How Arlington Made Sense of its Street Names and Paved the Way for Our First Federal Building
The 1935 Arlington County Directory of Street Names represents a unique moment in Arlington history-- a time when many Arlingtonians had to re-learn the names of their streets and those of their neighbors.
In 1932, Arlington County had already begun a boom in population that would only continue over the next several decades. Between 1900 and 1930, the population of the once-rural area had grown by over 350%--from 6,430 to 23,278--despite the annexation of sizable portions of land by the city of Alexandria in 1915 and 1929.
New streetcar suburbs began popping up all around Arlington County--between 1900 and 1910 alone, plats for seventy new subdivisions were entered into the County Deed Books.
However, these new developments sprang up with little to no coordination or central planning, and by 1932, this was beginning to create problems. The developments formed what was, in effect, a confusing archipelago of small, unconnected towns, and street names were frequently repeated throughout the county. There were, by one account, as many as twenty-five different roads named "Arlington," for example, as well as many roads known as "Washington," "Virginia," and "Lee."
Visitors found the county difficult to navigate, neighborhood names had to be attached to mailing addresses to ensure that letters arrived at the right building, and some DC-area businesses even refused to deliver to customers in Arlington. There were also concerns about the Fire Department being dispatched to a house at the same address in the wrong subdivision.
1935 Arlington County Franklin Insurance Property Atlas
The newly-established “County Board-County Manager” Government of Arlington decided very quickly to try to rectify this situation. One of the primary issues motivating them seems to have been the desire to see a Post Office in Arlington, as mail service to Arlington had been routed through Washington D.C. since 1925, and the Post Office Department had dictated that no Post Office would be allocated to Arlington until its street naming scheme was more coherent and logical. To this end, a Street Naming Committee was established, tasked with rationalizing the county's street naming scheme.
Initially, the committee considered simply eliminating duplicate street names, leaving one street with each repeated name. The committee quickly decided that this approach was insufficient, and that a more general, systemic plan was necessary. Soliciting feedback from the county’s residents, the committee got a variety of proposals, from continuing DC’s alphabetical/numeric scheme to having the residents of each street vote on a street name.
Eventually, the committee decided on essentially the county’s current street naming scheme:
- The county is divided into two sections, North and South Arlington, generally separated by Arlington Boulevard (US Route 50).
- Numbered streets generally run east-west, parallel to Arlington Boulevard, and North and South designations follow numbered street names.
- Named streets generally run north-south, and North and South designations precede named street names. These streets are generally named in alphabetical order from east to west, skipping the letters X, Y, and Z. When the end of the alphabet is reached, it is repeated with additional syllables-- thus Oak and Quinn Streets are to the east of Oakland and Quincy, which are in turn east of Ohio and Quantico Streets.
- Boulevards, Drives, and Roads are generally major thoroughfares with historically recognized names, most of which were not renamed. Generally, these are the only through streets, unlike numbered and named streets, which tend to be broken up at times and intended primarily for local neighborhood traffic.
The Committee’s recommendations were put forward for public comment, and were approved with several small amendments in August of 1934--thirty months after the project began. In 1936, Arlington County was assigned a local Postmaster for the first time in over ten years, and the next year, the Postmaster General of the United States of America was on hand for the dedication of the cornerstone of the new Post Office in Clarendon--the first federal government building in Arlington County.
For people researching Arlington before 1934, the street name change can present challenges. This searchable PDF of the Arlington County Virginia Directory of Street Names, which opens by clicking or tapping on the cover image, can help with navigation of Arlington before the change.
To learn more about Arlington's history, visit the Center for Local History on the first floor of the Central Library.
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