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Development


Adams Morgan could get more housing and preserve its plaza, too. But it probably won't.

Some Adams Morgan leaders have said "no" once again to a proposal to replace an ugly 1970s bank building at the corner of 18th and Columbia. Redevelopment would destroy what's now a plaza, but does it have to? If neighbors got over some "height-itis," maybe not.


April 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

For most of this year, controversy has swirled around proposals from PN Hoffman to redevelop what's now a two-story SunTrust bank building dating to 1973 and a brick plaza. Hoffman's initial proposal left a much smaller (but more attractively landscaped) plaza at the corner. Opposition was immediate, and took two forms.

Some people, like the "Save Our Plaza" group, focused most on the plaza itself. The place has some history involving the neighborhood's past efforts to push for fair lending to low-income homebuyers from the Perpetual Federal Savings bank, which used to use the building. Others simply feel that an open gathering space at Adams Morgan's central corner is a worthwhile part of the urban environment.


The plaza. Photo by nevermindtheend on Flickr.

Others, like Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1A zoning committee chair JonMarc Buffa, focus opposition mostly on the size of the proposed building. Much of the 18th Street strip is three stories high, while this building would have been six or seven to the cornice line (plus a set back penthouse).

There are buildings of similar height in the immediate area, but many people including HPRB member, architect, and stalwart opponent of height (except on his own buildings) Graham Davidson said it was too tall and too massive.


September 2016 rendering by PN Hoffman.

Many others, like the commenters on this Borderstan article, argue that Adams Morgan could benefit from more residents (helping neighborhood retail besides bars and late-night pizza places thrive), that DC needs housing, and besides, this is private property.


Open space isn't a bad thing, but neither are buildings. Photo by NCinDC on Flickr.

How about a plaza AND new housing?

While this is indeed private property (though the city's historic preservation process has wide latitude to control what's built), there's some merit to the argument that in a well-planned Adams Morgan, it would still be good to have a plaza here.

My neighborhood has a large circular park right at the Metro station. Even though it takes a lot of land away from being used for needed housing, it's a terrific amenity and I wouldn't want it developed.

However, that doesn't mean I want to keep people out of the neighborhood, either. I support building more housing on other sites and would support taller buildings around the circle where they are low.

What is the priority for Adams Morgan residents? If the plaza is the most important thing, they could propose that instead of shrinking the building, PN Hoffman makes it even taller, but in exchange leaves more of the site open. Or want to minimize height? Then the plaza, which is not public land, probably has to go.

Site plan showing the current building.

I'd go with more height and more plaza space if possible. Tall buildings at prominent corners are actually a defining feature of DC (to the extent any DC building is "tall") and other cities. This marquee corner would be a great spot for something really dramatic that could anchor and characterize Adams Morgan. All of the proposals were architecturally conservative, and have gotten even more so in subsequent revisions. This is why DC has a reputation for boring architecture.

The best vehicle for such an arrangement would be what's called a Planned Unit Development. It's a more involved process that gives a developer more zoning latitude in exchange for benefits to a community. Hoffman hadn't been pursuing a PUD, perhaps hoping for a quicker turnaround in the process, but if neighbors agreed to support something with more density and more plaza space, it would reduce the uncertainty of doing a PUD and open up possibilities for a better project.

I don't want to represent that something is possible that might not be: I haven't talked to PN Hoffman about this possibility. Making a building taller adds construction cost; I'm not privy to the dynamics of their deal to control the land. But in most projects, there is some opportunity for give and take if neighbors really were willing to prioritize asking for one thing and being more flexible on another.


Not a lot of activity. Photo by AgnosticPreachersKid on Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.

And let's not kid ourselves—this plaza is nothing special. It's hosted a farmer's market, but Hoffman has said they'd work to relocate it to another large expanse of sidewalk right across the intersection. For most people walking through Adams Morgan, this spot is just the ugly dead zone in between the interesting commercial strips in various directions.

A smaller but well-designed plaza could be more useful. A larger AND well-designed one could be even better, and potentially even feasible if height weren't such a bugaboo.

Unfortunately, area activists don't seem likely to suggest a taller building and a better plaza. Instead, the Save Our Plaza people seem almost as angry about the number of feet proposed for the building; their petition actually mentions the height first, before the plaza.

