Block by Block: Naming Washington

Explore the history of naming streets and other public spaces in Washington, D.C.

By Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of the United States: projected agreeable to the direction of the President of the United States, in pursuance of an act of Congress passed the sixteenth day of July, MDCCXC, "establishing the permanent seat on the bank of the Potowmac": Washington D.C. (1791) by Pierre Charles L'EnfantSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Civic, political, and economic interests have helped shape Washington, D.C., since its founding, influencing everything from the capital’s location to its geometric layout. Explore the history of naming D.C.’s streets and other public spaces in this adaptation of the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Block by Block: Naming Washington.

Choosing a location for the capital of the United States became a goal as the developing country established its government. It was critical that the location could be protected and provide access to different parts of the newly established country. Most pressingly, the area needed to be free from state interests and overseen by the federal government.

Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of the United States: projected agreeable to the direction of the President of the United States, in pursuance of an act of Congress passed the sixteenth day of July, MDCCXC, "establishing the permanent seat on the bank of the Potowmac": Washington D.C. (1791) by Pierre Charles L'EnfantSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

In 1790, Congress passed the Residence Act, which determined that the site would be an area “not exceeding ten miles square . . . be located as hereafter directed on the river Potomac, at some place between the mouths of the Eastern Branch and Connogochegue.” Portions of the states of Maryland and Virginia would be within the federal district surrounding the city.

Thomas Jefferson (1786) by Mather BrownSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was among those who lobbied Northern representatives on the merits of having a capital in the South. During the city’s design phase, he also drew on his architectural knowledge and familiarity with the European capitals. Today, numerous streets found in the city’s NE, NW, and SW quadrants are named after Jefferson.

George Washington (Lansdowne Portrait) (1796) by Gilbert StuartSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

President George Washington was familiar with the region from his business and military pursuits. He traveled from Mount Vernon throughout the area in October 1790, with the intent of determining the site of the “Grand Columbian Federal City.” On January 24, 1791, Washington made a Proclamation providing the location for the nation’s capital.

Capitol Site Selection, 1791 (1973-1974) by Allyn CoxSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Washington appointed surveyor Andrew Ellicott and his team, which included Benjamin Banneker, to take measurements of the region. He also tasked the French engineer and architect Pierre “Peter” Charles L’Enfant with designing the city. This mural by Allyn Cox in the House section of the U.S. Capitol building shows L’Enfant sharing his plan with President Washington. Coincidentally, L’Enfant Plaza and Benjamin Banneker Park intersect in the SW quadrant.

Plan of the city of Washington (1792) by Pierre Charles L'EnfantSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Washington also appointed three commissioners to manage the building of the capital. They named the federal city the “City of Washington” in honor of the president. They also decided upon the city’s first street system—which emerges from the Capitol building and runs alphabetically from north to south and numerically from east to west.

George Washington (c.1800) by Enoch G. GridleySmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Beyond the city’s boundaries lay the federal district, which the commissioners had named the “Territory of Columbia.” The name references references Columbia, an allegorical female figure who became emblematic of the Americas, and as time went on, the United States. The federal district included parts of Maryland (including Georgetown) and Virginia (including Alexandria).

Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of the United States: projected agreeable to the direction of the President of the United States, in pursuance of an act of Congress passed the sixteenth day of July, MDCCXC, "establishing the permanent seat on the bank of the Potowmac": Washington D.C. (1791) by Pierre Charles L'EnfantSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Although L’Enfant had made plans for the locations of streets, his drawings did not include their names. In fact, many of L’Enfant’s streets remained on paper until the early 1870s, when the Board of Public Works built and graded miles of streets. L’Enfant did, however, denote certain types of streets, including “grand” avenues. One of these became Pennsylvania Avenue, which leads directly between the White House and the Capitol.

The Capitol building is key to the layout of Washington, D.C. The city’s four quadrants meet directly under the building’s dome. The current dome was designed by the architect Thomas U. Walter, who was also responsible for parts of the building which houses the National Portrait Gallery.

David G. Farragut (c. 1860-1870) by Mathew Brady StudioSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

By 1803, maps of the city started including avenues named after states, as well as numbered and lettered streets. When the city’s commissioners and Congress began to systematize the city's streets in 1893, they devised the alphabetical and syllabic system, with many streets named in honor “famous Americans” by 1901. In 1905, for instance, streets were named after William Ellery Channing and David Farragut.

Oliver Otis Howard (c.1863) by Frederick GutekunstSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Some streets that were originally beyond the city’s boundaries were named for prominent individuals well before the turn of the century. Among these was Howard Road SE, which was named after Oliver Otis Howard around 1867, when Barry Farm was established in Anacostia. In the 1870s, when the federal district was incorporated into the city proper, Anacostia became part of the city of Washington.

Malcolm X (1967) by Unidentified ArtistSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The story of naming Washington, D.C.’s streets and public spaces has largely followed the history of the city’s changing government structures. By the early 1980s, the D.C. city government had established rules regarding street naming. One of the guidelines specifies, “Circles shall be named after distinguished persons who have been prominent in the service of this country.” Portions of streets could also be renamed, as exemplified by the 1982 approval of the renaming of Portland Street SE after Malcolm X. The D.C. Council and mayor remain the final arbiters of requested street names.

Plan of the city of Washington (1792) by Pierre Charles L'EnfantSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

The act of naming carries with it the weight of many histories, including those of the “famous Americans” whose names are now inscribed upon our surroundings and appear in print on maps and mailing envelopes. By delving into these overlapping places and people, we can learn more about the past and present of both Washington, D.C., as well as the United States.

Credits: Story

Plan of the city of Washington, Pierre Charles L'Enfant and Thackara & Vallan, 1792. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Plan of the city intended for the permanent seat of the government of t[he] United States, Pierre Charles L'Enfant, U.S. Coast And Geodetic Survey, and United States Commissioner Of Public Buildings, 1791. Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division.

Capitol Site Selection, 1791, Allyn Cox, 1973–74. Architect of the Capitol.




Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Google apps