Thomas Franklin Schneider returned from the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition with plenty of inspiration. The towering, state-of-the-art commercial structures Schneider had seen in Chicago were unlike anything in DC, and the grandiose architecture of the World’s Fair buildings had made an impression on him as well. The following year, he translated these influences into the Cairo, a 12-story, 164-foot luxury apartment building, with an Egyptian theme modeled from the façade of Louis Sullivan’s Transportation Building at the Fair.
The Cairo’s construction in 1894 was met with immediate contempt from virtually all angles. Neighbors protested that the enormous structure was out of scale with the surrounding rowhouses and complained that it blocked light and views. These aesthetic considerations were accompanied by fear. Neighbors were suspicious of the safety of a 12-story building, nervous that it could be blown over and and pointing out that in case of an emergency, firefighting equipment couldn’t even reach the top stories. Architectural critics also derided the building as garish and oversized, taller than the ample amount of open space in DC could justify.
An official response to these complaints came quickly: later in 1894, the District Commissioners passed new regulations limiting building height in DC to 90 feet on residential streets and 110 feet on commercial avenues. These regulations were backed up by Acts of Congress in 1898 and 1910. Though various amendments have been passed over the last century, the Height of Buildings Act of 1910 continues to regulate new construction across the city. As a result, the Cairo still stands as DC's tallest privately-owned residential building.
Though initially called “Schneider’s Folly” by locals, the Cairo came to cater to a high-class clientele. The many amenities offered at the luxury apartment hotel included an ornate public lobby, a ballroom, bowling alleys, and a rooftop garden, and among the Cairo's guests were such figures as F. Scott Fitzgerald, Queen Liliuokalani, and Thomas Edison.
The Cairo remained in the ownership of the Schneider family for 60 years, during which time it stood largely unchanged. However, as the Dupont Circle neighborhood declined after World War II, the Cairo eventually ceased to be a profitable asset, and the family sold it in 1955. In the following decades, the building deteriorated dramatically. By the time a new developer purchased it in the early 1970s, the Cairo was in such a profound state of disrepair that it had to be completely gutted.
Interior remodeling took place between 1973 and 1976, and in 1979, the building was converted into condominiums. Still significantly taller than all of its surroundings, the Cairo’s dramatic size remains its most notable and lasting legacy.
DC Inventory: January 17, 1990
National Register: September 9, 1994
Within Dupont Circle Historic District