A more detailed plan could help

The DC Office of Planning created a vision plan for the neighborhood last year, and it in fact cites the plaza as something to hopefully preserve. But there was no official policy change to protect it, nor did that plan consider offsetting zoning changes to add more housing elsewhere in the neighborhood. The plan had good uncontroversial ideas (better wayfinding, more green roofs, public art) but doesn't actually determine where new housing can go.

The zoning for this site allows a building atop the plaza. Historic preservation is almost wholly discretionary and the preservation board doesn't publish detailed written decisions, making it impossible to know what is and isn't acceptable.

If DC's practice was to devise more concrete plans, we could imagine having a clear vision that lays out how much housing DC needs, what proportion of that would be fair to allocate to Adams Morgan, and a strategy for where to put it and where not to. The zoning could then match this vision instead of bearing at best a passing resemblance.

Instead, it seems that the only thing that would satisfy Advisory Neighborhood Commission 1C is virtually no change at all. That's not reasonable; the city is growing, and so should Adams Morgan's core. But neighborhood leaders can think through how they'd best accommodate that change, and the government could help. And maybe this site could still have a better building and a plaza at the same time.

History


F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald are buried just a block away from the Rockville Metro station

A ride on the Red Line might take you closer to Jazz Age royalty than you'd think. The final resting place of acclaimed author F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda is located in Rockville, just a few blocks away from the Metro station.


Photo by ehpien on Flickr.

I learned about the gravesite from Atlas Obscura, a geography website. The Fitzgeralds' graves are in the "Third Addition to Rockville and Old St. Mary's Church and Cemetery" historic area, which includes several Victorian residential buildings, the 1817-built Old St. Mary's Church, and the former Rockville B&O Railroad station. This historic center of Rockville reflects the time when the railroad station was the gateway to the city.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was born into a prominent Maryland family: his father, Edward, was a distant cousin of Francis Scott Key, for whom Scott was named. But Fitzgerald was born in Minnesota and raised mostly in New York due to his father's job. After graduating from Princeton and marrying Alabama socialite Zelda Sayre, he went on to write several of the most quintessential novels of the Jazz Age, including This Side of Paradise, The Beautiful and Damned, and The Great Gatsby.


Photo by Mr.TinDC on Flickr.

Unfortunately, although Fitzgerald was an iconic writer and one of the biggest celebrities of 1920s society, his success and health had greatly declined by the time of the Depression era. He died in Hollywood in December 1940, at the age of 44. Although he hadn't left explicit instructions for where he would like to be interred, his estranged wife Zelda insisted that he be laid to rest in his family plot in Rockville.

As detailed in a 2014 Post article on the subject, St. Mary's Church initially refused to bury Scott in the Fitzgerald family plot because he was not a practicing Catholic at the time of this death. He was thus interred about a mile east at Rockville Union Cemetery, where Zelda would join him when she was tragically killed in a hospital fire eight years later. It was not until 1975 that the Fitzgeralds' daughter Scottie successfully petitioned for her parents to be moved to the family plot in St. Mary's Cemetery.


Photo by sikeri on Flickr.

Zelda and Scott's resting place is inscribed with the closing lines of his most famous novel, The Great Gatsby: "So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

To learn about some other obscure and interesting locales in our region, check out the Atlas Obscura guide to Washington, DC.


Transit


Proximity to transit has always been good for DC real estate, even 150 years ago

Today, DC area real estate revolves around proximity to Metro. But transit-oriented development is nothing new here. 150 years ago, owners of boarding houses used access to the city's omnibus lines to appeal to antebellum urbanists.


1854 Line of Washington omnibuses. Photo from the DC Public Library.

This ad appeared in the Daily Evening Star on June 26, 1854. That year, three omnibus lines ran throughout Washington, serving the Capitol, Georgetown and the Navy Yard:

HOUSES FOR RENT.—I have for rent several new convenient houses, with lots of two acres of ground attached to each, situated on a new street parallel with Boundary street, running along the top of the ridge west of the railroad where it leaves the city, a little more than a mile north-easterly from the Capitol.
These houses have from seven to ten rooms each, including a kitchen, with several closets and cellar, woodsheds and a stable, and pumps of excellent water near at hand. The situation is beautiful, overlooking the railroad and a large portion of the city, and having the Capitol in full view. The approach to them is by H street, Delaware Avenue, and M street, graded and graveled. The soil of the lots is generally good, and capable of being made very productive.

An omnibus now runs twice a day between these houses and the President's square, by way of M street, Delaware avenue, H street, 7th street and Pennsylvania avenue; leaving the houses at about half-past eight o'clock, a.m., and half-past two p.m.; returning, after brief stands at the War, Navy and Treasury Departments, the Centre Market, General Post Office and Patent Office.


