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America's Favorite Cityscape: DC Is Tops

Oh, the Gateway Arch and the Brooklyn Bridge are pretty cool, and the Empire State Building still stands tallest in the American imagination, but if you're looking for one city to represent the finest in American architecture, Washington remains the place to go, dominating the top ranks in a new listing of the country's best buildings.

To celebrate its 150th anniversary, the American Institute of Architects created a ballot listing its members' nominations of their favorite works of architecture in this country. The architects came up with a list of 248 structures, including office buildings, houses, sports facilties, hotels, train stations, memorials and even an airport (Denver's stark new terminal, and surprisingly not Virginia's Dulles International with the undulating roofline by Eero Saarinen.) Then, the Harris polling organization put the list of 248 finalists to a random sample of Americans, who picked and ranked the top 150 examples of American architecture.

Result: The District is home to six of the top ten on the list, including #2 The White House, #3 Washington National Cathedral (that's the big surprise for me; I didn't know it was that well known around the country), #4 the Jefferson Memorial, #6 The Capitol, #7 the Lincoln Memorial, and #10 the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Filling out the rest of the top ten were #1 Empire State, #5 the Golden Gate Bridge, #8 the Ashville Estate in North Carolina, and #9 the Chrysler Building in Manhattan. New York topped the list for most number of winners among the 150 with 32. Washington came in second in total number with 17, and Chicago followed with 16.

The other D.C. winners were #12 Washington Monument, #15 Supreme Court, #28 Library of Congress, #34 National Gallery of Art West Building (yes, West--the one by John Russell Pope), #37 Union Station, #63 National Museum of Air and Space (go figure), #76 Willard Hotel, #79 Ronald Reagan Building (ok, maybe collective wisdom is overrated), #106 the Metro system (that's cool), #112 the National Building Museum (my personal fave), and #124 the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Inexplicably missing from the D.C. winners list: the I.M. Pei-designed National Gallery East Building, the FDR Memorial, and the Old Executive Office Building.

Virginia has two entries on the AIA150 list, both by Mr. Thomas Jefferson: his Monticello came in at #27 and his Virginia State Capitol building (still under renovation) at #50. Jefferson's two nods--three if you count his memorial--is very impressive, but well behind the list-topping eight structures representing the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The architect of the Jefferson Memorial, John Russell Pope, gets two mentions, the other being his part of the National Gallery.

Maryland had to settle for just one mention in the list, at #122, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the seventh of nine sports facilities on the list, behind Wrigley Field (#31), Yankee Stadium (#84), Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati (Bengals), the San Francisco Giants ballpark, Fenway Park, and the American Airlines Center in Dallas (Mavericks), and ahead of Safeco Field in Seattle (Mariners) and the Ingalls Ice Arena at Yale University (along with the Gateway Arch and TWA Terminal at JFK Airport, the other Eero Saarinen building to make the list.)

There's more on the list at

So, what local treasures are missing from the list, and what's on the list that perplexes or appalls you?

By Marc Fisher |  February 8, 2007; 7:24 AM ET
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"Asheville Estate"??? How about Biltmore Estate, located near Asheville?

Posted by: erorie | February 8, 2007 9:05 AM

The Old Executive Office Building is easily one of the coolest buildings in the city and was a large oversight of the list. Maybe that building is only appreciated locally?? I like the Smithsonian Castle too.

I love that Baltimore only got one building. If I had created my sarcasm font by now, I'd use it to say that just one building chosen shouldn't add to Baltimore's inferiority complex too much! :)

Posted by: Ryan | February 8, 2007 9:15 AM

I just LOVE (please note sarcasm) that DC nabbed six of the top ten spots for its monuments/grandiose structures (many of which are on the Mall or thereabouts), while much of the rest of the actual, day to day city consists of deathly boring glass-and-concrete office buildings. Perhaps we could hold a seance and get John Russell Pope to build us some interesting structures to look at/work in??

Posted by: Julie | February 8, 2007 9:16 AM

Your leap of faith that DC is "America's Favorite Cityscape" is a bit misplaced. DC does not have a coherent "cityscape," on the whole, it has an odd assortment of federal boxes and boring architecture. Very few buildings outside of the memorials and museums have ANY style whatsoever. Having individual structures make the top ten does not make a cityscape.

Not to mention the questionable methodology of the study. Were these structures judged by pictures or by name? I find it difficult to believe that a large number of Americans could even identify the National Gallery of Art West Building, Union Station, National Museum of Air and Space, etc.

Posted by: Zzzzz, D.C. | February 8, 2007 9:22 AM

Marc, they appeared to have missed your dome!

Posted by: Hee-Hee! | February 8, 2007 10:03 AM

Maryland State House????????

