Thomas Jefferson Papers

Enclosure: Suspension of Certain Building Regulations, 11 March 1801

Suspension of Certain Building Regulations

By the President of the United States

Whereas by the first Article of the Terms and conditions declared by the President of the United States on the 17th. day of October 1791, for regulating the Materials and manner of Buildings and Improvements on the Lots in the City of Washington it is provided, “that the outer and party Walls of all Houses in the said City, shall be built of Brick or Stone,” and by the third Article of the same Terms and Conditions, it is declared, “that the Wall of no House Shall be higher than forty feet to the Roof, in any part of the City, nor shall any be lower than thirty five feet on any of the Avenues” And whereas the above recited Articles were found to impede the Settlement in the City of Mechanics and others whose Circumstances did not admit of erecting Houses authorised by the said Regulations for which cause the President of the United States, by a writing under his Hand, bearing date the twenty fifth Day of June 1796 Suspended the operation of the said Articles until the first Monday of December 1800, And the beneficial effects arising from such Suspension having been experienced, it is deemed proper to revive the same Wherefore I Thomas Jefferson, president1 of the United States do declare, that the operation of the first and third Articles above recited shall be, and the Same is hereby Suspended until the first Day of January 1802 and that all the Houses which shall be erected in the said City of Washington previous to the said first day of January 1802 conformable in other respects to the regulations aforesaid Shall be considered as lawfully Erected except that no Wooden House shall be erected within twenty four feet of any brick or Stone House

Given under my Hand this 11th. Day of March 1801.

Th: Jefferson

MS (DLC: District of Columbia Papers); in William Thornton’s hand; signed by TJ, who supplied date in blanks (reproduced in italics).


Authority to regulate construction in the capital city remained with the president until James Monroe’s first term. Building regulations issued by George Washington in 1791 required that outer walls be made of brick or stone, allowing frame construction only for temporary structures. Washington’s 1796 suspension of the rules on construction materials and heights of buildings was renewed by successive administrations until 1818. As secretary of state TJ had advised the president about the initial regulations, and from the earliest consideration of the subject he advocated a limit on the height of buildings. He believed that such a policy worked well in Paris and had multiple advantages. The earliest rules for the district also specified the minimum height for buildings along the avenues. Following TJ’s preferences, the regulations controlled building height but said nothing about the distance between the front of a building and the edge of the street. Naming Philadelphia as an example, TJ asserted in 1790 that placing buildings a uniform distance from the street produced “a disgusting monotony” (Bryan, National Capital, description begins Wilhelmus B. Bryan, A History of the National Capital From Its Foundation Through the Period of the Adoption of the Organic Act, New York, 1914–16, 2 vols. description ends 1:162–3, 278; Samuel Burch, comp., A Digest of the Laws of the Corporation of the City of Washington, to the First of June, 1823 [Washington, D.C., 1823], 326–30; Vol. 17:454, 461; Vol. 20:38; Vol. 22:89–91, 136).

1MS: “presid.”

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