Posts about Street Naming
Did you know there's a rhyme and reason to how Arlington County's streets are named? Here's an explanation of Arlington's street-naming system.
While Arlington was originally part of the District of Columbia (until 1846), it was not incorporated in the plan of Pierre L'Enfant. Unlike its larger neighbor, Arlington's streets don't follow a strict grid, but development has still followed a somewhat rectilinear pattern. The street-naming system dates back to 1932, and was undertaken in order to convince the Postal Service to allow "Arlington" as the mailing address for the entire county.
The county is divided into northern and southern sections by Arlington Boulevard, a major east-west thoroughfare which bisects the county.
In contrast to Washington, east-west streets are numbered. Since Arlington does not have quadrants, but instead has halves, most streets are identified with "north" or "south" relative to Arlington Boulevard. The directional suffix follows numbered streets, but precedes named streets. Numbered streets increase with distance from Arlington Boulevard in both directions. Accordingly, it is flanked on the north by First Street North and on the opposite side by First Street South. Numbered streets are usually "streets," but when additional streets fill in blocks, "Road" and then "Place" is used.
Named streets run north-south. Like DC, the first letter of the street name and number of syllables indicates where in the grid a street is located. The origin for the named streets is the Potomac River. The first "alphabet" is made up of one-syllable words, the second of two-syllable words, the third of three-syllable words, and the fourth is just one street: North Arizona Street. As distance from the Potomac increases, letters increase successively.
Instead of using "Place" to indicate a second street of the same letter filling in the street grid as DC does, Arlington just uses another word of the same first letter and syllables. In that regard, Danville Street could be followed by Daniel Street. A look at a progression of successive letters shows the strata of the alphabets in Arlington's street grid.
None of Washington's state-named avenues continue into Virginia, so Arlington uses a different methodology for indicating major streets. Like the street bisecting the county, major east-west roads are typically called "boulevards". Examples include Wilson and Clarendon Boulevards.
Major north-south streets are often called "drives." Examples include Walter Reed and George Mason Drives.
Many roads pre-date the addressing system of 1932, and have kept their historical names. These include "roads," highways," Spout Run Parkway, and Columbia Pike.
This post first ran back in 2009. Since the history hasn't changed, we thought we'd share it with you again!
A federal judge proposed renaming DC's lettered streets after presidents, judges, and cabinet members in 1897, Ghosts of DC explains. If his proposal had taken hold, we might go to movies at the Landmark Ellsworth Street Cinema downtown today.
According to Tom of Ghosts of DC, Alexander Burton Hagner, a judge of the federal district court in DC, said that naming streets G, H, I, and so on conveyed a "poverty of conception and of taste, a lack of dignity, and a want of appreciation of the importance of the city among the great capitals of earth."
Instead, he wanted to change the lettered streets both north and south of the Capitol to the names of presidents, if ones had that letter, followed by vice-presidents, Supreme Court chief justices, Speakers of the House, cabinet members, military heroes, and so forth. Here's the list he came up with:
Tom also points out that, if we had this scheme, some members of Congress might have wanted to change Rutledge Street (now R Street) into Reagan Street (one member did try to rename 16th Street NW for the former President).
This plan never came to pass, but when the city expanded beyond its original borders, the streets did get the names of important historical figures. We now have Otis Place and Upshur Street just about 1.7 miles north of where Hagner would have placed them.
There are rankings that compare states for all kinds of things—
There's a road named for each of the 50 states (and Puerto Rico) in the District. Matt Johnson explains the patterns behind where the avenues are located. You can also learn more about them with this video of someone biking them all.
To create a single ranking among state avenues, Michael Grass at Route Fifty tallied up scores on a number of criteria:
- How many quadrants the avenue passes through
- Whether the state is one of the 13 original colonies that formed the US
- If the road is in the original L'Enfant plan for DC
- If it radiates from the White House or Capitol
- How many important circles and squares it connects
- How many other state streets it crosses
- If it has segments missing or other interruptions along the way
- If it's not an Avenue (California Street and Ohio Drive)
- If it extends to Maryland with the same name
- How long it is
There are exceptions, though: What's now Potomac Avenue used to be Georgia Avenue until residents of Brightwood lobbied to rename Brightwood Avenue for the state. As Matt wrote, "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." Still, it helped Georgia Avenue get more points, since it now qualifies for points for going to Maryland, and for being really long, while losing out on being in the L'Enfant City (it's 7th Street south of Florida).
