The Public Architecture of Washington, DC

Washington, D. C. Cityscapes And City Views
Washington, D. C. Cityscape. Raymond Boyd / Getty Images

The United States is often called a cultural melting pot, and the architecture of its capital city, Washington, DC, is truly an international blend. As you browse these photos, look for the influences of ancient Egypt, classical Greece and Rome, medieval Europe, 19th century France, and other distant times and places. Also, remember that Washington, DC is a "planned community," designed by the French-born Pierre Charles L'Enfant. 

The White House

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

The White House is a major consideration in L'Enfant's plan. It is the elegant mansion of America's president, but its beginnings were humble. Irish-born architect James Hoban (1758-1831) may have modeled the initial architecture of the White House 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. The British famously burned the White House in 1814, and Hoban rebuilt. It was British-born architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820) who added the porticoes in 1824. Latrobe's renovations transformed the White House from a modest Georgian house into a Neoclassical mansion.

Union Station

Union Station in Washington, DC
Union Station in Washington, DC. Photo by Leigh Vogel/Getty Images for Amtrak/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Modeled after buildings in ancient Rome, the 1907 Union Station is lavished with elaborate sculptures, ionic columns, gold leaf, and grand marble corridors, in a mix of Neo-classical and Beaux-Arts designs.

In the 1800s, major railway terminals like the 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.

  • Prometheus, representing Fire
  • Thales, representing Electricity
  • Themis, representing Freedom and Justice
  • Apollo, representing Imagination and Inspiration
  • Ceres, representing Agriculture
  • Archimedes, representing Mechanics

The US Capitol

United States Capitol Building, Washington, DC, Supreme Court (L) and Library of Congress (R) in Background
United States Capitol Building, Washington, DC, Supreme Court (L) and Library of Congress (R) in Background. Photo by 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 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 should resemble the Roman Pantheon with a circular domed rotunda.

Burned by British troops in 1814, the Capitol went through several major renovations. Like many buildings constructed during the founding of Washington DC, most of the labor was done by African Americans - some paid, and some slaves.

The most famous feature of the US 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.

Built: 1793-1829 and 1851-1863
Style: Neoclassical
Architects: William Thornton, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, Charles Bulfinch, Thomas Ustick Walter (Dome), Frederick Law Olmsted (landscape and hardscape)

The Smithsonian Institute Castle

The Smithsonian Institute Castle in Washington DC
Famous Buildings in Washington, DC: The Smithsonian Institute Castle The Smithsonian Institute Castle. Photo (cc) Noclip / Wikimedia

Victorian architect James Renwick, Jr. gave this Smithsonian Institute Building the air of a medieval castle.

Smithsonian Information Center, The Smithsonian Castle
Built: 1847-1855
Restored: 1968-1969
Style: Victorian Romanesque and Gothic
Architects: Designed by James Renwick, Jr.,
completed by Lieutenant Barton S. Alexander of the U.S. Army Topographic Engineers

The Smithsonian Building known as the Castle was designed as a home for the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institute. Today the Smithsonian Castle houses the Smithsonian's administrative offices and a visitor center with maps and interactive displays.

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

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

More About the Smithsonian Castle

The Eisenhower Executive Office Building

Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC
Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, DC. Photo by Raymond Boyd / Michael Ochs Archives / Getty Images (cropped)

Modeled after grandiose Second Empire buildings in Paris, the Executive Office Building was mocked by writers and critics.

About the Eisenhower Executive Office Building:
Built: 1871-1888
Style: Second Empire
Chief Architect: Alfred Mullett
Chief Draftsman and Interior Designer: Richard von Ezdorf

Formally called 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 the Second Empire buildings in Paris.

The flamboyant Executive Office Building was a startling contrast to the austere Neoclassical architecture of Washington, DC. Mullet's design was often mocked. The writer Henry Adams called it an "architectural infant asylum." According to legend, humorist Mark Twain said the Executive Office Building was the "ugliest building in America." By 1958, the Executive Office Building faced demolition, but President Harry S. Truman defended it. Even if the Executive Office Building was unattractive it was, Truman said, "the greatest monstrosity in America."

The interior of the Executive Office Building is noted for its remarkable cast iron details and enormous skylights designed by Richard von Ezdorf.

The Jefferson Memorial

The Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC
The Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge Archive Photos/Getty Images (cropped)

The circular, domed Jefferson Memorial resembles Monticello, the Virginia home that Thomas Jefferson designed for himself.

