Matthew B. Gilmore
By Matthew B. Gilmore*
On May 16, 1930 Congress approved Public Law 231, “An Act to regulate the height, exterior design, and construction of private and semipublic buildings in certain areas of the National Capital” — now commonly referred to as the Shipstead-Luce Act.
Virtually unknown outside planning and real estate development circles, the Act is a foundational element of the matrix of planning laws and regulations which have shaped the unique urban design of the Washington we have today.
The law gave design review to the Commission of Fine Arts over private buildings adjacent to federal buildings, the first law imposing design review over private buildings in Washington. Unlike zoning and building regulations, it is the first legislation that allows the government to review and approve the actual design and materials of private construction (extending to color), rather than simply height, mass, and use. As such it is also the precursor to Washington’s historic preservation laws, particularly the Old Georgetown Act. (qv Georgetown Becomes Colonial — Reborn at 200: Georgetown’s 1951 Bicentenary Celebration)
In 1924 a new body joined the CFA on the Washington, DC planning regulatory scene — the National Capital Park and Planning Commission (NCPPC). It, too, inherited from the McMillan Commission initially just the park planning. NCPPC became an ally to the CFA’s efforts.
In 1926 the Public Buildings Act designated the location of new federal buildings in what is now the Federal Triangle. This location change was momentous. It brought the proposed new buildings face-to-face with the privately developed commercial corridor along the north side of Pennsylvania Avenue. Rather than arraying government buildings around Lafayette Square in a self-contained solid classical backdrop to the White House, the Triangle was exposed on all sides, needing its own sympathetic periphery, particularly the north side of the avenue.
As originally planned, the ring of federal buildings built around Lafayette Square would have excluded private development and they would have faced the White House with their backs to adjacent private development.
“Certain degree of protection”
The initial legislation which became the Shipstead-Luce Act was first introduced a few months later, in January of 1927. Senator Henrik Shipstead of Minnesota would later relate that he’d consulted with the Architect of the Capitol who referred him to Colonel Ulysses S. Grant of the NCPPC. The bill provided for CFA review of construction permits for buildings “within two hundred feet of any public building or any public park, parkway, or reservation, except space for street parking. . . .” Considering how many federal parks and reservations there were in the District and how much of the District fell within that 200-foot buffer, the business community — mainly the Board of Trade and Chamber of Commerce — as well as private property owners opposed the bill.