Here are the results:
As a native of Massachusetts, I'm pleased that my state comes out on top, being really long, crossing a lot of other state avenues, passing through three quadrants and Maryland, being in the L'Enfant plan and an original colony, and topping the list of important circles and squares with a whopping 13 (Westmoreland Circle, Wesley Circle, Ward Circle, Observatory Circle, Sheridan Circle, Dupont Circle, Scott Circle, Thomas Circle, Mt. Vernon Square, Columbus Circle, Stanton Park, Lincoln Park, and Randle Circle).
California Street, on the other hand, is a four-block street in Adams Morgan that's even shorter than nearby Wyoming Avenue and doesn't even get to be an Avenue. On Matt Johnson's post, commenter Mike (not Michael Grass) wrote,
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.The road's stature definitely does not reflect the importance of the state with which it shares a name (being far less significant a street than almost any other state-named street, period). But Massachusetts definitely is the best.
In 1870, the areas between the old city and the District line were still fairly rural. But many of the thoroughfares that shape the city today were already around then. Let's look at the roads that connected communities in what is now Ward 8.
Until 1871, the District was made up of the cities of Washington and Georgetown while the rest was in unincorporated Washington County. Present-day District neighborhoods like Brightwood, Columbia Heights, Tenleytown, and all land east of the Anacostia river laid outside the city in Washington County, DC. An 1870 map held in the Washingtoniana Room at the DC Public Library shows the roads that ran through the city's early suburbs, including those that crisscrossed Ward 8.
What's now Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE, the thoroughfare that runs from the junction with Good Hope Road all the way to just short of the Maryland line is an old Native American path. Long ago it was colloquially known as Piscataway Road, after the dominant regional tribe in the 1700s.
When the US Insane Asylum (today Saint Elizabeths Hospital) opened in the 1850s, Piscataway Road changed to Asylum Road or Asylum Avenue.
By the late 1860s, people were calling the road Nichols Avenue, after Dr. Charles H. Nichols, the long-time superintendent of Saint Elizabeths.
The road carried this name for over a century before taking its present designation.
Good Hope Road
Another major thoroughfare still traveled today is Good Hope Road. The origins of the name Good Hope Road have been debated for years. Some have speculated the road's name is derivative of the Good Hope Tavern that once stood at the modern-day intersection with Naylor Road, while others have told of Native American origins.
In 1924, John Harry Shannon wrote of Good Hope Road in the Evening Star:
"It was one of those gray, level, shadeless roads, bordered by signs, gas stations and ice cream, and sausage refectories which nearly all of us have come to call a good road. It was without the virtues and the charm of a bad road."Hamilton Road
Further east, the 1870s map shows "Hamilton Road" running north-south. Churches, schools, and cemeteries that once lined Hamilton Road now line Alabama Avenue.
An early generation of Allen AME Church is depicted in the 1870 map near the junction of Good Hope Road and Naylor Road as an "African Church." Today the church stands at 2498 Alabama Avenue, and is notable for a 2010 visit by President Obama.
In June 1908 the District Commissioners formally changed Hamilton Road to Alabama Avenue.
One road name in use in 1870 that remains on the map today is Naylor Road, named after Colonel Henry Naylor. His early forefather came to America as an indentured servant before the Revolutionary War. As reported by the Evening Star in his January 1871 obituary, Naylor, was an "old and highly respected citizen of Washington county, died at his residence, Mount Henry, near Good Hope, yesterday afternoon in the 73d year of his age."
Naylor was "born, raised and lived continuously on his farm, but was well and favorably known throughout the District." For years Naylor was responsible for the care of the land records of Washington County, duties later performed by the Recorder of Deeds. Naylor was an officer of the militia, holding a commission as colonel, and several times he was a member of the Levy Court. He is buried in Congressional Cemetery.
The communities that were outside the city in 1870 have changed dramatically in the nearly 150 years since. But the basic framework of thoroughfares has remained fairly constant, especially in Ward 8.
While many things have changed, it's sometimes amazing to find things that have stayed the same.
I recently embarked on a quest to figure out what was the oldest continuously named street in the District of Columbia. While I initially thought it was going to be a easy task, my initial inquiries came up inconclusive. But I'm tentatively ready to name the victor Water Street NW, a short street in Georgetown.
Georgetown existed before the District of Columbia. It was founded as a Maryland town in 1751, more than fifty years before the District was established. If any street name from Georgetown's founding were still in use, it would clearly be the longest continuously used street name in DC.
