrative offices and a visitor center with maps and interactive displays.

Renwick was a prominent architect who went on to build the elaborate St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. The Smithsonian Castle has a medieval appearance with rounded Romanesque arches, square towers, and Gothic Revival details.

When it was new, the walls of the Smithsonian Castle were lilac gray. The sandstone turned red as it aged.

The Eisenhower Executive Office Building

Washington, DC
Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

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Formally known as the Old Executive Office Building, the massive building next to the White House was renamed in honor of President Eisenhower in 1999. Historically, it was also called the State, War, and Navy Building because those departments had offices there. Today, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building houses a variety of federal offices, including the ceremonial office of the Vice President of the United States.

Chief Architect Alfred Mullett based his design on the imposing Second Empire style architecture that was popular in France during the mid-1800s. He gave the Executive Office Building an elaborate facade and a high mansard roof like buildings in Paris. The interior is noted for its remarkable cast iron details and enormous skylights designed by Richard von Ezdorf.

When it was first built, the structure was a startling contrast to the austere neoclassical architecture of Washington, D.C. Mullett's design was often mocked. Mark Twain allegedly called the Executive Office Building the "ugliest building in America."

The Jefferson Memorial

Washington, DC
The Jefferson Memorial.

Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge Archive Photos/Getty Images (cropped)

The Jefferson Memorial is a round, domed monument dedicated to Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States. Also a scholar and an architect, Jefferson admired the architecture of ancient Rome and the work of Italian Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio. Architect John Russell Pope designed Jefferson's Memorial to reflect those tastes. When Pope died in 1937, architects Daniel P. Higgins and Otto R. Eggers took over the construction.

The Memorial is modeled after the Pantheon in Rome and Andrea Palladio's Villa Capra. It also resembles Monticello, the Virginia home that Jefferson designed for himself.

At the entrance, steps lead to a portico with Ionic columns supporting a triangular pediment. Carvings in the pediment depict Thomas Jefferson with four other men who helped draft the Declaration of Independence. Inside, the memorial room is an open space circled by columns made of Vermont marble. A 19-foot bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson stands directly beneath the dome.

The National Museum of the American Indian

Washington, DC
The National Museum of the American Indian.

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Many native groups contributed to the design of the National Museum of the American Indian, one of Washington's newest buildings. Rising five stories, the curvilinear building is constructed to resemble natural stone formations. The exterior walls are made of gold-colored Kasota limestone from Minnesota. Other materials include granite, bronze, copper, maple, cedar, and alder. At the entrance, acrylic prisms capture the light.

The National Museum of the American Indian is set in a four-acre landscape that recreates early American forests, meadows, and wetlands.

The Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve Board Building

Washington, DC
Eccles Building of the Federal Reserve.

Brooks Kraft/ Corbis News/ Getty Images

Beaux Arts architecture gets a modern twist at the Federal Reserve Board Building in Washington, D.C. The Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve Board Building is more simply known as the Eccles Building or the Federal Reserve Building. Completed in 1937, the imposing marble building was constructed to house offices for the United States Federal Reserve Board.

The architect, Paul Philippe Cret, trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in France. His design includes columns and pediments that suggest classical styling, but the ornamentation is streamlined. The goal was to create a building that would be both monumental and dignified.

The Washington Monument

Washington Monument and Cherry Blossoms around Tidal Basin, Washington, DC
Egyptian Ideas in the Nation's Capital Washington Monument and Cherry Blossoms around Tidal Basin.

Danita Delimont/Gallo Images Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Architect Robert Mills' initial design for the Washington Monument honored America's first president with a 600-foot tall, square, flat-topped pillar. At the base of the pillar, Mills envisioned an elaborate colonnade with statues of 30 Revolutionary War heroes and a soaring sculpture of George Washington in a chariot.

To build this monument would have cost over a million dollars (more than $21 million today). Plans for the colonnade were postponed and eventually eliminated. The Washington Monument evolved into a simple, tapered stone obelisk topped with a pyramid, which was inspired by ancient Egyptian architecture.

Political strife, the Civil War, and money shortages delayed construction of the Washington Monument for some time. Because of interruptions, the stones are not all the same shade. The monument was not completed until 1884. At that time, the Washington Monument was the tallest structure in the world. It remains the tallest structure in Washington D.C.

The Washington National Cathedral

Washington, DC
National Cathedral.

Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge Archive Photos/Getty Images (cropped)

Officially named the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, the Washington National Cathedral is an Episcopal cathedral and also a "national house of prayer" where interfaith services are held.

