There’s more to DC than meets the eye. At first glance, behemoth monuments and countless museums seem like the capital’s main culture source, but they’re really just a small fraction of its identity. Beneath the surface, a dedicated collective of artists, designers and historians join forces to bring the true heart of the city to light. Organizations like DC Preservation League (DCPL) and MuralsDC work tirelessly to showcase the best of DC’s unique and rich history by protecting old and creating new cultural sites for Washingtonians to enjoy.
DCPL began its mission to “preserve, protect and enhance the historic and built environment of DC through advocacy and education” in 1971 when an activist group, Don’t Tear It Down, formed to save the 1899 Old Post Office on Pennsylvania Avenue from demolition. After saving the post office and a number of other sites in the 70s, Don’t Tear It Down rebranded themselves as the DC Preservation League in 1984. Over the past 40 years, DCPL has sponsored more than 200 historic landmarks for nomination to the DC Inventory of Historic Sites.
Rebecca Miller, executive director of DCPL, says preserving historical sites is important not only for understanding the history and development of a city, but also for having a better cultural understanding of everyday people from the past.
“Sites with cultural significance need to be preserved so that we as a society understand that not every great person lived in the big classical house on the hill,” she says. “Everyday people, who lived in everyday buildings, have done significant things that have led to the world as we know it today; some of these sites deserve to be recognized and preserved as well.”
DCPL is currently working toward diversifying the types of historical sites they protect, including sites important to the African American Civil Rights and LGBTQ+ communities.
“Often, the history of these groups of people have been left out of the conversation, and it’s time that we document all people’s history and culture,” Miller says.
To Miller, the “perceived uniqueness” of DC’s architecture and design stems from its position as the nation’s capital. However, one of the most important factors in the city’s building design is the 1910 Height of Buildings Act – legislation restricting building heights to the width of the street it fronts plus 20 feet, as long as they aren’t taller than 130 feet, according to the
National Capital Planning Commission. The Old Post Office Building was grandfathered in after the original act passed in 1899, and remains as the tallest high-rise federal building in the city.
As DCPL guards DC’s culture by preserving historical sites, MuralsDC protects neighborhoods from illegal graffiti with unique and beautiful murals painted by local artists. As a project funded by the DC Department of Public works in 2007, MuralsDC has sponsored more than 50 projects across the city, engaging District youths along the way by teaching them the art of aerosol.
Christopher Shorter, director of the Department of Public Works (DPW), says although MuralDC’s main goal is to keep the city clean by deterring vandalism, they also focus on featuring the cultures of each unique neighborhood.
“MuralsDC makes a point to deliver a sense of history and a personal statement about each community to the city’s art scene,” Shorter says. “We try to paint each mural as a reminder of who we were, who we are and who we’re trying to be as a city.”
To Shorter, DC’s art and design scene is becoming as prominent as its monuments and museums. By transforming alleyways from shortcuts to destinations, residents and visitors can connect with and learn more about neighborhoods they might not have been to before.
“When MuralsDC paints an original work of art on the side of the building, we’ve done more than just help to eliminate graffiti,” he says. “We’ve provided an amazing gift to the community.”
MuralsDC’s last project was on Half Street in the Capitol Riverfront neighborhood. The property owner of Friendly Food Market wanted to bring the neighbors together, so naturally, a beautiful mural came to mind. As artist Eric B. Ricks decorated the building’s side, community members would gather around to ask him questions and speak to one another about the mural’s significance.
“That speaks to the power of public art,” Shorter says. “It can bring a community together and evoke a sense of pride. But most of all, it’s a great way for DPW to show DC communities that we don’t just work in the community – we really care about the community.”
Learn more about these DC organizations that enhance and beautify the city’s culture.