Unfortunately, no street name from Georgetown's founding is still in use today. Here's the original plan of the town:
None of the original street names are still in use, with the one exception of Water Street. Originally, the street we now call Wisconsin Avenue was called Water Street south of the street we now call M Street. Nowadays, "Water Street" is the name we call K Street west of Wisconsin Avenue. But in 1751, this stretch was called "The Keys" and West Landing.
So it's not quite right to say Water Street is the longest continuously named street in DC. At least not based on this information. All of the other "Old Georgetown" street names in use in 1751, like Bridge Street and High Street, stopped being used shortly after Washington City absorbed Georgetown in 1871.
Jump ahead from the town's founding in 1751 to 1796, and more of the "Old Georgetown" street names have appeared, including Dunbarton Street, Prospect Street, and Water Street, which now includes what we today call "Water Street." This is still before the creation of DC, and so they should still preexist any non-Georgetown street names.
All three of those street names continued after the 1871 merger. It's probably safe to say one of those three names is the oldest continuously used street name in DC.
But the question is which of them, if any, is the oldest? We know that the name "Water Street" is the oldest, but was it used to refer to the actual waterfront street before it was called Prospect or Dunbarton?
In a way, we can already dismiss Dunbarton seeing as it has changed its spelling and suffix over the years, going from Dunbarton Street to Dumbarton Avenue, and back to Dumbarton Street. So it's really between Prospect and Water.
But if we're ready to dismiss Dumbarton Street because it once was called Dumbarton Avenue, then Water Street might be the winner after all. That's because, like Dumbarton and Olive streets, Prospect Street was also briefly known as Prospect Avenue after the merger. It appears all the "Old Georgetown" street names that survived the merger were temporary referred to as avenues. Except for Water Street, which doesn't appear to have been renamed.
So barring new information, I'm ready to tentatively give Water Street the title of longest-continuously named street in DC.
A version of this post appeared on the Georgetown Metropolitan.
For denizens of the Barry Farm community in Southeast Washington, the 19th century still holds strong at the corner—
Zabia Dews, the "Mayor of Barry Farm," outside Charlie's Corner store at the junction of Sumner and Wade Roads SE. Photo by the author.
"Look up at these street names," says Zabia Dews, 63, of the 2700 block of Wade Road SE, pointing to signs above for the junction of Sumner Road SE and Wade Road SE. "There's a history here people don't know about, or they forgot. We can't let it disappear."
The original names remain today: Howard Road SE, which runs past the Anacostia Metro Station, for General Oliver Otis Howard; Sumner Road SE for Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner; Wade Road SE for Ohio Senator Benjamin Wade; Pomeroy Road SE for Kansas Senator Samuel Pomeroy, an early member of Howard University's Board of Trustees; and Stevens Road SE for Pennsylvania Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, prominently featured in Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln."
The James Barry farm
In 1801 the board of commissioners of the embryonic capital city wrote to the principal landholders "asking to be furnished with lists of lots sold by them." Benjamin Stoddert, the first Secretary of the Navy, Notley Young, a prominent plantation owner, and more than a dozen other men including James Barry, "one of the incorporators of the Washington Canal Company," received the letter.
"Mr. Barry was largely invested in business, both foreign and domestic, and he was very zealous as an advocate of the interests of the eastern section of the city, in opposition to the claims of the western section," according to the Records of the Columbia Historical Society.
More than 60 years later, in April 1864, the surveyor of Washington County (all land in the District east of the Potomac, outside of the L'Enfant Plan and Georgetown) was "instructed to stone the new road between the northwest and southwest boundaries of the Barry Farm, known as the Stickfoot Branch road," reported the Daily National Republican.
In September young men were drafted off the farm to fill President Lincoln's call for a half million more Union troops. By now the Barry Farm, across the Eastern Branch from the Washington Navy Yard, was sandwiched between the United States Government Hospital for the Insane (Saint Elizabeths) which saw its first patient in 1855 and Uniontown (Anacostia), the city's first subdivision.
At this time, during the Civil War, the city was brimming with "the floating colored population" of runaway slaves from "Maryland, Virginia, and farther South," according to General Oliver Otis Howard's autobiography. In 1865 Howard became Commissioner of the Freedmen's Bureau, a government agency established to aid freed slaves and their families.
"What would make you self-supporting?" asked Howard.
"Land! Give us land!" several replied.
In the spring of 1867, Howard used $52,000 in Freedmen's Bureau funds to purchase all 375 acres of the Barry Farm. He sold 1- and 2-acre lots. Within 2 years, 266 families called Barry Farm home, including the sons of Frederick Douglass.
