Without question the most stunning and majestic perspectives of the city lie east of the Anacostia River. As we approach a new round of debates over the height limit, it’s important to understand the contemporary and historic value of these astonishing sight lines.
Views from the campuses of Cardozo High School in Northwest and McKinley Technology High School in Northeast cannot compare to those from Saint Elizabeths’ West Campus. The panorama of the sunset from atop Cedar Hill, with the Capitol and the Washington Monument in the foreground, is surreal.
Despite the current stigma of many east of the river neighborhoods, Anacostia, Barry Farm, Buena Vista (Spanish for “good view”), Bellevue (French for “beautiful view”) Fairlawn, Fort Stanton, and Hillsdale have a romantic naturalism that has been recognized in literature and paintings since the early 19th century.
Last week, Congressman Issa (R-CA) and Congresswoman Norton (D-DC) announced a study to re-examine the 1910 law which limits the height of buildings in Washington. There are strong, well-reasoned arguments to both maintain and revise the law. In that study, the National Capital Planning Commission is very concerned about preserving views of the monumental core from across the city.
In March 1873, 12 years before the Washington Monument was finally finished, Lippincott’s Magazine of Popular Literature and Science waxed poetic about the sight lines:
“A stranger visiting the national capital should begin by leaving it. He should cross the Anacostia River at the Navy-yard, climb the heights behind the village of Uniontown, be careful to find exactly the right path, and seat himself on the parapet of old Fort Stanton.
His feeling of fatigue will be overcome by one of astonishment that the scene should contain so much that is beautiful in nature, so much that is exceedingly novel if not very good in art, and so much that has the deepest historical interest. From the blue hills of Prince George’s county in Maryland winds the Anacostia, whose waters at his feet float all but the very largest vessels of our navy, while but six miles above they float nothing larger than a Bladensburg goose. To the left flows the Potomac, a mile wide. Between the rivers lies Washington.
A vast amphitheatre, its green or gray walls cloven only by the two rivers, appears to surround the city. ‘Amphitheatre’ is the word, for within the great circle, proportioned to it in size and magnificence, dwarfing all other objects, stands the veritable arena where our public gladiators and wild beasts hold their combats. This of course is the Capitol, whose white dome rises like a blossoming lily from the dark expanse below.
In form and feeling the symbols of federal Washington yield aesthetic and therapeutic influence on the east side of town. Across the other side of the deep divide of the river is where the political influence is felt and permeates daily life. East of the river you can feel the literal sense of geographic disengagement and detachment from official Washington. There’s a sense of pride in this disconnection. Life still moves slowly here. The historic development of the community personifies this truth.
In 1855 the United States Government Hospital for the Insane, later renamed Saint Elizabeths, saw its first patient. The palatial landscape situated high on a bluff overlooked the Washington Navy Yard and the first efforts to erect the modern cast iron Capitol Dome, that now defines the city skyline. For the first inmates and staff, alike, the scene was as palliative then as it is today.
Ascending Howard Road SE, in the Hillsdale neighborhood, the Washington Monument, illuminated at night, is the sentry keeping a vigilant eye over the “southside”. Over on Morris Road SE is Our Lady of Perpetual Help Roman Catholic Church, known to the go-go community as the Panorama Room. The name is purposeful, from here the entire city unfolds before your eyes, revealing itself. In the award-winning independent movie, “Slam,” actor Saul Williams ponders his existence and future as a low-level drug dealer from this sweeping indigenous veranda.
Down in historic Anacostia, the Statue of Freedom, crowning the Capitol Dome, has watched over folks of this inner-city suburban village with village folk watching right back for nearly 150 years. Whether on foot, peddle, bus, or car, formerly on horseback, carriage, and streetcar, glimpses of the Capitol often flash in and out of the periphery between buildings, alleys, and fences.
As feasibility studies and further analysis of the city’s height limit moves forward, we hope the character of these vistas are protected and not ignored in favor of political calculus and economic expediency.