About the Jefferson Memorial:
Location: West Potomac Park, south bank of the Potomac River Tidal Basin
Built: 1938-1943
Statue Added: 1947
Style: Neoclassical
Architect: John Russell Pope, Otto R. Eggers, and Daniel P. Higgins
Sculptor: Rudolph Evans
Pediment Carvings: Adolph A. Weinman

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, and 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 (5.8 m) bronze statue of Thomas Jefferson stands directly beneath the dome.

Learn more about Column Types and Styles >>>

When it was built, some critics mocked the Jefferson Memorial, calling it Jefferson's muffin. In an era moving toward Modernism, architecture based on ancient Greece and Rome seemed tired and artificial. Today, the Jefferson Memorial is one of the most photographed structures in Washington, DC, and is especially beautiful in the spring, when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.

More About the Jefferson Memorial

National Museum of the American Indian

The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC
Famous Buildings in Washington, DC: National Museum of the American Indian The National Museum of the American Indian. Photo © Alex Wong / Getty Images

One of Washington's newest buildings, the National Museum of the American Indian resembles prehistoric stone formations.

National Museum of the American Indian:
Built: 2004
Style: Organic
Project Designer: Douglas Cardinal (Blackfoot) of Ottawa, Canada
Design Architects: GBQC Architects of Philadelphia and Johnpaul Jones (Cherokee/Choctaw)
Project Architects: Jones & Jones Architects and Landscape Architects Ltd. of Seattle and SmithGroup of Washington, D.C., with Lou Weller (Caddo) and the Native American Design Collaborative, and Polshek Partnership Architects of New York City
Design Consultants: Ramona Sakiestewa (Hopi) and Donna House (Navajo/Oneida)
Landscape Architects: Jones & Jones Architects and Landscape Architects Ltd. of Seattle and EDAW Inc. of Alexandria, Va.
Construction: Clark Construction Company of Bethesda, Md. and Table Mountain Rancheria Enterprises Inc (CLARK/TMR)

Many groups of Native Peoples contributed to the design of the National Museum of the American Indian. Rising five stories, the curvilinear building is constructed to resemble natural stone formations. The exterior walls are made with 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 4.25 acres landscape that recreates early American forests, meadows, and wetlands.

The Marriner S. Eccles Federal Reserve Board Building

Eccles Building of the Federal Reserve in Washington, DC
Eccles Building of the Federal Reserve in Washington, DC. Photo by Brooks Kraft/ Corbis News/ Getty Images

Beaux Arts architecture goes mod at the Federal Reserve Board Building in Washington, DC. 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, had trained at the École des Beaux-Arts in France. His design for the Federal Reserve Building is a modern approach to Beaux Arts architecture. The columns and pediments suggest classical styling, but the ornamentation is streamlined. The goal was to create a building that would be both monumental and dignified.

Bas-relief Sculptures: John Gregory
Courtyard Fountain: Walker Hancock
Eagle Sculpture: Sidney Waugh
Wrought-iron Railings and Stairs: Samuel Yellin

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, Washington, DC. Photo by Danita Delimont/Gallo Images Collection/Getty Images (cropped)

Ancient Egyptian architecture inspired the design of the Washington Monument. Architect Robert Mills initial design honored America's first president, George Washington, with a 600-foot (183 m) tall, square, flat-topped pillar. At the base of the pillar, Mills envisioned an elaborate colonnade with statues of thirty Revolutionary War heroes and a soaring sculpture of George Washington in a chariot. Learn more about the original design for the Washington Monument.

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

Political strife, the Civil War, and money shortages delayed construction on the Washington Monument. Because of interruptions, the stones are not all the same shade. Part way up, at 150 feet (45 m), the masonry blocks are a slightly different color. Thirty years passed before the monument was completed in 1884. At that time, the Washington Monument was the tallest structure in the world. It's still the tallest structure in Washington D.C.