Old Barry Farm develops
"The land all the time was constantly inquired for by working freedmen," Howard recalled. "It was taken with avidity, and the monthly payments, with very few exceptions, were promptly and regularly made. The prospect to the freedmen of owning a homestead was a great stimulus to exertion." A schoolhouse for 150 pupils was quickly erected. Barry Farm was a self-sufficient, self-contained community.
An 1894 Hopkins map (plate 34) of Barry Farm shows streets names still in currency today. Photo from the DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division.
Today, Barry Farm is almost exclusively associated with the faded 26-acre Barry Farm Dwellings, a 432-unit (nearly a third vacant) property of the DC Housing Authority. The name association hasn't always been that way, says Dews, known as the "Mayor of Barry Farm" for his familial roots on Wade Road SE for nearly a century and his mentorship of neighborhood youth. "It's been a long time since we've been a tribe. But that's what we were and it's important for the younger generation to know this history."
As the city restarts its redevelopment planning process for Barry Farm Dwellings, at an estimated cost of $400 million over a timeline of two decades, the Barry Farm Resident Council, with assistance from Empower DC and local activists, has communicated to the DC Housing Authority that alongside issues of public safety, displacement and employment, a heritage preservation plan is a key concern. 140 years ago, Barry Farm residents and the city were similarly at odds.
According to the Baltimore Sun's Washington correspondent writing in the summer of 1872, "The board of public works propose to open streets in the village and as the residents there have each a deed of one acre of land for his cottage, they are not disposed to surrender any portion of their homesteads for streets or anything else without compensation." When a contractor "appeared in the village to cut up the lots, he was beset, the horses taken from the street plows, the wagons upset, and the laborers driven away. In the afternoon the work was begun under the protection of the police."
Then as now, self-preservation and kinfolk survival is the indigenous creed of Barry Farm, Dews says. "These street names are what's left of the tribe that represented the hard work and sacrifice necessary to build families and businesses. We need to get back to the old way of living."
Reader Steve Goehrke biked all 50 of DC's state-named avenues. He created this video of each and the landmarks that line them.
If you're curious about these 50 avenues (actually 48 avenues, one street, and one drive), Matt Johnson created some detailed and fascinating maps showing why different state roads appear where they do.
Today, others are getting a taste of this, with WABA's annual 50 States and 13 Colonies Ride. The ride is full this year, and participants will enjoy a scenic (some say grueling) 60+ mile tour of the District.
But seeing all 50 state-named avenues doesn't mean biking them all in one day. Steve did his exploration over several days. Doing something similar would be a great way to see parts of the city you might otherwise never have visited.
The streets of historic Anacostia have a hidden history that reveals insights into its unique character and place in the larger narrative of the city and even the nation.
After mortally wounding President Lincoln on the evening of April
18 14, 1865 at Ford's Theatre in downtown Washington, John Wilkes Booth escaped on horseback, crossing the Navy Yard Bridge, now the 11th Street Bridge, where he came to Harrison Street, now Good Hope Road.
Booth galloped through what was then known as the new subdivision of Uniontown up Harrison Street to the intersection with Marlboro Road, now Naylor Road. He then rode one and a third miles east on Marlboro Road into Maryland, where he would continue his escape into Virginia.
Good Hope Road's role in one of the greatest tragedies in American history is understandably not celebrated today, but it is a footnote that connects today's everyday life of walking the main streets of Anacostia with a past that pre-dates the Civil War.
With methods of transportation changing from horses to street cars to personal automobiles, there were increased demands for the continual improvement of the streets and roadways.
In an August 1898 article from The Times, under "Commissioners' Orders" there is a brief note reading:
The District Commissioners issued the following orders yesterday: That Nicholas Avenue, from Stickfoot Branch to within 100 feet of the Government Hospital of the Insane, be repaired at an estimated cost of $1,300, chargeable to the appropriation for repairs of roads.Old street names
That the following work be done, chargeable to the appropriation for paving Harrison Street from the Navy Yard Bridge eastward. Relocate basin on west side of Harrison Street eighteen feet south of south rail of Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, so that it will be 10 feet from rail; estimated cost, $50. Relocate basin at the intersection of the east curb of Monroe Street and south curb of Harrison Street; estimated cost, $75. Relocate basin on south side of Harrison Street 285 feet east of east curb of Monroe Street, estimated cost, $50. Relocate basin on the north side of Harrison Street opposite Fillmore Street; estimated cost, $25.
