Greater Greater Washington

History


The non-circles of Washington: Part 1

Washington, DC is well known for its traffic circles, but there have been many more circles proposed, partially constructed, and removed over the course of the city's history than exist today. Let's explore them.


Thomas Circle. Photo by DDOT.

(Please note that this is not meant to be a thorough analysis of the history of each circle. I owe a big thank you to Eric Fidler for help researching this topic.)

You're probably familiar with Dupont, Logan, Scott, Thomas, and Washington Circlesthe circles located inside the original L'Enfant city. Maybe you also know Chevy Chase, Grant, Randle, Sheridan, Sherman, Ward, and Westmoreland Circleslarge circles located outside of the original city of Washington.

There are many other less prominent circles, such as Anna J. Cooper in LeDroit Park, Banneker in Southwest, Bass in Marshall Heights, Kalorama, Plymouth in Rock Creek Gardens, Tenley, and Thompson in Woodland-Normanstone, and even some so small they hardly merit a mention (Peace and Garfield Circles on the Capitol grounds, for example).

Our focus will be on three categories: missing circles, former circles, and proposed circles that never came to be.

First, let's discuss the circles that were removed or changed to the point that they've basically lost their circleness. Barney, Ellicot, Hancock, Truxton, and the unnamed circle that existed at the intersection of East Capitol, Minnesota, and Ridge all fall into this category.


Barney Circle. Photo from DDOT.
Barney Circle was located where Pennsylvania Avenue reached the west bank of the Anacostia. It was used as a turn-around point for streetcars. Today, the only thing that makes the spot look like a circle is the ramp from westbound Pennsylvania Avenue to the Southeast Freeway.

Ellicott Circle (click here and choose the Topo tab at the top of the page to see it labeled) was a proposed twin to Barney Circle on the eastern side of the Anacostia River. It's not clear if it was ever built, but the name remained on the plat books for years (one could argue that the cloverleaf ramps at the Anacostia Freeway/Pennsylvania Avenue exit create multiple, small Ellicott Circles today).


Meridian Hill (click for larger image).
Hancock Circle has a very interesting history, and there is fantastic documentation regarding its fate. According to extensive testimony before the House Committee on Appropriations regarding the District of Columbia Appropriation Bill for 1896, an Act of Congress in 1889 called for Hancock Circle to be created at the corner of 16th & U Streets and New Hampshire Avenue NW, provided the city could purchase the land from surrounding landowners. Those who owned property at the corner refused to sell, so the city created a small circle within the street right-of-way, which was ruled a "nuisance" because traffic had a difficult time traversing it.

Congress authorized moving the circle a couple blocks north to the intersection of 16th Street and Morris Street, a paper street halfway up the hill where Meridian Hill Park is today. This would have put the circle on a significant slope, so District employees lobbied to have the language authorizing the circle changed so it would be at the top of the hill. In the end, the circle was never rebuilt. The statue of General Winfield Scott Hancock, which was to grace the center of the circle, ended up being placed at 7th and Pennsylvania NW, where it remains today at the entrance to the Archives Metro Station.

Truxton Circle, which existed until 1947 at the intersection of North Capitol Street, Florida Avenue, Q Street, and Lincoln Road, is gone now. There have been rumblings about reconstructing it, but nothing more serious than a DDOT study has come out of this.


Circle at Minnesota Ave. and East Capitol St.
Finally, there was a circle at the corner of East Capitol Street, Minnesota Avenue, and Ridge Road for a time. It appears that it was removed when the Anacostia Freeway was constructed and East Capitol Street was placed in a trench underneath the intersection and the freeway. It's visible on this aerial photograph from 1949.

Tomorrow, I'll discuss proposed circles which never came to fruition and some of the partial circles in the city.

Geoff Hatchard lived in DC's Trinidad neighborhood. The opinions and views expressed in Geoff's writing on this blog are his, and do not necessarily represent the views of his employer. 

Comments

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Maybe a nitpick on my part, but Bass and Plymouth seem more like culs-de-sac to me.

by Alex B. on Aug 23, 2010 8:47 am • linkreport

As best as I can tell, Ellicott Circle was never built. There were a couple of ramps on the east side of the Sousa Bridge connecting Pennsylvania Ave to Anacostia Dr, but those were removed when the freeway was built (ca. late '50s). It was at that same time when Nicholson St was extended to Anacostia Dr to make up for the lost access.

by Froggie on Aug 23, 2010 8:47 am • linkreport

Alex: with Bass I would agree...cul-de-sac. Not that case with Plymouth.

by Froggie on Aug 23, 2010 8:48 am • linkreport

I'll agree that Bass Circle doesn't fall into the circle genre as well as some of the others out there, but that's how it's officially named, so that's how it made the cut.

by IMGoph on Aug 23, 2010 8:51 am • linkreport

Whoops! Not Plymouth, I meant Thompson. My mistake.

by Alex B. on Aug 23, 2010 8:51 am • linkreport

My mid-1940s map of DC lists Ellicott Circle, but it doesn't look there's actually a circle - just the intersection of Penn Ave, 22nd St, SE, and some roads going through the Anacostia Golf Course along the riverfront.

Truxton Circle also is on my WWII-era map, but it looks like a small triangular island, rather than a circle.

by Fritz on Aug 23, 2010 9:14 am • linkreport

You can see some of the proposed or retired circles in the parcel boundaries now shown in Google Maps.