Daily Evening Star ad from June 26, 1854 mentions proximity to omnibus line.

Like today's Metro, the omnibus was a regular source of commuter headaches. An 18-year-old Samuel Clemens chronicled his disappointment with the city's mass transit system in February of 1854:

There are scarcely any pavements, and I might almost say no gas, off the thoroughfare, Pennsylvania Avenue. Then, if you should be seized with a desire to go to the Capitol, or [somewhere]else, you may stand in a puddle of water, with the snow driving in your face for fifteen minutes or more, before an omnibus rolls lazily by; and when one does come, ten to one there are [nineteen] passengers inside and fourteen outside, and while the driver casts on you a look of commiseration, you have the inexpressible satisfaction of knowing that you closely resemble a very moist [dish-rag], (and feel so, too,) at the same time that you are unable to discover what benefit you have derived from your fifteen minutes' soaking; and so, driving your fists into the inmost recesses of your breeches pockets, you stride away in despair, with a step and a grimace that would make the fortune of a tragedy actor, while your "onery" appearance is greeted with "screems of laftur" from a pack of vagabond boys over the way.

Such is life, and such is Washington!

This post is excerpted from the book "Mark Twain in Washington, D.C.: Adventures Of A Capital Correspondent". Also, this post originally ran in 2013, but since the history hasn't changed, we're sharing it again!

Architecture


Building of the Week: Francis A. Gregory Library

Some of DC's most interesting architecture is hiding in its least-visited neighborhoods. The dynamic glass and timber Francis A. Gregory Library, which was designed by the same architect that brought DC the new African American history museum, sits on Alabama Avenue SE, near the Maryland border.


The Francis Gregory Library. Photo by Neil Flanagan.

This architectural gem's Fort Davis neighborhood is underserved. There's less developed public transit than in other parts of DC, the federal government isn't using any of the available land except for the military's Joint Base Anacostia-- Bolling, and nearby historic sites get little promotion.

Placing Adjaye Associates and Wiencek Associates' world-class library here, though, was no accident. In 2012, David Adjaye's company completed both the Francis A. Gregory Library and the nearby Bellevue Library, in the Washington Highlands neighborhood. The Tanzanian born, London-based architect has worked on projects in similarly marginalized areas of London and Johannesburg. This month, Adjaye's latest joint venture, the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture opens on the National Mall.

Adjaye's is often praised for focusing on the people who live in a given place rather than simply impressing the architectural elite, yet few in the District mention the unusually exciting contemporary architecture he is infusing into an aesthetically conservative city.

The main feature of the library's exterior is the glass curtain wall. That Adjaye could bring joy to a curtain wall speaks to his creativity. A curtain wall is simply a non-structural outer wall that separates occupants from weather. Huge glass curtain walls were once revolutionary, but they now typically signal urban homogeneity.

Adjaye made the curtain wall an exciting building technique again with diamond cutouts whose interiors are lined in wood. This gives both the facade and interior three dimensionality, as well as foreshadowing the woven look that he has implemented in the new Smithsonian's exterior.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

Unlike every new glass building the library truly relates to its environment. Surrounding trees provide natural weather moderation. They also have the rare effect of being mirrored in the library's low-emissivity coated glass. This design is beautiful but also logical, as the library provides passage to the park behind it.

Leaving the steel-canopied exterior for the 22,500 square foot interior does not mean abandoning sun. The atrium and reading rooms provide views of the vegetation, and visitors can sit in some of the wooden diamonds. Glass ceilings cut in a square pattern enhance the intended porousness of the space.


Photo by Payton Chung on Flickr.

In keeping with Adjaye's community interest, some of the library's rooms can transition from their public purpose to other uses, like event and conference areas. The space is intentionally intimate and uncluttered. Its 32 public computers and seven transformable rooms reflect an understanding of the rapid evolution of libraries' function in the 21st century.

These themes are all over the new African American history museum, too

Many of the elements from Adjaye's library are reflected in his new work on the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture: steel and wood construction, LEED certification, and evolution of a building typology.


The new National Museum of African American History and Culture. Photo by Michael Barnes, from the Smithsonian.

It is perhaps this last similarity that is most important. Adjaye's library is a place not only for its classic silent study, but also for presently celebrated ideals like community and learning from others. His new museum is perhaps America's highest profile attempt to understand a history that is still unfolding.


