Washington, D.C. is home to some of the nation’s most stunning and famous architecture, whose building designs and construction have also garnered international attention. As a cultural melting pot, one can clearly see the influences from ancient Rome and Greece, as well as from European nations. Whether you visit D.C. in the fall when the leaves are changing, in the winter when most of the landscape is covered in snow, or in the spring when the cherry blossoms open, there are many architectural marvels to see. Here are only ten of some of the most iconic buildings in Washington, D.C.
1. The Lincoln Memorial
Architect Henry Bacon modeled the Lincoln Memorial after the Parthenon, a famous Greek temple, because he believed that a memorial built to honor a man who defended democracy as Abraham Lincoln did should be inspired by the architectural style commonly seen in the birthplace of democracy. The 36 exterior columns symbolize the 36 states in the Union that existed at the time of Lincoln’s death in 1865, and their names appear in the friezes above the columns. In the main chamber is a towering sculpture of Lincoln, flanked by two other chambers honoring his speeches: the Gettysburg Address and his March 4, 1865 Second Inaugural Address. Two large murals painted by Jules Guerin are placed above each of the speeches.
2. The Washington Monument
The famous 555-foot marble obelisk was built as a tribute to George Washington. In 1833, Chief Justice John Marshall founded the Washington National Monument Society; its mission was to solicit donations from the public to erect a monument in honor of the United States’ first president. In 1845, the Society chose Robert Mills as the designer whose original concept was for a 600-foot tall obelisk with a relatively flat top and was estimated to cost $200,000 to complete. In January 1848, Congress authorized the building of the Monument on public grounds, but only a few months later, in April, The Washington National Monument Society instructed Mills to modify his original design to build only a 500-foot tall obelisk due to money shortages. By autumn of 1854, the Society had exhausted all of their funds for the project. In August 1876, Congress appropriated $2 million in federal funds to complete construction, transferring ownership from the private Society to the federal government. In 1880 the foundation was strengthened and completed, and installation of stairs and elevator frames began. The Washington Monument opened to the public on October 9, 1888.
The Washington Monument underwent its first major restoration in the 1930s and its second restoration in the 1960s, with its third restoration in the 1990s. In 2011, a 5.8 magnitude earthquake struck 90 miles southwest of Washington DC. Although there were no serious injuries and all visitors exited safely, there was damage to the structure, including fallen mortar and pieces of stone. Professional investigations into the damage found cracks, spalls, and displacements that needed to be repaired. The Monument underwent another restoration between 2016 and 2019 to modernize the elevator system.
3. Heurich House Museum
Also known as the Christian Heurich Mansion or Brewmaster’s Castle, the Heurich House Museum is located in Dupont Circle and features Victorian architecture. The interior design is as much to be adored as the exterior architecture, with deep reds and ornate designs and no corner without uniquely intricate details. It was a modern marvel in its time, featuring indoor plumbing, electric lighting fixtures, and a central vacuum system.
4. Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception
As the largest Roman Catholic Church in North America, Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception has been designated by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as a National Sanctuary of Prayer and Pilgrimage. With more than 80 chapels and oratories and as the tallest habitable building in Washington D.C., it surely deserves a place on this list. The Great Upper Church features the main chapels and the three domes above the North and South Nave, as well as the East and West Transept domes. It was designed based on the Byzantine Revival and Romanesque Revival architectural styles. Construction began in 1920 led by renowned contractor John McShain, and was completed in late 2017.
5. National Museum of African American History and Culture
Lead designer David Adjaye and lead architect Philip Freelon, working in conjunction with Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup, were chosen as the winners of an international design competition in 2009 to build a museum in the National Mall that would honor African American history and culture in the United States. The three-tiered, trapezoidal shape was inspired by a sculpture by early 20th-century Yoruban craftsman Olowe of Ise, whose columnic sculptures were designed to support the porches of shrine houses. Nicknamed the “Corona,” the bronze design is a tribute to the enslaved and free African Americans in South Carolina and Louisiana who were skilled artisans and metalworkers. The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in 2016.
6. Founders Library at Howard University
Albert Irvin Cassell is famous for being the third registered African-American architect in Washington, D.C., and is a name often heard in discussions about the District’s historic architecture. Born in Maryland, he was curious about drafting from a young age and later studied at Cornell University. After serving in the U.S. Army, he began working as an architect for universities. Notably, he designed the Founders Library at Howard University, which opened in 1939. As the largest and most comprehensive research facility at any historically Black university, it is not only an iconic symbol for the university but continues to serve as a meeting place for some of the brightest Black minds in the nation. The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Founders Library as a National Treasure in 2016.
7. The Kreeger Museum
Winning the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal in 1978 and the first Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1979, the Kreeger Museum is a modern and contemporary art museum and the former home of David Lloyd Kreeger and Carmen Kreeger. The museum was built in 1963 and designed by American architect Philip Johnson. His partner even went to Italy to hand-select the travertine (young limestone) used in construction and labeled every piece to ensure proper construction. Interestingly, the building’s interior and exterior units are 22 x 22 x 22 feet.
8. The Cairo
Whenever there’s something new, there is a mix of fear and trepidation. This was true with the construction of the Cairo apartments in 1894 when people were wary of skyscrapers, the durability of these new iron and steel-frame structures, and fire chiefs were worried about their ability to put out a fire in a building over 85 feet tall. The Cairo stands at 164 feet tall and inspired the Height of Buildings Act of 1899. Designed by architect Thomas Franklin Schneider, it is the city’s first residential skyscraper and features a Moorish and Romanesque Revival architectural style.
9. The White House
Designed by architect James Hoban, who intended the official residence and office of the President of the United States to resemble the Leinster House in Dublin, it was constructed between 1792 and 1800. However, George Washington didn’t like Hoban’s Georgian-style design and requested a more ornamental design to replace it. The White House is the most recognized neoclassical building in America; in 2007, it was given the second-place spot on the American Institute of Architects list of “America’s Favorite Architecture.” It is a National Heritage Site and is owned by the National Park Service.
The White House survived being attacked and set on fire by the British Army in 1814, destroying the interior chambers and much of the exterior. Reconstruction began immediately, and in October 1817, President James Monroe was able to move into the partially reconstructed Executive Residence. The portico, which was influenced by the French estate Château de Rastignac, was added in 1824 by architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe. In 1901 President Theodore Roosevelt relocated work offices to the West Wing, which was expanded by President William Howard Taft in 1909, who also added the first Oval Office.
Today, the White House complex includes the West Wing, East Wing, Executive Residence, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, and the Blair House, which is a guest house for visiting dignitaries.
10. Union Station
Opening in 1907, the Washington Union Station is Amtrak’s second-busiest train station and headquarters. With almost 5 million riders a year, it was designed by architects Daniel Burnham and Ernest R. Graham. It is known for its mixing of different styles, from the classical Arch of Constantine to the great vaulted spaces of the Baths of Diocletian. The main concourse stretches 760 feet, with ceilings soaring at 96 feet high. Sunlight from the large Diocletian windows reflects off the gilded leaf motifs. Bethel white granite from Vermont was used to construct the exterior but was mainly built with steel and concrete to keep it strong.