Postwar Modernism in Washington DC

Despite being a city of memorials, museums, and government buildings designed in grand and traditional architectural styles that speak to our nation's history and democracy, Washington, DC has plenty of modern architecture. Visitors may notice this modernism while using the Metro, with its stations and their famous vaulted, concrete ceilings. The system, which first opened from Rhode Island Avenue to Farragut Square in 1976 (the Red Line), was designed in a Brutalist style by architect Harry Weese. Despite their popularity on social media, these Metro stations are just one aspect of DC's modernism, which encompasses a variety of buildings designed by numerous architects of varying local, national, and international fame.

Despite its pre-World War II beginnings -- dating to 1919, with Germany's Bauhaus movement and its architecture school -- modernism became particularly popular in postwar America. Like many cities in the 1950s through 1970s, DC embraced the popular modernist styles of the era, such as Mid-Century Modern, Miesian, Brutalism, and New Formalism. Whether it was the federal government constructing a new courthouse or a homeowner who wanted some prestige, modern styles became very popular in the city. This tour will cover some of the most famous modern landmarks in postwar Washington, mainly in and around downtown.

As you follow along on the tour, what styles do you find particularly interesting, and do you think any buildings are missing from the list? Remember, modernism can be quite controversial and, unfortunately, it is not always saved from demolition. For example, please see Third Church of Christ, Scientist (available on DC Historic Sites) which was designed by the renowned I.M. Pei in the 1960s and demolished in 2014 -- despite being locally landmarked.

This tour can be completed by walking, public transport, and/or car. Since the landmarks are spread out, it is advised that you map out your route to determine distance before beginning.

In addition to this tour, please visit Mid-Century Modernism in Southwest, which covers some of the modernist landmarks in Southwest Washington, an area that experienced postwar urban renewal and, in turn, the construction of various Mid-Century Modern buildings.

Bazelon-McGovern House

Located in the Palisades neighborhood of Washington, DC, the Bazelon-McGovern House stands as a significant example of Japanese architecture in the District. The home was so unique that only a few weeks after the original family moved into the space…

Hillcrest/National Presbyterian Church

Hillcrest/National Presbyterian Church reflects the merging of two early 20th century Washington institutions into the current historic properties of The Washington City Orphan Asylum (Hillcrest Children’s Center) and the National Presbyterian…

William L. Slayton House (and Interior)

Designed in the International Style, the William L. Slayton House is one of only three houses known to have been designed by world-renowned architect I.M. Pei. Pei, primarily a corporate architect but best known for municipal buildings and art…

Washington Hilton

Constructed in 1962-65, the Washington Hilton was hailed for its sinuous massing, its use of column-and-slab construction throughout, and its uniform precast concrete wall panels—in sum, a sharp departure from local traditions. Architect William B.…

Watergate Complex

Recognized internationally for its name, which has even entered the popular lexicon as shorthand for a scandal, the luxury Watergate Complex is a Washington icon. Located on the banks of the Potomac, the modernist buildings of the complex were the…

US Department of State Building

Like the Department of War, the Department of State experienced rapid growth due to World War II, requiring it to seek quarters outside of the old State, War and Navy Building. In 1947, the Department of State moved its first unit into the Department…

Federal Home Loan Bank Board

In March of 1974, wreckers were sent to the site of the future Federal Home Loan Bank Board Building to clear space for a new government structure. Despite hopes to add multiple buildings in the historic streetscape to the National Register, builders…

Wire Building

The Wire Building, constructed in 1949, is a 12-story Modern office building, distinguished both for its smooth limestone walls, which turn the corner in a sweeping curve, and its early use of continuous bands of windows. Built by real estate…

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library (and Interior)

The Martin Luther King Memorial Library (MLK Library) is a four-story steel and glass International-style building in downtown DC, designed by world-famous German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969) and completed in 1972. The modern…

United States Tax Court

Designed by architect Victor Lundy, the Tax Court is an outstanding example of federal architecture of its time, and the most prominent public work of its architect’s notable career. It used the most advanced structural engineering to achieve an…
For more information on modern architectural styles beyond DC and the specific styles mentioned here, please visit Docomomo US: www.docomomo-us.org.