Cornerstone Laid: July 4, 1848
Structural Construction Complete: December 6, 1884
Dedication Ceremony: February 21, 1885
Officially Opened: October 9, 1888
Style: Egyptian Revival
Architect: Robert Mills; Redesigned by Lt. Colonel Thomas Casey (US Army Corps of Engineers)
Height: 554 feet 7-11/32 inches* (169.046 meters*)
Dimensions: 55 feet 1-1/2 inches (16.80 m) each side at the base, tapering to 34 feet 5-5/8 inches (10.5 m) at 500 feet level (top of shaft and bottom of pyramid); the foundation is reportedly 80 feet by 80 feet
Weight: 81,120 tons
Wall Thickness: From 15 feet (4.6 m) at bottom to 18 inches (460 mm) at the top
Construction Materials: Stone masonry -- white marble (Maryland and Massachusetts), Texas marble, Maryland blue gneiss, granite (Maine), and sandstone
Number of Blocks: 36,491
Number of US Flags: 50 flags (one for each state) encircle the base

* NOTE: Height recalculations were released in 2015. See the NOAA Study Uses Latest Tech to Compute Updated Washington Monument Height and 2013-2014 Survey of the Washington Monument [accessed February 17, 2015]

Renovations at the Washington Monument:

In 1999, the Washington Monument faced extensive renovations. Postmodernist architect Michael Graves surrounded the monument with distinctive scaffolding made from 37 miles of aluminum tubing. The scaffolding took four months to erect and became a tourist attraction in itself.

Earthquake Damage at the Washington Monument:

Twelve years later, in August 23, 2011, masonry cracked during an earthquake. Damage was assessed inside and out, with specialists examining each side of the famous obelisk. Architectural engineers from Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc. (WJE) delivered a detailed and illustrated report, Washington Monument Post-Earthquake Assessment (PDF), on December 22, 2011. Major repairs are planned to reinforce the cracks with steel plates, replace and shore up loose pieces of marble, and re-seal joints.

More Photos:
Washington Monument Illumination: Shining a Light on Architecture:

Learn more about the beauty of scaffolding and the challenges and lessons in lighting tall structures.

Sources: Washington Monument Post-Earthquake Assessment, Wiss, Janney, Elstner Associates, Inc., Tipping Mar (PDF); Washington Monument Travel, National Park Service (NPS); Washington Monument -- American Presidents, National Park Service [accessed August 14, 2013]; History & Culture, NPS [accessed December 1, 2014]

The Washington National Cathedral

National Cathedral in Washington, DC
National Cathedral in Washington, DC. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge Archive Photos/Getty Images (cropped)

Gothic ideas combined with 20th century engineering to make the National Cathedral one of the tallest buildings in Washington, DC.

About the Washington National Cathedral:
Built: 1907-1990
Style: Neo-Gothic
Master Plan: George Frederick Bodley and Henry Vaughn
Landscape Design: Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr.
Principal Architect: Philip Hubert Frohman with Ralph Adams Cram

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 Washington National Cathedral is Gothic Revival, or Neo-Gothic, in design. Architects Bodley, Vaughn, and Frohman lavished Washington National Cathedral with pointed arches, flying buttresses, stained-glass windows, and other details borrowed from Medieval Gothic architecture. Among the Cathedral's many gargoyles is the playful sculpture of the sci-fi villain Darth Vader, created after children submitted ideas to a design competition.

Construction on the National Cathedral spanned most of the 20th century. Most of the cathedral is made with buff-colored Indiana limestone, but modern materials like steel and concrete were used for rafters, beams, and supports.

The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden

The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC
The Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC. Photo by Tony Savino/Corbis Historical/Corbis via Getty Images/Getty Images (cropped)

Resembling a giant space ship, the Hirshhorn Museum is a dramatic contrast to the Neoclassical buildings on the National Mall.

About the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden:
Built: 1969-1974
Style: Modernist, Functionalist
Architect: Gordon Bunshaft of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill
Landscape Architect: Redesigned plaza by James Urban opened in 1993

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.

Made of a precast concrete aggregate of pink granite, the Hirshhorn 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 were mixed. Benjamin Forgey of the Washington Post called the Hirshhorn "the biggest piece of abstract art in town." (November 4, 1989) Louise Huxtable of the New York Times said that the Hirshhorn was "born-dead, neo-penitentiary modern." (October 6, 1974) For visitors to Washington, DC, the Hirshhorn Museum has become as much an attraction as the art it contains.

The US Supreme Court

US Supreme Court in Washington, DC
US Supreme Court in Washington, DC. Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images News/Getty Images (cropped)

Built between 1928 and 1935, the US Supreme Court building is the newest house for one of the three branches of the US government. Ohio-born architect Cass Gilbert borrowed from the architecture of ancient Rome when he designed the US Supreme Court Building. The Neoclassical style was chosen to reflect democratic ideals. In fact, the whole building is steeped in symbolism. Sculpted pediments on the US Supreme Court Building tell allegories of justice and mercy.