Image from ISEC.

African American history and culture permeate and shape every part of the American story; the ramifications of the subjugation of that race, during slavery and long after, is its ugly underbelly. The conflict between celebration and suppression is still being explored today. To approach such a living, contested subject will be done visibly in Adjaye Associates and Wiencek Associates' museum, but also in the architect's decisions.

The building's design draws inspiration from African American building. Its aluminum and bronze exterior cladding is a modern version of the ornamental metal casting that African Americans created in the south in the 19th century using their knowledge of West African techniques. While expensive to create, the bronze panels will darken over time, making a dramatic statement on the National Mall.

Adjaye's so-called "woodland folly" (a term referring to the fact that the building is supposed to become part of the landscape, suggesting an intertwined relationship with the surrounding nature, as woodland follies were small structures designed to allow users to relax in nature) on Alabama Avenue bears less of this weighty burden. Yet in designing libraries for overlooked areas, Adjaye brings innovation and beauty to neighborhoods others see unfit to visit. He is creating progressive places not for the sake of drawing wealthy people in, but to bring a wealth of ideas to nearby residents local libraries are meant to serve.

Development


When the Metro first arrived in Shaw and Columbia Heights, they were far different than they are today

During rush hour, northbound Yellow Line trains need to reverse direction at Mount Vernon Square because there isn't enough capacity for all of them to run to Greenbelt. That's because when Metro designed the Yellow Line, it was hard to imagine neighborhoods like Shaw and U Street developing as rapidly as they did.


This pre-2004 map shows original full-time Yellow Line service. Image from WMATA.

Why can't Yellow Line go farther north full time?

For the Yellow Line to operate north of Mount Vernon Square full-time, there would need to be a pocket track somewhere between that station and Greenbelt, so that Yellow Line trains could turn back towards Virginia without impeding Green Line trains at rush hour. (Right now, a few Rush+ Yellow Line trains do go all the way to Greenbelt, but usually only about four per hour during peak periods).

The tunnel that carries the Green and Yellow Lines under 7th Street and U Street NW opened in two stages: from L'Enfant Plaza to Gallery Place in April 1983, and from Gallery Place to U Street in May 1991. These tracks initially only provided service for the Yellow Line, but the Green Line would soon utilize the tunnel when it began operation from U Street to Anacostia in December 1991. Check out the Evolution of Metrorail graphic below, which we initially ran two years ago to see how service has changed:

The tracks running through the 7th Street tunnel had always been intended to be shared by the Green and Yellow Lines, but only for a short portion. Although it was intended for the Green Line to operate along the entire length of the tunnel - continuing onwards to Petworth, Fort Totten, and northwest Prince George's County - the Yellow Line would short turn at a pocket track somewhere along the route, so as not to overwhelm operations at Greenbelt (as I discussed in my first post on this topic).

Metro's planners opted to build the necessary pocket track at Mount Vernon Square station, which meant that Yellow Line trains would have to end their route and turn back towards Virginia without serving neighborhoods like Columbia Heights and Petworth. Except for the brief six-month period between the opening of Mount Vernon Square, Shaw, and U Street stations in June 1991 and the commencement of Green Line service that December, the Yellow Line has always terminated at Mount Vernon Square in regular rush hour service.

Off-peak Yellow Line service all the way to Fort Totten began in 2006. This has certainly been a first step towards meeting the increased demand in DC's Mid-City area (generally thought of as the neighborhoods served by the Green Line from Shaw to Petworth). However, these areas have now grown enough in population that full-time Yellow Line service is warranted, despite the significant obstacles that stand in the way.

The growth of Mid-City has led to a need for increased Metro service

Massive redevelopment in Mid-City began around the turn of the century, and has continued at a frantic pace to the present day. That's meant increased demand for service along the Green/Yellow Lines at all hours.

When the Mid-City section of the Green Line opened in 1991 (between Gallery Place and U Street) and was completed in 1999 (from U Street to Fort Totten), the area was still reeling from the destruction caused by the 1968 riots. Shaw and Columbia Heights were still plagued with empty storefronts, and the landscape was pockmarked with empty lots where incinerated buildings had once stood.


Aftermath of DC's 1968 riots. Image from the Library of Congress.

