Art deco’s influence on New York, Miami Beach, and Los Angeles has been well-documented, but its sway in the capital city isn’t as appreciated. At one time, Washington D.C. could count more than 400 art deco structures in its metro area.

For those who’d like to discover what’s left of art deco, the majority of the buildings can be reached via WMATA metro or bus, assuming they’re on time. While that’s a questionable assumption, a self-guided architectural tour is worth the headache. As seen on the map below, many art deco spots cluster together.



The data comes from Washington Deco: Art Deco in the Nation’s Capital, a 1984 Smithsonian Institution publication written by Hans Wirz, an architect and urban planner, and Richard Striner, a historian who founded the Art Deco Society of Washington D.C.

Given the construction boom in D.C. since the beginning of the century, some of the roughly 400 structures on the map have been demolished. Even by the 1980s, a good number had disappeared. Some were remodeled but kept their original facades, and others only have a few motifs that hint at an art deco influence.

Formerly the Penn Theater, built in 1935 and designed by John Eberson. Converted into retail space and condos, southeast D.C.
Formerly the Penn Theater, built in 1935 and designed by John Eberson. Converted into retail space and condos, southeast D.C.

Art deco embodied modernity. An inspired, exuberant aesthetic that was forward-looking and embraced the “cult of the machine.” Industry wasn’t something to enslave man and reduce him to an economic unit, but a way to drive progress and propel man to new, commanding heights. It’s no coincidence that Ayn Rand book covers have strong art deco motifs. Art deco has a certain vibrancy in its style, something that is uplifting and sophisticated, but also approachable. It’s less flamboyant and more functional than art nouveau, and feels less decadent as a result.

It’s ironic, then, that art deco arrived in Washington on the wave of a different construction boom as a result of the Great Depression and the New Deal. The population increased by 36 percent during the 1930s. Along with the federal buildings that arose to be populated by a new workforce, many of the dwellings, movie theaters, and restaurants adopted the style.

“For the majority of builders and architects, art deco represented a repertoire of details to be used as long as the style lasted,” Wirz and Striner noted. Many ran with those details. Alvin Aubinoe and Harry L. Edwards in residential buildings; Robert O. Scholz in residential and commercial structures; Irwin Porter and Joseph Lockie in commercial and institutional buildings; Joseph Abel, and George T. Santmyers in garden apartments.


Art deco couldn’t overtake D.C. in ways it had other metropolises in the 1930s. City plan restrictions, legal height limitations, and the dominance of classical architecture prevented that. “Elegant civility, combined with expressive and exuberant forms, is a cultural manifestation that might be regarded as Washington’s architectural contribution to the art deco era in America,” Wirz and Stirner wrote.

A few notes on the data:

Some of the addresses might be inaccurate, but the majority should be accurate. Not all buildings will remain, either. Updating them will be a long-term (and incomplete) project.

Red dots are residential buildings, blue dots are commercial, purple dots are related and transitional, yellow dots are recreational, and green dots are institutional and public.

Thanks to Joe Fox, a data visualization whiz at the Los Angeles Times, for technical assistance!