Learn More:

The Library of Congress

The Library of Congress in Washington, DC
The Library of Congress in Washington, DC. Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Often called a "celebration in stone," the Thomas Jefferson Building at the Library of Congress was modeled after the lavish Beaux Arts Paris Opera House.

When it was created in 1800, the Library of Congress was a resource for Congress, the legislative branch of U.S. government. The library was located where the legislators worked, in the US Capitol Building. The book collection was destroyed twice: during the British attack in 1814 and during a disastrous fire in 1851. Nevertheless, the collection became so large that Congress decided to construct a separate building. 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 created the statues, relief sculptures, and murals. The Library of Congress dome is plated with 23-carat gold.

The Thomas Jefferson Building is named after America's third president, who had donated his personal book collection to replace the library lost after the August 1814 attack. Today, the Library of Congress is America's national library and the largest book collection in the world. Two additional buildings, the John Adams and the James Madison Buildings, were added to accommodate the Library’s collection.

Built: 1888-1897; opened to the public on November 1, 1897
Architects: Plans by John L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz, completed by Gen. Edward Pearce Casey and civil engineer Bernard R. Green

Sources: The Library of Congress, the National Park Service; History, the Library of Congress. Websites accessed April 22, 2013.

The Lincoln Memorial

The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, large Doric columns on each side
Symbolism in Stone - Famous Buildings in Washington, DC The Lincoln Memorial. Photo by Allan Baxter / Collection: Photographer's Choice RF / Getty Images

The Neoclassical memorial to America's 16th president, Abraham Lincoln, has become a dramatic setting for many important political events.

About the Lincoln Memorial:
Built: 1914-1922
Dedicated: May 30, 1922 (watch video on C-Span)
Style: Neoclassical
Architect: Henry Bacon
Lincoln Statue: Daniel Chester French
Murals: Jules Guerin

Many years went into planning a memorial for America's 16 president, Abraham Lincoln. An early proposal called for a statue of Lincoln surrounded by statues of 37 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 President Lincoln's death. Two more columns flank the entrance. Inside is a 19-foot tall statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln carved by sculptor Daniel Chester French.

Learn more about Column Types and Styles >>>

The Neoclassical Lincoln Memorial was designed to symbolize Lincoln's ideal for a "more perfect union." The stone was drawn from several different states:

  • the walkway is granite from Massachusetts and stones from the Potomac River
  • the columns and interior are limestone from Indiana
  • the exterior walls and the statue are marble from Colorado
  • the floor is pink marble from Tennessee

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 favorite "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

The Vietnam Veterans 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. Photo ©2003 Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Made of mirror-like black granite, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial captures the reflections of those who view it. The 250-foot long polished black granite Veterans Memorial Wall 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.
Built: 1982
Style: Modernist
Architect: Maya Lin

Learn More:

The National Archives Building

Pennsylvania Avenue view of the National Archives building, Washington, DC
Pennsylvania Avenue view of the National Archives building, Washington, DC. Photo by 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? Our nation's capital has original copies - in the National Archives.

More than just another federal office building in Washington, DC, the National Archives is an exhibition hall and storage area (archive) for the important documents created by the Founding Fathers. Specialized interior features (e.g., shelving, air filters) were built-in to protect the archives. An old creek bed runs under the structure, so the building was constructed on "a huge concrete bowl as a foundation."

In 1934 President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the law that made the National Archives an independent agency, which led to the system of Presidential Library Buildings—all part of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).

About the National Archives Building:

Location: Federal Triangle Center, 7th & Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC
Groundbreaking: September 5, 1931
Cornerstone Laid: February 20, 1933
Opened: November 5, 1935
Completed: 1937
Architect: John Russell Pope
Architectural Style: Neoclassical architecture (note the glass curtain wall behind the columns, similar to the 1903 NY Stock Exchange Building in New York City)
Corinthian Columns: 72, each 53 feet high, 190,000 pounds, and 5'8" in diameter
Two Entry Doors on Constitution Avenue: Bronze, each weighing 13,000 pounds, 38'7" high by 10' wide and 11" thick
Rotunda (Exhibition Hall): Designed to display the Charters of Freedom—the US Bill of Rights (since 1937), the US Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (both relocated from the Library of Congress in December 1952)
Murals: Painted in NYC by Barry Faulkner; installed in 1936

Source: A Short History of the National Archives Building, Washington, DC, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration [accessed December 6, 2014]