A Look at the Georgetown Act Of 1950

Georgetown denotes a historic locality, entertainment, and commercialdistrict situated in the northwest part of Washington, D.C beside thePotomac River. Established in 1751 in Maryland State, the harbor ofGeorgetown antedated the creation of the city and Federal District ofWashington by roughly 40 years1. Prior to the passage of the 1950 act, the town had experiencednumerous acts such as the 1871 act, which saw the end of themunicipality of Georgetown with the creation of the District ofColumbia and the 1895 act, which renamed Georgetown lanes andrescinded the remaining local ordinances.

The Georgetown Act (Public Law 81-808) was a public law of thecongress that was “an act to standardize the height, facade design,and building of private and semipublic buildings in the Georgetownarea of the National capital”23.According to Carol M. Rose, the purpose behind the historicpreservation and urban planning of such acts is the preservation ofareas to promote patriotism, preservation that is based on artisticmerit and preservation with the intent of creating a communalidentity and sense of belonging within the city.4Once the territorial government was established, the plan wasimplemented through public improvement that entailed restructuringthe streets, construction of a sewer line, water and sanitationdevelopment and other significant developments to the infrastructure.The act in its entirety made Georgetown a historic borough andauthorized the US Commission of Fine Arts to appoint anadvisory panel, the Old Georgetown Board5.From then to date, the panel analyses suggestions for additions andmodifications to both private and public structures across theneighborhood.

Personally, I suppose the planning intent was to set up a historicaldistrict, which would preserve the cultural identity of America andintegrate it with modern development, in order to blend history withthe future of the nation. In fact, today tourists get astounded tolearn that the act helped set a considerable proportion of thehistoric houses in the current neighborhood. In fact, most of theEisenhowerian buildings standing aloft in the district fit suitablyinto the celebrated fabric, thanks to their diffidence and dependenceon red bricks as the key finishing material. In this regards, Isuppose the planning intents helped set a small-scale version ofAmerican urbanism incredibly encapsulated in a small zone of a largemegalopolis.


The old Georgetown act was approved on September 22, 19506.The act was enacted by the senate and House of Representatives of theUnited States of America, which created the District of Columbia.This district is what was formerly known as the “Old Georgetown”.The boundaries of the town’s jurisdiction were marked by the limitsof the Potomac Parkway to the North of Dumbston Oaks Park,Thirty-Fifth Street to the Reservoir road to the south, Reservoirroad to the Potomac River to the west and Rock Creek Parkway to theSouth7.

The town was named after George Washington, who donated tracts ofland to be used to build the new town. The early settlers wereattracted to the town because of its ambience and availability ofclean water. One of the notable aspects of Georgetown’s culture isits architecture. Historically, they used Victorian architecture toconstruct the commercial and residential buildings8.The town is also historically identified for its red poppywind-flowers. During the 19th and the 20thcenturies, the town was largely an agrarian community. The town’sgrowth in the modern times was attributed to the establishment of aUniversity and infrastructure development. After this, it formed astable economy, which was supported by agriculture. The town wasrecognized for its reliable cotton farming, which was the best in theentire state.

Beforebeing chosen as the national capital, Georgetown began as a tobaccoport in 1750s. Demographically, it had one of highest number ofAfrican Americans, who labored there for many years. The number ofthe African Americans declined after the abolition of slavery andsubsequent migration to other states. Politically, Georgetown was oneof the most influential districts in America’s modern history.Georgetown was home to many renowned politicians and lobbyists, andalso houses several significant government institutions.

During the early years of the 20th century, Georgetown’sbuilt environment improved with the increasing population. Accordingto a survey that was conducted in 1993, about 88% of the presentbuildings in the town were built after 18709.The town continued to expand is residential buildings following aconstruction of row houses and introduction of apartments buildingtechnology. Other expensive works of architecture, such as the keyGardens at 2700 Q Street, were a demonstration that new architecturaltechnology was being accepted and growing in popularity.

What prompted a deliberate urban planning action was the protectionand enhancement of the city’ architectural landscape. The city’sarchitectural infrastructure, as discussed above, was one of the mostunique and treasured in the country. The city planners aimed toprotect and enhance this infrastructure in order to attract visitorsand tourists, who would earn the town revenue, hence support andstimulus the economy. Additionally, the mission of the district’sreservation program was to foster the educational institutions thathad been established, as a move to ensure that the town’sdevelopment in the education sector secured10.Realizing that historical properties are living assets, the goal ofthe planning was to encourage vitality by continuing the use of theseassets and attracting the necessary financial investment for furtherdevelopment.


