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Washington's state-named avenues

Last week, I wrote about the system of street naming in Washington. From A Street to Verbena Street and from Half to Sixty-Third, our lettered and numbered streets make it difficult to get lost with their logical progressions.

Photo by author

But our 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, the importance of some avenues is greater than the importance of others. This is due, in large part, to their suburban connections, 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.

Crossposted at Track Twenty-Nine.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. Hes a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer. 


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Don't forget about Puerto Rico Ave! (though technically not a state). Google map it: on the east side of the Metro tracks just south of Ft. Totten

by JessMan on Aug 14, 2009 1:00 pm • linkreport

Excellent post and research!

by Fritz on Aug 14, 2009 1:06 pm • linkreport

Excellent post! You do realize, though, you're committed now to doing a post on all of the anomalous non-state streets. I'm looking forward to it!

by tom veil on Aug 14, 2009 1:26 pm • linkreport

Where is DC Street?!

by Shipsa01 on Aug 14, 2009 1:45 pm • linkreport

@ tom veil: I second that!

by Jasper on Aug 14, 2009 1:57 pm • linkreport

I always assumed DC was represented by Columbia Road

by Patrick on Aug 14, 2009 2:11 pm • linkreport

What, no mention of the pentagram formed by the diagonals above the White House? ;)

by Moose on Aug 14, 2009 2:15 pm • linkreport

@Moose It's not a pentagram because Rhode Island Ave stops at Connecticut and M, it doesn't connect to Washington Circle. (And I've always thought it was a shame that it doesn't)

by Steve on Aug 14, 2009 2:33 pm • linkreport

Columbia Road was named after Columbia College, originally located along that road. However, that college was relocated to Foggy Bottom and renamed "George Washington University."

Most "Roads" in DC predate the urbanization of rural "Washington County, DC" and were only renamed after Avenues if they were significantly straightened or relocated, although there are exceptions. Many of the Avenues were new roads altogehter, just as the north-south and east-west streets were.

Anyone want to suggest which street we should rename District of Columbia Avenue?

We don't have to wait for statehood. Alaska Avenue was named that as early as 1921.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 14, 2009 2:36 pm • linkreport

Matt: Columbia Road was named after Columbia College, now George Washington University, but what was Columbia College named after? It was named after the District of Columbia. Especially considering that if DC becomes a state, it won't be a District anymore, I think it's fine to consider Columbia Road our state street.

by tom veil on Aug 14, 2009 2:56 pm • linkreport

both of these post about streets names are ridiculously awesome and i thoroughly enjoyed them!

by sean on Aug 14, 2009 4:23 pm • linkreport

Great article. Have always wondered though - why is California St designated as a Street, not an Avenue?

by Chris on Aug 14, 2009 4:31 pm • linkreport

Alabama Avenue in SE seems to follow the crests of the hills above the Anacostia. Whereas nearly all the other avenues are straight lines imposed upon the topography, Alabama Avenue respects the terrain.

by Monumentality on Aug 14, 2009 5:08 pm • linkreport

If you really want to see all the state streets join WABA on Sept 26 called the 50 States Ride which hits every state street in DC. 64 miles of tough urban riding, but a lot of fun in a group.

by Eric on Aug 14, 2009 5:43 pm • linkreport

I live on California St., and I always wondered how California seemingly got short shrift in the avenue department. It's definitely a street, not an avenue.

by AMDCer on Aug 14, 2009 9:05 pm • linkreport

As Chris pointed out, my home state of California has a street, not an avenue. Ohio has a drive. And don't forget about the Canadian provinces: Quebec has a street and Ontario both a road and a place.

by martindelaware on Aug 14, 2009 10:30 pm • linkreport

The short answer for California Ave/St: California Ave. (previously named Oakland Ave. and, before that, Prospect Ave. [or St.; it depends on the map and subdivision you look at]) was changed to T Street in Oct. 1905 when the Board of Commissioners renamed the streets in section 1 of the Permanent System of Highways. Residents on the street complained, and it was changed back in 1906, but only to California St. because the commissioners felt it was not wide or straight enough to be an avenue.