The corridor has since benefitted from an incredible amount of reinvestment since the opening of the new Green (later Green/Yellow) Line stations in the 1990s. New construction has ranged in scale from projects like Progression Place, a huge mixed-use center that was recently built directly atop Shaw Metro, to smaller infill developments aimed at repairing the urban fabric.


Apartments at the Columbia Heights station. Photo by Alice Crain on Flickr.

A problem inherent in the system's design

Unfortunately, plans for Metro service patterns in Mid-City didn't anticipate the future growth that these neighborhoods would face. The Yellow Line was designed to provide a direct connection from Virginia to downtown for the commuting crowd; it travels express between Pentagon and L'Enfant Plaza, then provides a connection to each of the other Metro lines downtown before turning back at Mount Vernon Square.

The system's planners didn't predict that a significant amount of Yellow Line passengers would desire to travel past downtown, to neighborhoods like Shaw and Columbia Heights. Thus, it was assumed that the Green Line would provide adequate service for this portion of the line. Hence the pocket track going in at Mount Vernon Square, rather than at a more northern station like U Street.

So, could Metro build a new pocket track to account for the development spree?

Unfortunately, because this service pattern is cemented by the chosen location to build a pocket track, any attempt to correct this past oversight will be very laborious and costly.

It would be extremely difficult to add a pocket track to the Green and Yellow Lines anywhere between Mount Vernon Square and the District line because the tracks run almost entirely underground all the way to West Hyattsville. It would be prohibitively disruptive and expensive to excavate along the existing route and construct a pocket track between the mainline tracks—a WMATA study placed the cost of a Fort Totten pocket at $150 million.

Although the lower platform at Fort Totten is mostly built in an open cut (a shallow excavation that puts the tracks slightly below ground level), the tracks emerge directly from tunnels on both sides. The necessary location for a pocket track - the east side of the station, on the far side of the platforms from the city - is also the location of the B&E Connector track, a non-revenue link between the Red and Green Lines. The combination of these factors would make the construction of a pocket at this location very complex.


The track layout at Fort Totten. Light-colored tracks are below ground. Graphic by the author.

The next logical place to build a pocket track beyond Fort Totten is in Prince George's County, at the point where the tracks emerge from underground near West Hyattsville station. However, while construction of a pocket here wouldn't require excavation, it would still be extremely difficult and disruptive because the tracks are side-by-side on an elevated viaduct.

Because a pocket would have to be built between the existing mainline tracks, Metro would have to reconstruct a roughly 600-foot section of this elevated viaduct in order to pull the tracks apart and create space for a third track in between. This would be comparably disruptive and expensive to constructing a pocket track underground near Fort Totten. What's really required is a section of track that is at-grade, e.g. resting at ground level rather than underground or on a viaduct.


The Green Line viaduct and platforms at West Hyattsville. Photo by Elvert Barnes on Flickr.

The next feasible place to build a pocket track would be at the above-ground embankment behind Home Depot on East-West Highway near Prince George's Plaza station (although that, too, might be difficult due to the curve at that location).

Of course, a pocket track gets less and less useful the further it is from downtown. The next possible location for a pocket would be near College Park, at which point Yellow Line trains might as well continue all the way to Greenbelt.

It looks like for now, stations north of Mount Vernon Square will have to make do without full-time Yellow Line service. Until WMATA can procure $150 million to add an expensive new underground pocket track at Fort Totten, as well as $100 million for new rolling stock (plus millions more in annual operating funds), rush hour Yellow Line trains will have to continue to terminate at Mount Vernon Square. But the temporary terminus at U Street offers us a glimpse of what could have been if Metro had built a pocket track there back in 1991.

History


Part of the US Capitol building is in Rock Creek Park

There are heaps of sandstone in the heart of Rock Creek Park that used to be a part of the Capitol Building. They were taken down in 1958 when part of the iconic building was expanded and rebuilt in marble. Now, they've kind of been forgotten.


Photo by the author.

J. George Stewart, the architect of the Capitol, wanted to see the eastern front rebuilt in marble. The old facade was cracking, it didn't line up with the Senate and House extensions that went onto the building in the 1850s, and he thought marble was just nicer.

Steward, a former one term congressman from Delaware, had never actually received any architectural training, and he faced a huge uphill challenge convincing people this was a good idea. A bitter war played out in Washington's editorial pages over the following months between the sandstone purists and the marble backers.

Powerful Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn liked the idea. But the American Institute of Architects blasted the proposal, calling it a "desecration" and labeling Rayburn as a "historic barbarian."

Rayburn pushed the plans forward in any case.