Politics was one of the major issues that drove the planning intentof Georgetown. According to Brown, human choices shape politicalgeography1112.Georgetown was identified to be strategically positioned to housegovernment institutions and be a position from where all the majorpolitical decisions affecting the entire nation would be made from.Even after the implementation of the plan, Georgetown became widelyacclaimed for its political activities. One of the key players to theplanning of the Georgetown was George Washington, whose estate, priorto the civil war, had become of national interest for historicpreservation 13.He contributed land that was used to build the original Georgetown,and the town was subsequently named in his honor.

Thecall to action for the Georgetown plan was urging the residents tostep up to rediscover and protect the town’s architecture, cultureand landmarks. The city’s famous 1791 plan by Pierre L’Enfant wasfollowed into the later centuries, and was amplified by the 1901McMillan plan14.The citizens were urged to contribute to the implementation of thecity’s plan as a reflection of what its founders had in mind. Inorder to implement the plan, there were three major action steps thatwere followed. First, there was historic district signage, which wasan implementation of the town program. The second step was to markhistoric landmarks, which helped property owners to identify historicproperties and provide any useful information about them. Thirdly,the panel gave the owners of historic property notice andcommunicated a thoughtful desire to inform them of the benefits ofthe same, responsibility and stewardship15.


After the plan was drawn, it was implemented slowly and quiteerratically16.People only perfected the plan through a shared goal for civicembellishment and contributions by citizens who wanted to develop thetown into a modern place. In fact, the act allowed the rediscoveringand protection of the old town in 195017.Over time, its national monuments were preserved and other importantcity building protected. These included the Old Post Office and otherVictorian-architecture treasures, which were put under the care ofpreservationists. In 1970, the Home Rule helped the landmarks of thecity’s African American heritage to be protected and preserved. Theimplementation process saw to the establishment of iconic monumentsand symbolic commemoratives such as the Washington monument, whichdefine Washington DC today. Some of the actors in the implementationof the plan were the Citizen Association of Georgetown (formed in the19th century), who guided the progress in the residentialcommunity. The historic fabric of the town was guarded by the OldGeorgetown Board, which shaped the neighborhood planning, developmentand regulatory issues since 1950 18.

Perhapsthe most effective mechanism for the implementation of the Georgetownplan was encouraging the approach to rehabilitating and architecturaldesign based on compatibility with the historic context. In order toachieve this, there was no need of constructing or mimickingtraditional buildings, but designing the new ones to exist in harmonywith the historic ones, and to maintain the environmental landscapeof the new urban town. Additionally, building of new structures hadto suit the fundamental character and the importance of the historicbuildings and environment. The planners also had in place policies toensure that the historic structures were rehabilitates, they wereadapted to current use and that there was compatible development inthe district. The intended impact was achieved, given that WashingtonDC is one of the most established historical districts in the countrytoday.


As per Carol M. Rose’s argument, the purpose of historicpreservation is not singular. There are three distinct purposes thatare developed, all which have been discussed above. In the earlynineteenth century, preservative efforts were designed to instill asense of national and civic pride in visitors19.The Georgetown urban planning did this, and set example for all otherdistricts to follow. The desire to protect a historical district’sfeatures focuses on the thriving of the community itself. Over time,the residents of the historical district have been acknowledge as oneof the pillars of the success of their region, and have continued towork on projects to ensure that the district retains its relevanceand original meaning that was given to it by the founders. This isthe reason why the district’s planning intent can comfortably belabeled as a success and one that has had the impact it was designedfor.

The planning was also effective, given that it utilized the urbanland and strategically provided for the establishment of a historicaldistrict which would sustain development in the future years. Severalof the district’s features, including Georgetown silver plumehistoric district, were recognized by the National Registrar ofHistoric places as a national historic landmarks in the 1960s20.Several other features have been recognized from Georgetown, and withthe implementation of the plan’s designs have positively impactedthe Georgetown community at large. This is why this paper maintainsthat the implementation of the historical district was effectivelydone.

One can assesses the case study i.e. the Georgetown act of 1950 onits significance to cities’ planning worldwide and the contributionit has made in developing a historic district within a large city. Onthe other hand, the act has allowed the district achieves greatly interms of cohesion, planning, design, and historic perseveration asthe act has ensured that historic structures remain relevant andpreserved. In this regards, the act has allowed the inhabitantsdevelop a sense of nationalistic facet as they identify with thedevelopments that have shaped the district since 1950. Georgetown hasalways seen major developments and changes that have shaped thehistoric significance of the district hence, the act has anoteworthy contribution to history and city planning.