For instance: Mass Ave and Idaho Ave in NW

by Joey on Aug 23, 2010 10:00 am • linkreport

Joey: If you'll note that last line of this post, tomorrow we'll be discussing those proposed circles.

by IMGoph on Aug 23, 2010 10:02 am • linkreport

Speaking of circles, couldn't DC have used eminent domain to pwn the Wendy's at the intersection of Florida & NY so that they could have built that into a *real* circle?

I love the *idea* of a circle at this location, but the current execution is creating huge traffic jams.

by andrew on Aug 23, 2010 10:18 am • linkreport

I live near the Truxton intersection, at 3rd & P NW and lived for a couple years to the north in Bloomingdale. I always avoid the section of N Cap between NY Ave and RI Ave. NY and Florida are horrible for traffic in that area too. I would be in favor of bringing the circle back, at least it would beautify the intersection and couldn't make it much worse for traffic. I feel like the best solution would be to either restore N Cap to a surface street up to the McMillan site or have it go underground all the way from M St to Michigan Ave and make the top a narrower local street and let the through traffic proceed unimpeded below, allowing the circle to be restored since then Florida Ave could be given priority with light timing and streetcars.

by dano on Aug 23, 2010 10:30 am • linkreport

I love these sorts of articles from GGW. Fun little pieces of trivia and history.

by Martin on Aug 23, 2010 11:18 am • linkreport

Truxton Circle needs to make a comeback.

by NikolasM on Aug 23, 2010 11:28 am • linkreport

+1 to Martin's comment- I love these articles!

by Bossi on Aug 23, 2010 11:34 am • linkreport

A NH/U/16 circle would've been brilliant - that's an awkward spot, as the new contraflow cycle lane and bike stoplight installation attests.

There are certainly some spots where there obviously should have been circles, based on symmetry.

M/RI/CT/18 is one - and it really could have used one (and might still fit one if it were small). It would mirror Thomas Circle. And could take either the Longfellow statue or the Nurses of the Civil War thing.

7th/RI/R would mirror Sheridan Circle.

Mt. Vernon Square should've been a circle - and would be less confusing for the uninitiated traveling Mass Ave. if it were

And a pair of circles at S/CT/FL and at S/VT/11th would make those awkward spots much better, and would be symmetrical with one another.

by Tom on Aug 23, 2010 3:20 pm • linkreport

This just got me thinking... was there ever a plan to put in a diagonal state-named route to mirror NH Ave? Such a route would likely have gone from:

- Adams Morgan, 18th/Columbia
- NH/U/18th
- Logan Circle
- Mt V Sq
- Judiciary Sq
- Capitol (front lawn)
- Near-ish to 10th St SE @ the Anacostia
- And I'd wager that if such a road existed, it'd have bridge over the river in lieu of 11th St Bridge, morphing into either Good Hope Rd SE or MLK Jr. Ave SE.

by Bossi on Aug 23, 2010 3:31 pm • linkreport

@Tom: I've never felt that Sheridan Circle needs a mirror across 16th Street. It's outside of the L'Enfant City, and that's where most of the mirroring we're so used to comes from.

by Tim on Aug 23, 2010 7:53 pm • linkreport

@Bossi, This just got me thinking... was there ever a plan to put in a diagonal state-named route to mirror NH Ave?

I believe New Jersey Avenue is the mirror route you're talking about. (And it does go to the Capitol.) And continues on toward the Navy Yard.

by Lance on Aug 23, 2010 8:28 pm • linkreport

What about the terrible wanna-be circle at 16th/Eastern/Colesville 29/N Portal? I drive through this one every day and its just about the worst attempt at controlling traffic flow I've ever seen.

by Robin on Aug 24, 2010 7:00 am • linkreport

As far as traffic circles go, can they be turned into real roundabouts, with no traffic lights. After some car touring through Switzerland, France and Spain, I gotta say, a roundabout without traffic lights is the only way to go.
The rules are simple, once inside the circle, you have the right of way.

I can't stand Logan circle, because there is absolutely no way to get around that thing without stopping at least once.

by Milton Noones on Aug 24, 2010 8:48 am • linkreport

Milton: The thing is that most of our traffic circles have to take pedestrians into account, so creating a roundabout with minimal signalization would make it very difficult for those pedestrians to safely traverse the circles.

by IMGoph on Aug 24, 2010 8:51 am • linkreport

Anyone know what the original plan for the intersection of Independence Ave, Massachusetts, South Carolina, and 15th (in Southeast) was? I don't know if L'Enfant would have envisioned such a confusing intersection.

by Dude7 on Aug 24, 2010 9:31 am • linkreport

@Dude7

The L'Enfant plan didn't do any traffic engineering, it merely laid out the blocks and the street rights of way. That intersection was likely just an open square, and the specific traffic patterns have evolved over time.

http://greatergreaterwashington.org/post.cgi?id=3025

by Alex B. on Aug 24, 2010 9:41 am • linkreport

@IMGoph, Milton

There is evidence that removing traffic controls from circles makes them both more efficient and safer for all modes:

As I watched the intricate social ballet that occurred as cars and bikes slowed to enter the circle (pedestrians were meant to cross at crosswalks placed a bit before the intersection), Monderman performed a favorite trick. He walked, backward and with eyes closed, into the Laweiplein. The traffic made its way around him. No one honked, he wasn’t struck. Instead of a binary, mechanistic process—stop, go—the movement of traffic and pedestrians in the circle felt human and organic.

by Matthias on Aug 31, 2010 1:57 pm • linkreport

I meant to post this link:

http://www.wilsonquarterly.com/article.cfm?AID=1234

by Matthias on Aug 31, 2010 1:58 pm • linkreport

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