National Historic Landmarks: Historic Downtown Washington

Downtown Washington is a hub of activity—and has been since the establishment of D.C. as the nation’s capital city in 1800. This neighborhood has provided the geographic link between the executive branch, the White House, and the legislative branch, Capitol Hill. Therefore, with its proximity to Pennsylvania Avenue, the longtime route of the inaugural parade, it has attracted many important institutions, including the Treasury Building, the Old Patent Office (now National Portrait Gallery), and the Pension Building (now National Building Museum). Additionally, many grand buildings have been constructed just west of the White House, from Octagon House to the Corcoran Gallery.

With this tour of National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) in Downtown Washington, take a trip back in time to get a glimpse of early Washington and to see preserved buildings designated as significant for their contributions to American history. Consider how these sites connect to the story of America, and what nationally-significant sites along the way may be missing. This tour can be completed by walking, public transport, or car. It is advised to map out your route to determine distance before beginning.

NHLs are ultimately designated by the Secretary of the Interior, upon the recommendation of the National Park System Advisory Board, and are evaluated based on their history, integrity of the property, and their value to the broader American historical narrative. There are currently around 2,600 NHLs, with 75 in the District alone.

Old City Hall (District of Columbia Court of Appeals)

The first building constructed by the federal government for Washington, DC, the Old City Hall began construction in 1820, after designs by architect George Hadfield. Construction proceeded fitfully due to the chronic underfunding of the local…

Pension Building (National Building Museum)

Built between 1882 and 1887, the Pension Building now houses the National Building Museum and is significant for both its architecture and place in the nation’s history. The Pension Building was designed by Army Quartermaster General Montgomery C.…

General Post Office (General Land Office)

This beautifully scaled and finely detailed building, with exceptionally fine interiors, is a tour de force of restrained neo-classical design and an outstanding example of American civil architecture. The design of the building, based on a…

Old Patent Office 

While it’s currently the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Old Patent Office reflects an era when scientific invention propelled the American economy and began to mold the national character. Although more than a…

Treasury Department

Built between 1836 and 1869, the Treasury Department building is the work of five major American architects—Robert Mills, Thomas U. Walter, Ammi B. Young, Isaiah Rogers, and Alfred B. Mullett. Conceived and built in the Greek Revival style that…

The White House

The White House is recognized around the world as the symbol of the presidency. It is associated with countless occasions of state, has housed the president’s staff and visiting dignitaries, and has served from its earliest years as a place for the…

Corcoran Gallery of Art (and Interiors)

Founded in 1869 by Washington philanthropist William Wilson Corcoran, the Corcoran Gallery of Art was originally located at the corner of 17th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Rapid growth forced the gallery to relocate, and at its opening in 1897,…

Octagon House (John Tayloe House)

Constructed from 1799 to 1800 as a town residence for Colonel John Tayloe of Mount Airy, Richmond County, Virginia, the Octagon was designed by Dr. William Thornton, architect of the U.S. Capitol. The unusual house is notable for its inhabitants and…

American Red Cross National Headquarters

The American Red Cross was founded by Clara Barton in 1881 and chartered by Congress in 1900. The building was built as a memorial to the women of the Civil War thanks to U.S. and private funds. It exemplifies the McMillan Plan's emphasis on…

Constitution Hall, Daughters of the American Revolution

Built and owned by the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution, Constitution Hall was designed by eminent architect John Russell Pope in 1924 in a Neoclassical style. Constructed between 1928 and 1930, the building houses a large…

Pan American Union Headquarters

The Pan American Union is the home of the world's oldest international association, founded in 1890 to foster cultural and commercial ties among the Western Hemisphere republics. It serves as a focal point of Washington's diplomatic and cultural…