Many residents of Brightwood Ave. objected strenuously to that street being renamed Georgia, just as the residents of old Georgia did to losing the name. That some citizens of NW worked to have Brightwood changed is news to me, and worth looking into. (Some DC streets--such as Church St.--owe their odd names to meddling from Congress. Most are just holdovers from the days before the Commissioners had authority to guide street naming.

by Mike on Aug 14, 2009 10:58 pm • linkreport

Reading Matt Johnson's excellent report on state-named avenues reminds me of how dangerously foolish it could be to re-route Pennsylania Avenue SE around a square or oval between 9th and 7th. Only Pennsylvania Avenue SE offers a full vista of the Capitol and the Library of Congress dome for residents and visitors, and it's been that way for a very long time. I'd say we should be extremely cautious about suggesting the avenue be re-routed and the vista altered.

Your opinion may vary.

I don't want to hijack this thread, but after you finish here, please express yourself at , where you can go to the "Contact Us" page to submit a comment. Monday is the last day of the public comment period about the Barrack's Row Town Square Task Force schematics.

by Thomas Riehle on Aug 15, 2009 3:45 am • linkreport

Columbia Road formed the northern boundary of the original campus of Columbian College, now George Washington University (GW). Columbian (not Columbia) College is the name of GW's school of Arts & Sciences.

by GWalum on Aug 16, 2009 1:59 am • linkreport

matt: now, if you can just explain the little nub of montana avenue off of franklin street (between 5th and 6th) that doesn't line up with the rest of montana avenue further to the south and east, you'll truly be my hero.

by IMGoph on Aug 16, 2009 9:59 am • linkreport

Thanks for pointing that out. I mentioned that California was a Street and Ohio was a Drive in my earlier post on Washington Streets. I neglected to say it again in this post.

@Thomas Riehle:
Rerouting the *Automobile Traffic* will have no effect on the Vista. In fact, it will give pedestrians and park-goers a better view of the Capitol. Auto drivers will still have the vista from the point they cross the Anacostia to the point they have to turn onto Independence Avenue.

Avenues and streets are not "motorways." They are linear public spaces. We only think of them as divided into places for cars and places not for cars because cars don't mingle well with other modes. Since the early 20th century, we divided up our public spaces into lanes and sidewalks and medians. In L'Enfant's mind, the Capitol Hill town square area is actually a square, not two triangles.

All that rerouting traffic around the square will do is make drivers turn. It does not affect the linear vistas or the relationship of Pennsylvania as a radial avenue any more than Dupont Circle and Farragut Square do for Connecticut or McPherson Square does for Vermont.

In doing additional historical research, I noticed on a 1921 map of Washington that a "Montanta Avenue" was proposed to cross the city diagonally. Parts are shown as being complete. The section you inquired about is one part. Now, following that line, Bryant Street NE at Rhode Island Avenue was also shown in 1921 as a part of Montana Avenue. It looks like the avenue in this section of the city was dropped and a regular grid left to develop.

The proposal had Montana Ave starting at Lincoln Road near where it currently intersects 4th Street. Running along a line connecting the segment in question and Bryant Street NE, the diagonal portion of 13th Street NE, and ending along that same bearing at about 18th and West Virginia. This is currently the location of the Montana/New York Circle.

I suppose some portions of the Avenue were built. But then for some reason it was redesigned to follow a different line. But kept the same name.

You can find these maps at:
Volume 4
Plate 3, Plate 6, and Plate 10.

