D.C.'s best view of fireworks is off limits

A residential building named The Cairo is the best seat in D.C. on the Fourth – not that the tenants care.

The Cairo stands 14 stories high. By the standards of more vertical cities, that's not especially impressive. Here, however, it makes it the tallest residential building in all of Washington.

It also means that come the Fourth of July, the Cairo's planked rooftop deck – which spans the length of the building's south-facing facade and wraps part way around its western side – is an especially coveted spot from which to watch fireworks as they're launched over the National Mall.

"I think we probably have the best view around – aside from actually being on top of the Washington Monument," says one resident, returning home from work on a recent Wednesday, his striped tie flung over his left shoulder.

And it's not just the government-sanctioned show that's visible. "It truly is insane," says Vicky Hallett, a reporter for The Washington Post who has lived in the Cairo since 2003. "Because it's a 360-degree view, you can see fireworks in other suburbs and illegal fireworks. It's incredible." By one account, as many as 30 pyrotechnic displays light up the horizons.

The spectacular vantage point became so popular that management implemented a residents-only policy for July 4. So it may be hard to believe – especially for the 100,000 tourists the D.C. Convention and Tourism Corp. is expecting to eagerly converge on their nation's capital – that even with the holiday falling midweek, this year, as in past years, some Cairo residents are making plans to decamp. They are part of a larger exodus: Locals leaving behind dense, swampy air and flag-waving tourists in favor of cooler climes and less exuberant celebrants.

Rehoboth Beach in Delaware is one popular destination for the Cairo defectors. A deeply tanned woman in sunglasses and a red blazer, pausing ever so briefly beneath the building's elaborately carved Romanesque Revival arch, says wearily of the Mall fireworks, "You can only see them so many times." She'll catch hers as they explode over the ocean at Rehoboth.

"If I was going to be in D.C., I would definitely be on the roof," says Patrick McIlvaine, a computer systems engineer who will also make the 2-1/2-hour drive to his Rehoboth rental. But however eye-popping the view, he says, "It's not enough to keep me in the city."

When the Cairo was constructed in 1894, neighborhood residents were not impressed. They found the 160-ft. exterior, adorned with gargoyles, to be horrifying. And they were fearful that the city's first "residential skyscraper" might blow over. In response, an ordinance was passed in 1899 that limited the height of future residential buildings, effectively making the Cairo the first and last of its kind. Still in place today, the law ensures a cozy skyline where no building is taller than the Capitol Dome, all residences have fewer than 10 stories – and fireworks can still be seen, even from lesser rooftops.

Among residents who regularly climb from the 12th floor to the Cairo's roof, some say it has no special pull on the Fourth. They complain of winds blowing the wrong way, obscuring the fireworks behind smoke, and a residents-only policy that makes for an unfestive atmosphere.

As for the capital: "I don't feel a special kind of patriotism here on the Fourth of July that I wouldn't somewhere else," says Seattle native Brent Kallmer. "It doesn't feel like I'm closer to the center – emotional or otherwise." The freelance writer, who hates crowds, will spend the holiday with family and friends in his hometown.

The one place he'd never go: "If a judge wanted to sentence me," he says, "telling me to stand on the Mall on the Fourth would be a highly effective punishment."

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