We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
The gravestones of Rock Creek Cemetery read like a who’s who of old Washington. Stroll through its 100 acres, and you’ll find the likes of patrician author Henry Adams lying under a soaring sculpture by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and muckraker Upton Sinclair interred underneath an unadorned, ground-level slab of granite. Closer to home, Rock Creek also houses the remains of late D.C. governor Alexander “Boss” Shepherd, as well as an even earlier mayor, a man named Peter Force, who ruled from 1836 to 1840 and might be lost to history but for his grave in Section B.
Force’s family chose a pretty good spot to perpetuate the late mayor’s memory. St. Paul’s Rock Creek Church, which owns this final resting place of everyone from antebellum slaves to New Dealers, is the oldest entity of any sort in what is now Washington. It got title to the land in 1719, well before the advent of the United States, the District of Columbia, Rock Creek Church Roadand the U.S. Postal Service.
And therein lies some trouble. For years, the church’s letterhead has listed “Rock Creek Church Road at Webster Street” as its address. City mapmakers at the turn of the century designated as Rock Creek Church Road’s “Unit Block” the block immediately west of the cemetery, which lies just off North Capitol Street. The church and cemetery were thus left with no official street number.
No problem there, until the computer era arrived. According to rector Geoffrey Price, an impending switch to automated postage sorting means the U.S. Postal Service is requiring every address to get a nine-digit zip code. And you can’t get one unless you have a street number. Since someone else already has number 1 Rock Creek Church Road, the church would be either cut off altogether or obliged to take a dummy address on one of its sidestreets. It’s a change Price says would be a recipe for chaos.
True to Shepherd’s legacy, Price is hoping a little political maneuvering will cut through the bureaucracy. At the church’s request, Ward 4 Councilmember Charlene Drew Jarvis introduced legislation in December to rename the stretch of road in front of the cemetery “Old Rock Creek Church Road,” thus enabling the church and cemetery to take a leap into the numerical age. According to Jarvis staffer Audrey Duff, the bill is currently working its way through the council’s committee on public works.
Duff says she’s never heard of such an issue in D.C. before. And the church has dealt smoothly with other changes, like when adjacent farmland was subdivided early this century to create the Petworth neighborhood, or more recently when Metro dug Green Line tunnels under the cemetery in lieu of displacing nearby residents.
But Price points out that this still isn’t the first time the ancient church has gotten on the wrong side of modern paper-pushers. Years ago, when St. Paul’s wanted to put an addition onto one of its buildings, city officials were flummoxed because they couldn’t find the original licenses. Neither D.C. ineptitude nor the legacy of congressional rule was to blame. Whatever original documents existed would have been issued by the Colony of Maryland.CP