On December 13, 1958 the Daytona Beach Morning Journal wrote that "Workmen are saving everything, even the debris and rubble, and storing it safely on the Capitol grounds".

The old Aquia Creek sandstone facade was taken apart piece by piece by the John McBeath & Sons company. They finished the job in seven months, dutifully cataloging each stone and stacking them by the House of Representatives.

In their place went Special Georgia White marble, provided by the Georgia Marble Company for $2.8 million. The new front was 33 feet farther than the original, and lined up with the House and Senate stairways.


Image from the Architect of the Capitol.

What to do with the stones?

According to the Washington Post, when the project started nobody had thought through what to do with the stones. "Eventual disposition of the dismantled portions is to be determined [at a later date] by the Commission for Extension of the Capitol, headed by House Speaker Sam Rayburn."

Steward and Rayburn consulted with the advisory architects who suggested donating the stones to the Smithsonian, or reconstructing them into a new museum. However, Steward (who was being crucified in the press during all of this) had spent the last year trying to convince everyone about all the ways in which sandstone was deficient.

Highlight the stones in a new museum? No way! He wanted the blocks out of sight and out of mind.

The stones first traveled to the Capitol Powerplant, where they sat until 1975 when facilities there expanded. That's when they made their way to a National Park Service facility deep inside Rock Creek Park.

At the time, they were under the custody of the now-defunct Commission on the Extension of the United States Capitol. According to a 1982 Washington Post article, possession of the stones then passed to the House and Senate office building commissions.

Present day

The stones have been sitting in Rock Creek Park for the last 40 years, slowly gathering moss and sinking into the ground.

The United States Capitol Historical Society has been cutting up a small number of the stones and selling them as bookends (with permission from the Speaker of the House). The stones are also occasionally used for small restoration jobs in the Capitol and White House.

The 22 corinthian columns from the old east front were rescued from obscurity in 1984 by DC local Ethel Garrett, who successfully lobbied to have them moved to a more fitting location. Today, they stand sentry over a reflecting pool and 20 acres of meadow at the National Arboretum.


Photo by Fred Dunn on Flickr.

Cross-posted from ArchitectoftheCapital.org. If you enjoyed reading about the capitol stones you might also like the old Civil War fort hidden in Rock Creek Park.

History


Here's how DC's state-named avenues got their names

Earlier in the summer, we re-visited the reasoning behind why Washington, DC's street naming system. From A Street to Verbena Street and from Half to Sixty-Third, DC's lettered and numbered streets make it difficult to get lost with their logical progressions.


Photo by the author.

But DC's transverse diagonal avenues confound everyone from tourists to suburban motorists. Not only do they break all the grid rules, they even manage to break up the grid itself in many places, like H Street, NW at New York Avenue. And to make matters worse, they often skip across parks, rivers, even entire neighborhoods, before starting up again, sometimes even on a different heading.

Locals have mostly figured out where the avenues are, at least the major ones. Maryland residents use many of these broad streets as their connections to downtown, but a short street like North Dakota Avenue goes unnoticed by almost everyone outside the immediate neighborhood.


Penn. radiates from the Capitol
In fact, when the city was first established, the organized naming system extended to state-named avenues as well. It was not quite as intuitive as the numbered and lettered streets, but with only nineteen avenues, it was still easy to understand.

As I noted before, the plan of the city was meant to reflect the structure of the government. For that reason, the city's quadrants are centered on the Capitol Rotunda. The state-named avenues are no exception. Being the major streets of the city, L'Enfant's plan placed many of them so that they emanated from certain points. In this regard, they provided long unobstructed views toward the icons of our nascent government.


Yellow denotes sections which have disappeared.

From the Capitol, North Capitol Street stretches northward, followed in a clockwise direction by Delaware Avenue, Maryland Avenue, East Capitol Street, Pennsylvania Avenue, New Jersey Avenue, South Capitol Street, Delaware Avenue, the Mall, Pennsylvania Avenue, and New Jersey Avenue.

From the White House, Sixteenth Street forms the major axis. In fact, Thomas Jefferson intended it to become the Prime Meridian, which is where Meridian Hill Park gets its name. Moving clockwise, one encounters Vermont Avenue, New York Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, New York Avenue, Pennsylvania Avenue, and Connecticut Avenue.


Yellow denotes sections which have disappeared.

Today, some avenues are more important than others. This is due, in large part, to where it is they connect to, not any particular naming convention.

