Greater Greater Washington

Posts about Street Naming

History


How Ward 8's thoroughfares have changed since 1870

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.


1870 map of DC roads. From the DC Public Library.

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.

Nichols Avenue
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.

Naylor Road
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.

History


What's the oldest continuously named street in DC?

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.


Image from Google Street View.

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.

History


Barry Farm street names reflect post-Civil War history

For denizens of the Barry Farm community in Southeast Washington, the 19th century still holds strong at the cornerCharlie's Corner store. The neighborhood's street names memorialize Union generals and Radical Republicans who advanced the rights of black Americans during the Civil War and Reconstruction.


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.


Map of East Washington, circa 1870s. Photo from the DC Public Library, Washingtoniana Division.

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.

General Oliver Otis Howard. Photo from the Library of Congress.
Riding through congested areas of Washington north of K Street, between 13th and 17th, Howard came upon a large group of freedmen.

"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."

Bicycling


Weekend video: All 50 state-named avenues

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.

History


Anacostia's old street names reveal little-known history

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.


Photo by DreamCity4IFE on Flickr.

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.

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.

Old street names

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.

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 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.


The former names of Good Hope Road, U Street, and V Street are shown in this 1927 Baist's Real Estate Atlas.

Asylum Road

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.


The former name of Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue is shown in this 1927 Baist's Real Estate Atlas.

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."


Cartoon in The Washington Times, September 27, 1908.
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.

"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.

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.

A version of this article will run in April's East of the River.

Preservation


DC grid isn't Maryland's only street name pattern

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.

The region has not one, but (at least) two neighborhoods with streets named after places or characters from Star Trek. One is near Gaithersburg, the other in Largo.

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.


Image from Google Maps. Click for interactive version.

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?

Preservation


Maryland's systemic streets

Last year, I mapped Washington's street-naming system and state-named avenues. But the logical organization of street names doesn't end at the DC line. The alphabetical and numerical naming of streets continues into Maryland (and Arlington).

Washington's numbered streets run north-south and increase in number as distance from the Capitol increases. The highest numbered street in the District is 63rd Street, near Capitol Heights. But the numbers continue to increase well into Prince George's. The numbering system eventually gives up the ghost a few blocks from the Seabrook MARC station, where one can find Lanham's 100th Avenue.


Note: this is a revised version of the original.

Several communities have independent street numbering. Just north of Silver Spring, Woodside's low numbered avenues intersect DC's 16th Street. Glenarden and Lanham also stand apart with their non-DC-based numbered streets.

In the District, east-west streets are given non-numeric names. In most cases, streets increase alphabetically with increasing distance from the Capitol. This system is repeated in certain parts of both Montgomery and Prince George's counties. The alphabetical march of streets stretches from Oxon Hill to Beltsville, admittedly with quite a few gaps.

With nothing more than an arbitrary political boundary dividing Maryland from the District, the street grid continues across the DC line unabated in many places. As a result, places like Chevy Chase and Mount Rainier see direct continuations of DC's "alphabets". So the pattern of the alphabetical progression is easy to pick out.

In Hyattsville and the neighboring communities, many of the street names are very similar to those found in DC, with the same progression of names in many cases. In both Hyattsville and Northwest DC, Hamilton is followed by Ingraham, Jefferson, Kennedy, and Longfellow.

But other neighborhoods have unique progressions. In College Park, universities lend their namesin alphabetical orderto streets. Further north, the streets of Berwyn Heights and Langley Park use Indian names. A trip up Rhode Island Avenue reveals names like Apache, Blackfoot, Cherokee, Delaware, and Erie.

Yet, unique names aren't the only uniqueness in street naming. Capitol Heights hugs the District line. There, streets parallel to Southern Avenue increase alphabetically as distance from DC increases. But the perpendicular streets also use an alphabetical system, increasing with distance from East Capitol Street.

However, the alphabetical and numerical streets aren't the only thing that Washington bequeathed to her suburbs. Several of the state-named avenues continue into Maryland as well. Georgia Avenue in Montgomery and Pennsylvania Avenue in Prince George's stretch the farthest. Both roadways keep their names all the way to the Patuxent River.

Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Connecticut are all major arteries to the suburbs. Massachusetts and Rhode Island are also important links across the border. Rhode Island is discontinuous and skips around across northern Prince George's, following an old streetcar route.

Rounding out the bunch are Nevada and Kansas. Chevy Chase, Maryland is home to 2 short blocks of Nevada Avenue. And Kansas Avenue changes its name to Kansas Lane when it crosses Eastern Avenue in Takoma Park.

Author's note: The original version of this article included a map showing the numbered streets which inadvertently left out the numbered streets in Cabin John, Maryland. A revised map has now been inserted. The original can be viewed here.

Preservation


Arlington's systemic streets

Earlier this year, we explored the nature of Washington's street-naming system. Across the Potomac, Arlington County also has rhyme and reason to street names.

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.

History


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.