The implementation of the Georgetown act of 1950 is very significantto the modern day planning practice. It set the pace and standardsfor design prioritizing, preservation of the existing features andintegration of the new infrastructure to fit into the alreadyestablished setting, so as to ensure sustainable development for thegrowing urban centers. For the modern day practice, in order toencourage historic preservation, there is need to structure an actwhich provides for the necessary funding to finance the comprehensivepreservation plan, put in place standards and procedures to befollowed by the property owners and developers and also preserve thecultural elements of the region. The plan also highlighted theimportance of protecting the environment, even amidst rigorousurbanization. Today, the act reveals how urban planners can useplanning intent to create designed structures and designs withoutengaging vast resources and human capital. As aforementioned,Georgetown acts as a microcosm of the urbanism experienced in Americaand captured within a small locale of a large city. Beginning at thewaterside and walking northward, one comes across the offcuts of thetown’s manufacturing origins and walks across a flourishingentertainment and commercial zone, before traversing through thedense residential blocks. In this regards, the act has created logicsand developments for current practices across the world where citieshave undertaken plans and established panels to commence cityplantings.


Brown, Timothy F, “Historic districts and the imagined community: Astudy of the impact of the old Georgetown act” Seton HallJournal of Sport and Entertainment Law 24 no. 1: (2004).

Borden, Iain,, Joe Kerr and Jane Rendell, The Unknown City:Contesting Architecture and Social space. Cambridge, MA: MITPress, 2002.

Falck, Zachary, Weeds: An Environmental History of MetropolitanAmerica Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2010.

Georgetown DC. “Final Georgetown 2028 Plan”,http://www.georgetowndc.com/customer_media/final_georgetown_2028_plan_with_action_agenda_121213.pdf(Accessed 2 December 2014).

Guy Wilson, Richard G. Shaun Eyring and Kenny Marotta, Recreatingthe American Past: Essays on the Colonial Revival. Hoboken, NJ:John Wiley &amp Sons Publishers, 2006.

Living Places, “Georgetown Historic District”,http://www.livingplaces.com/DC/District_of_Columbia/City_of_Washington/Georgetown_Historic_District.html(Accessed 2 December 2014).

MoellerJr, G. Martin.&nbspAIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington.JHU Press, 2012

Peterson, Eric, Don Laine and Barbara Laine, Frommer’s Denver,Boulder &amp Colorado Springs, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley &ampSons, 2005.


U.S. Commission of Fine Arts,”Old Georgetown Act (Public Law81-808)”.,http://www.cfa.gov/about-cfa/legislative-history/old-georgetown-act-public-law-81-808(Accessed 2 December 2014).

1 Timothy Brown F, “Historic districts and the imagined community: A study of the impact of the old Georgetown act” Seton Hall Journal of Sport and Entertainment Law 24 no. 1: (2004).: 88.

2 Iain Borden, Joe Kerr and Jane Rendell, The Unknown City: Contesting Architecture and Social space, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002) 152.

3 U.S. Commission of Fine Arts, ”Old Georgetown Act (Public Law 81-808)”., http://www.cfa.gov/about-cfa/legislative-history/old-georgetown-act-public-law-81-808 (Accessed 2 December 2014).

4 Timothy Brown F, “Historic districts and the imagined community: 88.

5 Zachary, Falck. Weeds: An Environmental History of Metropolitan America Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburg Press, 2010.

6 Georgetown DC. “Final Georgetown 2028 Plan

7 Zachary, Falck. Weeds: An Environmental History of Metropolitan America


8 Guy Wilson, Richard G. Shaun Eyring and Kenny Marotta, Recreating the American Past: Essays on the Colonial Revival. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley &amp Sons Publishers, 2006.

9 Living Places, “Georgetown Historic District”, http://www.livingplaces.com/DC/District_of_Columbia/City_of_Washington/Georgetown_Historic_District.html (Accessed 2 December 2014).

10 Living Places, “Historical Preservation 10. Element”,.http://planning.dc.gov/sites/default/files/dc/sites/op/publication/attachments/vol_1_historic_preservation.pdf (Accessed 2 December 2014) 10

11 Moeller Jr, G. Martin.&nbspAIA Guide to the Architecture of Washington. JHU Press, 2012

12 Brown, 82

13 Brown, 85

14 Historic Preservation, 11

15 Historic Preservation, 10

16 Historic Preservation, 11

17 Richard Guy Wilson, Shaun Eyring and Kenny Marotta, Recreating the American Past: Essays on the Colonial Revival (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley &amp Sons Publishers, 2006) 180.

18 Georgetown DC. “Final Georgetown 2028 Plan”, http://www.georgetowndc.com/customer_media/final_georgetown_2028_plan_with_action_agenda_121213.pdf (Accessed 2 December 2014).

19 Iain Borden, Joe Kerr and Jane Rendell, The Unknown City: Contesting Architecture and Social space, (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002) 152.

20 Eric Peterson, Don Laine and Barbara Laine, Frommer’s Denver, Boulder &amp Colorado Springs, (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley &amp Sons, 2005) 123.