The grand avenue, home to everything from Inaugural Parades to festivals of all sorts, is Pennsylvania Avenue. Connecting the Legislative and Executive branches, it was always meant to be the heart of Washington. In the southeast, it continues as a major roadway toward central Prince George's County, Maryland.

Similarly, Connecticut, Georgia, and New York all are major thoroughfares to outlying parts of the region. Another important street is Wisconsin Avenue, running from M Street in Georgetown to the Beltway north of Bethesda; it was an important road long before the name was applied. As late as 1903, it was still called the Georgetown and Rockville Pike. This historic name is the basis for two streets in suburban Montgomery County: Old Georgetown Road and Rockville Pike, the straightened version.


Virginia @ 6th SW
Some feel that certain states got short shrift. Tiny Delaware has a fractured, relatively unimportant street. However, the main reason that it is less important today is because of its strategic importance as a transportation corridor. To the north, Amtrak, MARC, and Metro's Red Line trains use Delaware Avenue to enter the L'Enfant City. Similarly, Maryland and Virginia Avenues in Southwest and Southeast now have above-grade railway embankments carrying trains along streets intended to be grand public avenues.

But street-naming doesn't have anything to do with importance to the Revolution or the prestige of any one state, at least not directly. State names were assigned to avenues based on their geographic location within the United States.

For that reason, one found Georgia Avenue in the southernmost portion of the city. Running from what is now Fort McNair across the southern side of Capitol Hill, we know it today as Potomac Avenue. Near the northern edge of the city, the avenue named after the then-northernmost state, New Hampshire, passed through Washington and Dupont Circles, just as it does today.

Vermont joined the union in 1791 as the fourteenth state, while Kentucky joined in 1792. It was during these years that Washington was being laid out. For that reason, they both received places within the system. Tennessee gained statehood in 1796, and its avenue became the first glaring error. After all, Tennessee forms the southern boundary of Kentucky, yet Kentucky Avenue lies entirely south of Tennessee Avenue.

By the time Congress first met here in 1800, there were three diagonal avenues left to be named. Ohio and Indiana fit into the system well enough, but Louisiana was sorely out of place.

With the first nineteen states represented in the city, Washington ran out of avenues. Maps from the 1800s available on the Library of Congress' website show that Maine and Missouri had short avenues within the bounds of the Mall, but it is unclear exactly how all the new states were represented as they came on board.

In 1890, Boundary Street was renamed after the twenty-seventh state, Florida. Despite being farther south than any other state (it would remain so until 1959), it got the street forming the northern boundary of the city.

Yet by the time the twentieth century got going, Washington was expanding into the hills and dales above the Fall Line. As the street grid expanded, new avenues were added, and old ones obliterated. Around 1914, the citizens of Brightwood managed to get Brightwood Avenue renamed after Georgia. They had hoped to curry favor with senator Augustus Bacon, but he promptly died, and never had a chance to affect the fortunes of these suburban pioneers. The construction of the Federal Triangle complex in the 1930s eliminated Ohio's avenue and shortened what had been Louisiana Avenue. Louisiana's name itself had moved a few blocks east to a new street constructed as part of the changes brought by Union Station and Columbus Circle in 1907.

Today, one can still see some geographic order to the state-named avenues. However, much of that is due to the age of certain regions. After all, New England hasn't had a new state since number twenty-three, Maine, joined in 1820. For the most part, states on the East Coast can be found downtown. Alaska Avenue is the northernmost avenue (in its entirety). Mississippi, which is at least in the south, is the southernmost state-named avenue. But the similarities largely end there.

This post originally ran in 2009, but since the history hasn't changed, we thought we'd share it again!

Transit


These Metro stations’ names might have been very different

Metro's Medical Center station was almost called "Pooks Hill," and Navy Yard could have been "Weapons Plant." This 1967 map shows some of the amusing names that WMATA considered for a number of Metro stations.


Map from WMATA.

Aside from Medical Center and Navy Yard having different names, you'll notice that Pentagon City is named Virginia Highlands and Federal Center SW is named Voice of America.

The names are crisper and more creative than the awkward over-hyphenization that is so common in today's system. Originally operating under a 15 character limit, Woodley Park - Zoo / Adams Morgan is shown more elegantly as Zoological Park (you can see where this one appears on the little map in the top left below), and Gallery Place - Chinatown is named Fine Arts (because of the Portrait Gallery).


Map from WMATA.