According to another GGW reader, Montana would have continued all the way to the Anacostia River near what is now the National Arboreum. Along the way it would have intersected proposed extensions of Maryland and Oklahoma Avenues.

by Matt Johnson on Aug 16, 2009 11:37 am • linkreport

@Thomas Riehle:

Meant to above that City Block just did a good post about DC's public spaces and their relationships to roadways.

by Matt Johson on Aug 16, 2009 11:50 am • linkreport

Further to the discussion of Montana Ave.:
Section 2 of the Permanent System of Highways, recorded in 1898, proposed a diagonal avenue running southeasterly from Lincoln Rd. at about the level of modern Franklin St. NE to Bladensburg Rd. and S St. (and, as others have pointed out, beyond into the land now included in the Arboretum). This avenue was assigned the name Montana when the streets in Northeast were renamed in 1904. However, it was then revised out of the Highway Plan in stages between 1928 and 1932 because development in the area had made it impractical to cut through, but not before two small sections of it had been laid on the ground by owners subdivisions land along its path, 1) the half-block stub still called Montana Ave. at Franklin and 5th Sts. NE, and 2) the diagonal portion of Bryant St. between 10th and 12th Sts. NE. (I don't know when this block was given the name Bryant.)

The long stretch of Montana Ave. we know today, running from Rhode Island Ave at 14th St NE to Bladensburg Rd., was added to the Highway Plan sometime between 1928 and 1932, and incorporates much of Edwin St. laid out in the Montello subdivision in 1873, where the Montello train station once was. This Montana Ave. was given the name in 1932. It was created to connect RI Ave and Bladensburg in the shortest, lest expensive way.

Not to draw this out too much, but the subdivision of South Brookland created another short, one block street called Montana Ave. in 1889. It was renamed Saratoga Ave. in 1916. (It's the part of Saratoga lying between RI Ave. and Brentwood Rd. NE.)

And Ohio Drive is a Drive because it's on federally owned parkland. The roads in the parks are all drives.

by Mike on Aug 16, 2009 7:20 pm • linkreport

Sorry, that should read "by owners subdividing land along its path".

by Mike on Aug 16, 2009 7:24 pm • linkreport

wow mike, thanks! that's some great, great information!

by IMGoph on Aug 16, 2009 7:43 pm • linkreport

So was Maine avenue relocated to the Southwest waterfront to honor that state's fisheries?

by SW on Aug 18, 2009 3:37 pm • linkreport

As a native of the great state of North Carolina, I would like to know where North Carolina Ave. is located!! Also would like to know where Hawaii, New Mexico, Washington state,South Carolina and Idaho streets are located!! Thank you!! Chuc Clubb in Gastonia, North Carolina, USA.

by chuc clubb on Apr 27, 2011 7:04 am • linkreport

@chuc clubb:
There are 9 maps on this post showing the location of the state-named avenues. All of the states are shown on at least on of the maps.

For North Carolina and South Carolina, I'd suggest using the map titled "The Early City", the 3rd map in the post. It labels the states by their postal abbreviations. North Carolina is NC. South Carolina is SC. Both avenues are located on Capitol Hill.

The rest of the state-named avenues you asked about are listed on the map titled "Rockies and Pacific". They are scattered widely across the city.

Alternatively you could use Google Maps to be able to zoom in on any of the streets and follow them. For all of the states *except* Ohio and California, just search for "STATE" Avenue, Washington, DC; where "STATE" is the name of the state you're looking for. Ohio is "Ohio Drive", and California is "California Street".

by Matt Johnson on Apr 27, 2011 10:00 am • linkreport

I didn't realize Iowa had a street. I would be interested in knowing why Iowa was a circle (now Logan Circle) before being designated as a street.

by Dan on Dec 1, 2011 12:51 pm • linkreport

Columbia College was named after the same thing the District of Columbia was named after: Columbia, a prosaic name for the United States. Also: Columbia University (formerly King's College & in NYC, not DC), the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and the Space Shuttle Columbia. So Columbia Road isn't named after DC. But of course there's always Taxation Without Representation Street.

by Monack on Jul 16, 2015 3:25 pm • linkreport

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