Have you ever wondered why homes in the Washington area look the way they do? And why are there so many Colonials, row houses and brick homes?
Since the days before there was a District of Columbia, home design in this region has been influenced by available materials, climate, architectural traditions and the culture of the day.
Wood and brick have been the primary materials used in home construction and design because of their wide availability and ability to withstand the climate. Brick also is an attractive material because it is naturally fire-resistant.
Stone was used more sparingly because it was not a common resource in our area and therefore was more costly.
Adobe houses — popular in the Southwest — aren’t seen here because the mud-based material cannot handle the amount of rainfall in this area. Because of rainfall and snowstorms, homes in the mid-Atlantic often have steep roofs to deal with precipitation.
Of course, architectural traditions also have played a huge role in shaping the look of area homes. These traditions were born in Europe and crossed the Atlantic to heavily influence the architecture of the New World.
“England is really the primary pipeline for architectural influence, particularly in the Colonies, and we are still very indebted to Colonial ideas here,” says Daniel Lee, principal and founder of Daniel Lee Architect of Old Town Alexandria.
Many architectural traditions came to prominence in well-known public and private buildings and in the homes of the wealthy. With time, some of the architectural aesthetics trickled down to middle-class homes.
Mr. Lee says Thomas Jefferson played a large role in shaping local architecture by introducing the classical ideas of 16th-century Italian architect Andrea Palladio. His “Four Books of Architecture” became highly respected pattern books among architects.
“The Palladian aesthetic really becomes the nation’s architecture. You’ll see this architecture across the country,” Mr. Lee says. “It’s often sought out by those even today who want a very strong historical connection to the past in their domestic architecture.”
One example is the Palladian window, an arched window often flanked by side lights — smaller, thinner windows. This window was used frequently in the area and can be seen in George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon. It is a common feature in upscale homes built in the region today.
Around the Washington area, a number of neighborhoods are especially rich in design history.
Capitol Hill is one of the most distinctive examples. You can’t visit the Capitol Hill area without noticing the many, many row houses. It is the dominant home style in the community, and a majority of the houses show the influence of Victorian-era architecture.
The Capitol Hill area became a row-house neighborhood because of Washington’s 1791 Party Wall Proclamation, which allowed people to build homes that straddled property lines.
According to Judith Capen, one of the founding architects of Architrave PC Architects, a historic-preservation practice on Capitol Hill, a majority of Capitol Hill row houses, built between 1875 and 1893, had the same interior side-hall plan.
However, developers put different fronts on the houses to reflect various architectural aesthetics from the Victorian period.
Design inspiration for these fronts came from high-end homes or famous public buildings and trickled down to areas such as Capitol Hill, which was a working-class neighborhood. Most of the original residents were printers employed at the Government Printing Office, clerks, shopkeepers and workers at the Washington Navy Yard.
“Just because I work at the Government Printing Office doesn’t mean that I don’t want the same stuff that those rich people have. I just can’t afford it,” says Ms. Capen, who writes a historic-preservation advice column called Ask Judith for the Voice of the Hill newspaper.
A majority of the row houses had features from the Queen Anne style, characterized by windows with little squares of glass around the upper sash, stained glass above the front door or windows, and perhaps some decorative brickwork.
Other row houses reflected the Italianate style, with its flat front, large cornices and tall windows. Some reflected the Richardsonian Romanesque style with heavy stone and semicircular arches. Still others were of the Second Empire style, in which a mansard roof is the dominant feature.
At the turn of the 20th century, Ms. Capen says, there was a reaction against Victorian style, and the design style changed to a porch-front house. Not only did these row houses feature some type of porch, but they were made from tapestry brick, which was a tan-colored striated brick. Porch-front row houses can be found near RFK Stadium.
Capitol Hill is also a unique neighborhood because of its very wide streets. Pierre Charles L’Enfant put wide streets in the city’s design because he “imagined that the capital city was going to be really grand,” Ms. Capen says.” “This gives us neighborhoods that are completely different from the Colonial-era neighborhoods that you would see cities like Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston, New York City. These cities have minimal front yards. Our row-house neighborhoods have a sense of openness that is unique to other row-house neighborhoods.”
The Parkfairfax neighborhood of Alexandria also has a unique history. It was built after a conversation between the president of Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who were friends.
Roosevelt said the housing shortage in the Washington area was a result of the large expansion of the federal government in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Met Life built Parkfairfax between 1941 and 1943, putting up 285 apartment buildings on the 132-acre property.
According to Lisa Phinney, a resident who helped get the community on the National Register of Historic Places, Parkfairfax was a premiere neighborhood from the start. Hundreds of people signed up on the waiting list to get in. Presidents Nixon and Ford both lived in Parkfairfax when they were in Congress.
“These were quite expensive for the time, so you got a lot of people who were in the upper echelons of the military and middle- and higher-level functionaries of the bureaucracy,” Ms. Phinney says.
Parkfairfax homes are made of brick, and residences are connected. From the front facade, they are symmetrical, and the fronts have a variety of neo-Colonial-style architecture.
Mr. Lee says he thinks the Jeffersonian aesthetic lies behind the nation’s continued interest in Colonial architecture with its columns, porticos and cornices.
“The American person, by and large, regards that architecture as domestic and noble and edifying to be associated with. And that architecture, therefore, continues to this day,” Mr. Lee says. “This is why, especially in the mid-Atlantic region, we see a continuing, substantial market for town houses or Colonial style architecture — even though much of it is a very poor imitation of the best examples.”
Another major strand of architecture was called the American Beaux Arts tradition. It came to the United States from Paris and was used in a number of expensive homes, including many of the embassies on Massachusetts Avenue.
The later Arts and Crafts style was a reaction to the Industrial Revolution. Bungalow homes are an example of this aesthetic and can be found in Chevy Chase and the Del Ray neighborhood of Alexandria.
The Modern Movement was the last major architectural tradition that came about after the stock market crash of 1929.
“The movement is an attempt to break with the aesthetics of the past as a reflection of the break with the value systems of the past,” Mr. Lee says. “So much of the architecture is free of symbolic references, free of ornament, and takes a strong interest in abstraction as an aesthetic device.”