In 2010, Matt Johnson wrote about "namesprawl," the "result of the idea that station names have to reflect absolutely everything remotely close by. This is generally done to encourage people to ride transit to these venues."

This map was included in a pamphlet that outlined the congressionally approved "basic system." It's surprising to think that a name like Weapons Plant made it through the committee process unscathed.

It's also amusing to see the proposal's high minded promise that "SERVICE WILL BE FREQUENT: Air conditioned trains will run every two minutes at peak hours."

An expanded version of this article appears on the Architect of the Capital blog.

History


An alien notion: 800,000 DC residents

Over 800,000 people lived within the boundaries of the District of Columbia back in 1950. How did all of these people fit, with fewer and smaller buildings than today?


Photo by Jesse Means on Flickr.

The 1951 sci-fi classic "The Day the Earth Stood Still" inadvertently shows us how. Klaatu, a level-headed extra-terrestrial emissary, escapes captivity at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He wanders down Georgia Avenue, away from not-yet-nuclear-weapon-free Takoma Park, and attempts to disappear into everyday DC.

To do so, Klaatu checks into a boarding house at 14th and Harvard in Columbia Heights. Each room houses one or two people, and as such there's scant privacy to be had: everyone overhears everything.

This is convenient for Klaatu, who knows little of Earthlings' simple ways, but probably annoying for the Earthlings. Conditions like these were common in DC homes at the time.

The 1950 census found 14.1% of the District's 224,142 occupied housing units to be "overcrowded" (with over 1 person per room). By 2011, that figure had fallen by 2/3, to 4.7%, similar to the 5.3% of homes in 1950 that were extremely overcrowded (more than 1.5 occupants per room).

This crowding meant that on average, every apartment and house in DC had one more person living inside: households were 50.2% larger! In 1950, 3.2 people occupied each dwelling unit. In 2007-2011, the number of persons per household had fallen to 2.13, so the city's population still fell to 617,996. That decline would have been much steeper had the city not built 74,760 new housing units: the city's population would have plunged to 477,422, and the nation's capital would be less populous than Fresno.

Household size shrank nationwide as families changed. In 1960, married couples with children outnumbered single-person households almost three to one. In 2010, singles easily outnumbered nuclear families nationwide, and by 5.57 to one in DC.

As DC gets reacquainted with the notion of population growth and begins to plan for a much larger population within the same boundaries, we'll have to have a realistic conversation about household sizes and housing production. A change of just 0.09 persons per household means the difference between planning for 103,860 or 140,515 additional housing units,1 or a total of 35% to 47% more units.

That amounts to 2,000-3,000 additional units per square mile of land, after subtracting the 10.5 square miles of parks and seven square miles of water from DC's 68 square miles.

Klaatu, unfamiliar with our contentious Earth politics and "impatient with stupidity," might propose to build a platform of 5-unit-per-acre suburbia above the existing city, or require every second or third home to be subdivided, or return to 1950s household sizes and require every home to take in one boarder (not necessarily extra-terrestrials). But since Klaatu is no longer with us, we will instead have to figure out more complicated ways of infilling a built-up city.

We've obviously figured it out before; after all, DC has added an Alexandria's worth of housing units to its existing housing stock since 1950, plus plenty of offices, museums, hospitals, parking garages, and the like.


1615 M Street. Image from Google Maps.
A lot of that change has happened around places like 1615 M Street NW, the address where a 1954 radio version of "The Day the Earth Stood Still" placed Klaatu's boarding house. Today, 1615 M is a 9-story Class A office building that brackets the historic Magruder and Sumner schools.

The area above K but below Massachusetts was a high-density mixed residential area in the 1950s, what Park & Burgess would've known as "the zone in transition," but today the height-constrained central business district has spread north to Massachusetts Avenue. Yet in fact many foreign visitors still board on that block, at the Jefferson Hotel and the University of California's Washington Center.

Unlike in the movie, there is no way that Klaatu can make DC's growth "Stand Still," and so the built fabric of many other DC neighborhoods will have to change in the near future. Thankfully, neither is there a grumpy Gort (pictured above) parked on the Ellipse, who will destroy the earth with laser-beam eyes if we don't all just get along.

We first ran this post in 2013, but since the history and ideas haven't changed, we decided to re-run it.

1 Based on this 2006 Urban Institute/Fannie Mae Foundation report by Margery Austin Turner forecasting 100,000 new residents, a target that the Sustainable DC Plan recently raised to 250,000.
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