The presidential-themed street names appeared with the planning of the Uniontown subdivision. Charles Burr writes in the 1920 records of the Columbia Historical Society:
Uniontown was between the fork created by the Upper Marborough road and the Piscataway road. To the thoroughfare eastward a part of the Marlborough road, was given the name Harrison Street and to the thoroughfare southward a part of the Piscataway road was given the name Monroe Street. The other streets of Uniontown were named in honor of the Presidents."The presidential names were changed in 1908 for use in other parts of town, and the usual numbered and alphabetical designation made Anacostia's street names consistent with the city-wide scheme," writes Thomas Cantwell in the early 1970s records of the Columbia Historical Society.
Uniontown was bounded by Monroe Street (Nichols Avenue, now Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue) on the west, Harrison Street (Good Hope Road) on the north, Taylor Street (16th Street) on the east, and Jefferson Street (W Street) on the south. The other streets were also named after presidents: Fillmore Street (13th Street), Pierce Street (14th Street), Adams Street (15th Street), Jackson Street (U Street), and Washington Street (V Street).
The other main historic thoroughfare in Anacostia is the three and a half mile Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue that extends from Good Hope Road all the way through southeast and southwest where it ends near the Bald Eagle Recreation Center.
Construction of Asylum Road, named for the manner in which it ran past the new Government Insane Asylum, which would later come to be known as Saint Elizabeths, began in the 1850s.
The road's name was changed to Nichols Avenue in the 1870s after Henry Nichols, the superintendent of Saint Elizabeths from 1852 to 1877. The hill on which the campus sits came to be known as Asylum Hill.
"It was a lovely day, and his car went up Asylum Hill without an effort, which made him think of the old bicycle days of 40 years ago, when many of the strongest riders found it convenient to dismount when half way up the hill," wrote John Clagett Proctor in an article in The Sunday Star from the first half of the 20th century.
In January 1971, the DC Council, with the approval of neighborhood residents, passed legislation changing the name of Nichols Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. The City Council used the renaming of Nichols Avenue to petition and urge Congress to declare Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday a national holiday.
Today's street names
On Sunday, September 27, 1908, The Washington Times ran an article under the headline, "Wouldn't It Make You Peevish to Have Street Names Changed in a Night? Congress Forgets To Heed Requests."
Since the memory of the oldest inhabitants runneth not to the contrary," the author wrote, "Anacostia has prided itself on its high sounding street names. George Washington, John Quincy Adams, Thomas Jefferson, all of them were there.The alphanumeric-named street grid in today's Anacostia can be seen in review of Volume 4 of 1927 Baist's Real Estate Atlas available for public research at the Historical Society of Washington at 801 K Street NW. Further research on the old street names both east and west of the river can be done at the Martin Luther King Library's Washingtoniana Division at 901 G Street NW and the Library of Congress.
"Ah, ha!" said Congress, "Here's a bunch of high-sounding statesmanlike names in use out there at Anacostia. What if they have been doing business for about sixty years and are a little shop-worn. We'll transfer them over to Mt. Pleasant, our thriving fashionable suburb, and send a bunch of letters and figures over Anacostia way to be distributed wherever there's an empty space.
Following which ukase, a benevolent ladder climber from the District building came over and tore down William Henry Harrison, James Monroe, Martin Van Buren, Millard Fillmore, and a few others, and decorated the lamp posts 13, 17, W, X, Y, Z, or any other old letter he drew out of the bag.
A version of this article will run in April's East of the River.
Yesterday, I discussed the extension of DC's alphanumeric street naming system into Maryland. But there are other naming systems which are perhaps less logical but quirky enough to deserve mention.
Bowie, Maryland has a quasi-systematic set of named streets. Most of the suburban style housing built in the post war era falls in to sections where each street starts with the same letter. I've been told that many Bowie residents refer to their neighborhood simply using the letter, as in "E-section."
Another place worth mentioning is Bethesda. Several of the streets in and around the central business district are named after places in Northern Virginia. Arlington Road, Clarendon Road, Del Ray Avenue, Fairfax Road, Norfolk Avenue, St. Elmo Avenue, and Woodmont Avenue all reference places on the other side of the Potomac.
As I pointed out yesterday, College Park uses university names as a part of its alphabetical street naming system. But two other Maryland neighborhoods also use colleges to name streets. One instance is in College Gardens, near Montgomery College. The other is Glen Echo.
Takoma Park has two different street naming patterns. In the central part of Takoma Park, streets tend to be named after flowers and trees. Closer to Silver Spring, streets are named after American cities.
There are probably other places in the region with interesting naming systems. Do any of you know where else we can find them?
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