Posted by: Eric | February 8, 2007 10:22 AM

DC easily has one of the most beautiful skylines of any city in the world. thank goodness for the height restrictions. plus, you've got the great sightlines down the main avenues, like pennsylvania ave, and the requirement to incorporate the facades of the old buildings into the newer office buildings. despite what Julie says, there are very few "boring" office buildings in this city. and there are as many, or more, hidden gems throughout the city that your average tourist (or maybe even your average resident) doesn't bother to look for and appreciate. now if they could only fix up l'enfant plaza.

don't take DC for granted. appreciate its beauty every day.

Posted by: OD | February 8, 2007 10:43 AM

Couldn't agree more. I live up near U street and I love taking a jog at dusk or at night. I run right down 16th street, looking at the WH the whole time, then run around the mall, with the Capitol and all the Monument/Memorials all lit up. Even after years of doing the same run, I'm still blown away by how beatiful a city it is.

Posted by: Agree_with_OD | February 8, 2007 10:58 AM

I know architects, such as Chloethiel Woodard Smith, designed Metro stations like the one at National Airport. But the Metro as an architectural gem? I don't know.

Would have thought the National Building Museum would score higher than #112. It's incredible and impressive from the outside and inside.

Posted by: dirrtysw | February 8, 2007 10:58 AM


No Big Chair?

Posted by: huggy low down | February 8, 2007 11:28 AM

Slow day, Marc?

Like you, I was surprised by the National Cathedral. Maybe they had the balloting on the day of Gerald Ford's funeral.

I think they're flat out wrong on the metro system. Two that could have made it and didn't are the Pentagon and the World Bank's headquarters. And I would rate the Building Museum higher than they did. I think the Air Force memorial will make it next time after more people have seen it.

Also, Marc, just saw your pic in the DuPont local paper. You look much better than in your mug shot above. GDS x 2? How do you afford it on a reporter's salary? Must be the advance for the book.

Posted by: KK | February 8, 2007 11:30 AM

What is incredible to me is that DC's architecture gets critized for not being more Modern when much if it (not all of it of course) predates the Modern movement. Washington has several buildings which successfully blend Modern and classical elements.

Posted by: GP | February 8, 2007 11:35 AM

"#79 Ronald Reagan Building (ok, maybe collective wisdom is overrated)"

Be careful Marc. Your liberal bias is showing.

Posted by: SoMD | February 8, 2007 11:37 AM

From SoMD:
"#79 Ronald Reagan Building (ok, maybe collective wisdom is overrated)"

Be careful Marc. Your liberal bias is showing.

You're kidding, right?

Posted by: THS | February 8, 2007 11:54 AM

I'm actually surprised that the Jefferson Memorial gets a nod at all; it's really surprising that it would rank above the Capitol itself and the Lincoln Memorial.

Maybe I'm judging Lincoln by the statue itself, but certainly its location is an architectural feature that puts Jefferson's to shame. And movies and TV shows that telegraph their Washington setting rarely show the Jefferson, most often show either Abe or the Cap, or maybe the George (which is inescapable if not otherwise notable).

Posted by: Rocco | February 8, 2007 11:59 AM

Ask any visitor - DC has by far the most unique design of any major city. If you wake up in any other city center, what you'll see is skyscraper canyons. One looks like the other, including NY. The Mall, Penn Ave, 16th St, East Capitol St - they're all different but tied together and anchored by the memorials and museums. I love living here and like OD I think it's great to have such sights.

Posted by: cpwdc | February 8, 2007 12:02 PM

I think Fisher's issue with the Ronald Reagan Building is that it's pretty dull. Especially if you go down there and see it next to all the other federal buildings next to it. It's. Exactly. The. Same.

Posted by: dc pretty | February 8, 2007 12:42 PM

Where's Miami on the list? It has the coolest modern buildings of any city I've visited!

Posted by: chris c. | February 8, 2007 12:57 PM

I think the Old Post Office Tower is pretty cool too, distinctive in DC to say the least. I'm glad Union Station got some recognition.

Posted by: NovaWolverine | February 8, 2007 1:14 PM

I too agree with OD. I never tire of my daily commute home, where I cross the 14th St. bridge and get a spectacular view of the cityscape from across the Potomac while I wait to get on the GW Parkway. I've seen this view in all sorts of weather conditions and seasons, and each time the scene is gorgeous in a new and different way. It drives me crazy that I can't jump out of the car and snap photos each time I pass by.

Posted by: caroline | February 8, 2007 1:52 PM

The Ronald Reagan Building is a building like the Hope Diamond is a rock.

(see, Metro advertising does work!)

Posted by: Anonymous | February 8, 2007 2:02 PM

Jefferson is built in a series of concentric circles, it's neoclassical (and I think Jefferson was the one who introduced that building style to America...) and its made out of that beautiful pink TN marble. (I remember writing a paper on the memorial in an architecture class in college.) The structures are being judged, I would assume, on some characteristics of design, as well as size.

Posted by: Gen | February 8, 2007 2:36 PM

I may be partial, but I think the National Cathedral is one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world. Beyond its impressive location at the top of Mt. St. Alban overlooking the city, I think the building itself is one of the most well-balanced and proportionate, and has some of the greatest details, of any cathedral I've seen. I'm not surprised at all to see it on this list.