History


Washington's systemic streets

Visitors and residents of Washington, DC know, to one degree or another, about the city's street naming conventions. Most tourists know that we have lettered and numbered streets. And to some degree, they know there is a system, but it doesn't stop them asking us directions. But most out-of-towners and even many residents don't understand the full ingenuity of the District's naming system.

Washington is partially a planned city. The area north of the Potomac and Anacostia Rivers and south of Florida Avenue (originally Boundary Street) is known as the L'Enfant City. This area of Washington was the original city of Washington, laid out by Pierre L'Enfant and Andrew Ellicott. It is comprised of a rectilinear grid with a set of transverse diagonal avenues superimposed. Avenues frequently intersect in circles or squares, and the diagonals create many triangular or bow tie-shaped parks.

Washington is the seat of government of a nation. Believing that the structure of the government should inform the structure of the city, L'Enfant centered the nascent city on the Capitol, home of the Legislative (and at the time, the Judicial) branch of the government, the one the framers held in highest esteem. From this great building radiate the axes of Washington. North and South Capitol Streets form the north-south axis; East Capitol Street and the National Mall form the east-west axis. These axes divide the quadrants.

The axes also provide the basis for the naming and numbering systems. Lettered streets increase alphabetically as they increase in distance both north and south of the Mall and East Capitol Street. Numbered streets increase in number as they increase in distance both east and west of North and South Capitol Streets.

Many street names intersect in multiple quadrants. G Street intersects Sixth Street in all four quadrants, and each of these intersections is separated by over a mile. Western, Eastern, and Southern Avenues form in many places the land boundaries of the District.

North of Georgetown and Boundary Street (Florida Avenue), the area formerly known as Washington County, DC began to develop. For the most part, developers extended the grid as the most efficient way expand the growing city. Some areas, notably Petworth, recreated the principles of the L'Enfant plan, with avenues and circles intersecting the grid. In other places, geography made a rectilinear grid impractical.

As the city expanded, so did the system of naming streets. In the L'Enfant city, the highest lettered street was W Street (running between Ninth and Fifteenth Streets NW). Unlike numbers, the alphabet is not infinitely expandable. In order to continue to have an alphabetical progression of streets, the alphabet starts over. Only "streets" are subject to the convention. Avenues, roads, drives, and other minor streets do not conform to the alphabetical progression. "Places," on the other hand, usually appear one block north of the correspondingly lettered street and often share the same first letter.

After the first alphabet runs out of letters, street names restart alphabetically with two-syllable names. "Adams Street" follows "W Street." Once the second alphabet is exhausted, the system repeats with words of three syllables. "Webster Street" is followed by the third alphabet's "Allison Street." However, the Fourth Alphabet does not use words of four syllables. Instead, the Fourth Alphabet, only present in the Northwest and largest quadrant, uses the names of plants in increasing alphabetical order. Thus "Aspen" follows "Whittier."


Map shows streets based on number of syllables (numbers excluded)

Typically, each of the other alphabets uses the same letters used by the First Alphabet (A-W, skipping J). However, there are some exceptions. The Second Alphabet has Yuma Street, there's a Jefferson Street in the Third Alphabet, and Xenia Street appears in Southeast. East-west streets in the District are often discontinuous due to obstructions. Sometimes the street continues with the same name on the other side, and sometimes it changes to a different name. Shepherd Street NW, for instance, is split by Piney Branch Park between Fourteenth and Sixteenth Streets, but keeps the same name on both sides. However, on the other side of Rock Creek Park, in Upper Northwest, the two-syllable "S" street name is Sedgwick. Still, a look at the first letter of streets in the District easily shows the strata of the alphabets.


Map shows all streets starting with letters C, D, E, F, or G (numbers excluded)

The highest numbered street in the District is 63rd Street in the Capitol Heights section of Northeast. Southeast's nearby 58th Street is that quadrant's highest numbered street. In Northwest the ridges and valleys of the Potomac Valley cause numbered streets (and the grid) to give up the ghost at 52nd Street. And tiny Southwest sees its highest number with 23rd Street south of the Lincoln Memorial.


Map showing numbered streets in the District

Of course, without its state-named avenues, Washington would have a far less complex street system. But the avenues don't only add complexity, they also close the streetscape, provide vistas to monumental buildings, and create squares, plazas, and parks throughout the city. These famous streets are important streets in the city, but they don't conform to the system, and as a result are more difficult to find.

Except for California Street and Ohio Drive, all the states have avenues named after them. The shortest of the avenues is Indiana Avenue, found near Judiciary Square and the Archives. It stretches less than half a mile, exclusively in Northwest. While no state-named avenue passes through all four quadrants, the longest, Massachusetts Avenue, passes through three. It stretches from border to border across the District, although it lacks a bridge over the Anacostia, and continues northward into Montgomery County, Maryland.


Map shows each of the state-named roadways in Washington

Crossposted at Track Twenty-Nine.

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