Is there any rhyme or reason as to the naming of state streets? And why are Massachusetts and Pennsylvania Avenues main thoroughfares while Indiana Avenue is only a couple of blocks?
When Pierre Charles L’Enfant drew out his plans for the Federal City, he aimed to name the broad diagonal avenues that dissected the plan’s grid pattern after the original 13 colonies.
But he didn’t stop there, according to George Washington Never Slept Here by Amy Alotta. His ambitious—and convoluted—plans aimed to lay the state streets out in a pattern roughly akin to their actual geography, while also paying heed to the states’ sizes and relative prominence in the new country. As such, Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania—highly populated, key political states in the new country—became prominent thoroughfares, while Vermont and other smaller states became associated with more obscure avenues.
But as soon as planners began renaming avenues as the nation added states, L’Enfant’s plan fell apart. In fact, if you look at Texas Avenue or Illinois Avenue on a map of the District, you’ll find little correlation between a state’s population and prominence and the street associated with it. You’ll also see that not every state is represented with an avenue: Ohio is a drive running through West and East Potomac Parks, and California is a residential street in the Adams Morgan and Kalorama Heights neighborhoods.
Moreover, the plans to honor each state weren’t completed until 1989. According to Ruel Eskelson of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C., that year a section of Canal Street SW between South Capitol Street and Independence Avenue was renamed Washington Avenue.
Every Monday, the ‘Huh?’ Bub takes your questions. Got one?