Posted by: sta | February 8, 2007 3:14 PM

None of them are as cool as the Elephant Hotel on Coney Island.

Posted by: Tomcat | February 8, 2007 3:37 PM

My favorite local building is the Masonic Memorial in Alexandria. If you view it while crossing the Wilson Bridge at night, it looks like a giant jeweled condom.

Posted by: Tomcat | February 8, 2007 3:43 PM

any poll that ranks the Empire State Bldg higher than the Chrysler Bldg is immediately suspect.

Posted by: ralph | February 8, 2007 4:03 PM

I'm surprised that a few DC area landmarks made the list while Georgetown's Healy Hall was ignored. Considering that for decades it dominated the cityscape of Washington and is fairly unique for its style and scale in the US, I think DC got ripped off.

Posted by: hoyasaxa | February 8, 2007 4:05 PM

What? No levees?

Posted by: Chris | February 8, 2007 4:23 PM

What sets DC apart from almost all other American cities is the quality of its open space, both federal (the Capitol grounds, the monumental core), municipal / neighborhood (great spaces from Dupont Circle and Logan Circle) and institutional (Georgetown Univ, Catholic Univ., St. Elizabeths, Walter Reed )and its great streets: Penn Ave, Connecticut Ave, Mass Ave., 16th Street. Unless it's a charming hill town or New York City, a great cityscape needs some elbow room to appreciate the buildings. DC has abundant space partly from the height restriction and partly the unbending commitment to preserving views. This also allows more sunlight into the space between the buildings. DC's temperate climate can support a wide range of street tree species and we have more street trees than practically any American city. Residents and visitors (and architects) tend not to realize that what they are reacting to in terms of "cityscape" is the total public space - the green, the pleasant shade, the scale and sense of permanence of the pedestrian environment surrounding the buildings. And a well built and maintained streetscape gets better and better with age. Let's not forget that DC also has some of America's more hideous buildings too - like the FBI Bldg , HUD and that 60's stuff over in southwest. The streetscape is working overtime in these areas: being a screen, a disguise or a distraction. These are things most people don't notice but appreciate on an unconscious level. So thank the early generation of landscape architects who set the standard in DC: Olmsted Sr., Dan Kiley, Warren Manning, Beatrix Farrand, and Hideo Sasaki...and the National Park Service for almost a hundred years of stubbornness.

Posted by: ALK | February 8, 2007 4:40 PM

Only one Louis Kahn building? Bah.

Posted by: MattF | February 8, 2007 4:52 PM

It's a good thing most of the DC buildings were built long ago; in today's NIMBY climate, most would never get off the drawing boards.

I can see it now;

Washington Monument - too tall.

National Cathedral - too massive, blocks views, changes the character of the neighborhood.

US Capitol - too big.

Reagan Building - will attract too much traffic.

Posted by: CEEAF | February 8, 2007 5:44 PM

I agree with ralph, who said that any listing that puts the Empire State above the Chrysler is suspect.

There were also a lot of sports stadiums in that list. I was surprised that some historically famous buildings, like the Monadnock in Chicago, the Guaranty in Buffalo, Independence Hall, and the Pacific Design Center in LA didn't make it, but Pennzoil Place and Safeco Field did. Yankee, Wrigley, Fenway, fine. The Astrodome, a stretch, but sure. But there were a lot of stadiums in there.

Posted by: JimDC | February 8, 2007 6:05 PM

I was surprised that so many of Wright's houses were on the list but that his Johnson's Wax building with its lily pad columns was not.

The Chicago list also surprised me with the ommission of the Wrigley Bldg and Marina City.

For Washingtonians, I think many don't know about the city's monument to its WWI war dead. It's a short stroll from the WWII memorial and I wish it were cared for a little more than it is.

Posted by: mickle1 | February 8, 2007 7:31 PM

Zzzzz, D.C. said:

"Very few buildings outside of the memorials and museums have ANY style whatsoever."

What about the block after block of marvelous row houses on the Hill, Shaw, Georgetown, Mt. Pleasant, Dupont, Logan? What about the great Beaux Arts buildings near Meridian Hill Park? How about Latrobe's Navy Yard Gate? These make a city scape.

Posted by: kwest | February 9, 2007 7:41 AM

Zzzzz, D.C. said:

"Very few buildings outside of the memorials and museums have ANY style whatsoever."

What about the block after block of marvelous row houses on the Hill, Shaw, Georgetown, Mt. Pleasant, Dupont, Logan? What about the great Beaux Arts buildings near Meridian Hill Park? How about Latrobe's Navy Yard Gate? These make a city scape.

Posted by: kwest | February 9, 2007 7:41 AM

I have been to most every major city in America and The District is, by far, the most beautiful city in the United States of America!

Posted by: joejack65 | February 9, 2007 8:05 AM

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