Gothic Revival in DC

What style of architecture do you think of when you think of Washington, DC?

Many people might answer “neoclassical,” the architectural style influenced by the architecture of Greece and Rome. You can see examples of this style in the design of the Capitol, Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial, and National Archives.

But you may be surprised to hear that the three tallest inhabitable buildings in DC — the Old Post Office, National Cathedral, and National Shrine — are all designed in the Gothic Revival style, as are many other buildings throughout the district.

Investigate examples of Gothic Revival architecture in DC below!

NATIONAL CATHEDRAL

3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW

Construction on the National Cathedral, the second largest cathedral in the country, began in 1907 but wasn’t completed until 1990. Its design features many Gothic elements, from flying buttresses and pointed arches to stained glass windows and over 1,200 stone gargoyles and grotesques.

National Cathedral (Washington, DC)
National Cathedral (3101 Wisconsin Ave. NW). Siubo11A, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons.

OLD POST OFFICE BUILDING

1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW

Willoughby J. Edbrooke’s grand post office building opened in 1899 after seven years of construction. The Romanesque edifice was the first in the city to incorporate electrical wiring into its design and to have a steel-frame structure.

Romanesque Architecture
The Romanesque style also originated in medieval Europe and predates the Gothic style. It is characterized by rounded semi-circular arches, as opposed to the pointed arches that dominate Gothic architecture. The architecture of the Gothic Revival drew its inspiration from the great medieval architectural styles, including both the Gothic and Romanesque.

Old Post Office
Postcard depicting the Old Post Office Building (1100 Pennsylvania Ave. NW). Baltimore: I & M. Ottenheimer, date unknown.

NATIONAL SHRINE, CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY

400 Michigan Ave. NE

Although originally conceived to emulate the French Gothic style, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception was ultimately built to reflect a combination of Romanesque and Byzantine influences. Architect Charles D. Maginnis sought to create a “distinctively American” church not imitative of any of the world’s great historical basilicas.

Photograph of tower and Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on a sunny day.
Basilica of the National Shrine of Immaculate Conception. Flickr user: Shubert Ciencia Nueva Ecija [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

HEALY HALL, GEORGETOWN UNIVERSITY

O St NW & 37th St.

The architects John Smithmeyer and Paul Pelz, who also designed the Library of Congress, created Georgetown University’s Healy Hall between 1877 and 1879. The elaborate Romanesque exterior is matched by a lavish interior featuring grand spaces, intricate ceiling paintings, and coats of arms.

Healy Hall
Healy Hall, Georgetown University (O St NW & 37th St.). New York: Artvue Postcard Company, date unknown.

SMITHSONIAN CASTLE

1000 Jefferson Dr. SW

James Renwick’s design for the Smithsonian castle, for which he won the 1846 competition, incorporated twelfth-century Romanesque and Gothic features, including vaulted ceilings and rose windows. In 1859, Renwick would be commissioned to design another iconic Washington, DC, building — the art gallery now known by his name.

Photograph of Smithsonian Castle
Stereoscopic postcard of the Smithsonian Institution (“The Castle”), Washington, DC (1880s).

ALBAN TOWERS

3700 Massachusetts Ave. NW

With Gothic arches, gargoyles, and stone window tracery adorning its main entrance, Alban Towers has many features that echo the medieval look of the National Cathedral on nearby Mount Alban. The largest apartment-hotel in the city when it opened in 1929, the building fell into disrepair by the end of the twentieth century. Recent renovations have made it once again fashionable.

Postcard of Alban Towers apartment complex
Postcard depicting Alban Towers, Washington, DC (Yonkers, NY: Herbert C. Kahn Studios).

Learn More