The building is Gothic Revival, or Neo-Gothic, in design. Architects George Frederick Bodley and Henry Vaughn lavished the cathedral with pointed arches, flying buttresses, stained-glass windows, and other details borrowed from Medieval Gothic architecture. Among the cathedral's many gargoyles is a playful sculpture of "Star Wars" villain Darth Vader, added after children submitted the idea to a design competition.

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

Washington, DC
The Hirshhorn Museum.

Tony Savino/Corbis Historical/Corbis via Getty Images/Getty Images (cropped)

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is named after financier and philanthropist Joseph H. Hirshhorn, who donated his extensive collection of modern art. The Smithsonian Institution asked Pritzker Prize-winning architect Gordon Bunshaft to design a museum that would showcase modern art. After several revisions, Bunshaft's plan for the Hirshhorn Museum became a massive functional sculpture.

The building is a hollow cylinder that rests on four curved pedestals. Galleries with curved walls expand views of the artworks inside. Windowed walls overlook a fountain and bi-level plaza where modernist sculptures are displayed.

Reviews of the museum were mixed. Benjamin Forgey of the Washington Post called the Hirshhorn "the biggest piece of abstract art in town." Louise Huxtable of the New York Times described the museum's style as "born-dead, neo-penitentiary modern." For visitors to Washington, D.C., the Hirshhorn Museum has become as much of an attraction as the art it contains.

The US Supreme Court Building

Washington, DC
US Supreme Court.

Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images (cropped)

Built between 1928 and 1935, the U.S. Supreme Court Building houses the judicial branch of the government. Ohio-born architect Cass Gilbert borrowed from the architecture of ancient Rome when he designed the building. The neoclassical style was chosen to reflect democratic ideals. In fact, the whole building is steeped in symbolism. Sculpted pediments along the top tell allegories of justice and mercy.

The Library of Congress

Washington, DC
The Library of Congress.

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When it was created in 1800, the Library of Congress was primarily a resource for Congressmen. The library was located where the legislators worked, in the U.S. Capitol Building. The book collection was destroyed twice: during the British attack in 1814 and again during a disastrous fire in 1851. Nevertheless, the collection eventually became so large that Congress decided to construct a second building to help contain it. Today, the Library of Congress is a complex of buildings with more books and shelf space than any other library in the world.

Made of marble, granite, iron, and bronze, the Thomas Jefferson Building was modeled after the Beaux Arts Paris Opera House in France. More than 40 artists were involved in the creation of the building's statues, relief sculptures, and murals. The Library of Congress dome is plated with 23-carat gold.

The Lincoln Memorial

Washington, DC
The Lincoln Memorial.

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Many years went into planning the memorial to American's 16th president. An early proposal called for a statue of Abraham Lincoln surrounded by statues of 37 other people, six on horseback. This idea was ruled out as too costly, so a variety of other plans were considered.

Decades later, on Lincoln's birthday in 1914, the first stone was laid. Architect Henry Bacon gave the memorial 36 Doric columns, representing the 36 states in the Union at the time of Lincoln's death. Two additional columns flank the entrance. Inside is a 19-foot statue of a seated Lincoln carved by sculptor Daniel Chester French.

The Lincoln Memorial provides a stately and dramatic backdrop for political events and important speeches. On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his famous "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the memorial.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall

White snowfall intensifies the black granite of the Vietnam Memorial.
Maya Lin's Controversial Memorial The black granite of the Vietnam Memorial is even more pronounced after a 2003 snowfall.

2003 Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Made of mirror-like black granite, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall captures the reflections of those who view it. The 250-foot wall, designed by architect Maya Lin, is the main part of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Construction of the modernist memorial stirred much controversy, so two traditional memorials—the Three Soldiers statue and the Vietnam Women's Memorial—were added nearby.

The National Archives Building

Washington, DC
Pennsylvania Avenue view of the National Archives building.

Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge Archive Photos/Getty Images (cropped)

Where do you go to see the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence? The nation's capital has original copies—in the National Archives.

More than just another federal office building, the National Archives is an exhibition hall and storage area for all of the important documents created by the Founding Fathers. Specialized interior features (e.g., shelving, air filters) preserve the documents from damage.

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Craven, Jackie. "The Architecture of Washington, DC." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Craven, Jackie. (2021, February 16). The Architecture of Washington, DC. Retrieved from Craven, Jackie. "The Architecture of Washington, DC." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 10, 2023).