The Mud Really Flew Over The First Georgia Avenue

(Bill O'leary - Twp)
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By John Kelly
Sunday, October 26, 2008

How/when/why was the original Georgia Avenue changed to Potomac Avenue, and how/when/why did upper Seventh Street become the new Georgia Avenue?

-- Elisabeth Deason, Arlington

Washington has a wonderfully straightforward design, one that lends itself to easy memory: Numbered streets run north-south, lettered streets run east-west and avenues, for the most part, run diagonally and are named after states.

When Congress moved from Philadelphia in 1800, Georgia, the fourth state admitted to the union, got an avenue down by the Anacostia River, or what was then referred to as the Eastern Branch of the Potomac River. This seemed to work out just fine for the next hundred years. Then a character named Augustus Octavius Bacon came to Washington.

Bacon was a lawyer from Macon, Ga., who entered the U.S. Senate in 1894. He was, to put it mildly, not happy with the avenue named after his state. Georgia Avenue SE was an unpaved, potholed mess. People visiting Congressional Cemetery would step off the streetcar at 14th and Georgia and then have to slog through mud to reach the graveyard.

In 1906, a member of the East Washington Association -- representing residents and merchants in that part of the city -- complained to District commissioners that tax money from their neighborhood was being spent on the beautification of such places as Cleveland Park, "where streets without houses on them have concrete streets and splendid sidewalks to increase the value of the ground for the select real estate clique."

Answer Man figures one of two things could have happened here: Bacon could have pushed the city to clean up Georgia Avenue, or he could have pushed for another street to be named Georgia Avenue. He did the latter.

Bacon had his eye on a road that was nearly as old as the original Georgia Avenue, a thoroughfare built as a turnpike about 1810. It was originally known as the Seventh Street Turnpike, because it continued north from where Seventh Street NW ended at the border of the city, at present-day Florida Avenue. The toll road led to Rockville.

Eventually, Seventh Street north of Florida Avenue came to be called Brightwood Avenue. And it was this thoroughfare Bacon coveted. Although Brightwood residents protested, Bacon pushed an amendment through Congress in 1908 renaming it Georgia Avenue. He had proposed that the old Georgia be called Naval Avenue or Navy Yard Avenue, because it was near that military complex. Instead, it became Potomac Avenue, even though it's closer to the Anacostia River than the Potomac.

The early 1900s saw many changes in city street names. District officials set up a plat system giving each block in Washington a unique number for planning purposes. Duplicate street names were eliminated (there had been at least four Oak streets in town). As roads were being extended into what was called the suburbs -- the area beyond the original city -- new nomenclature had to be developed. Newspapers printed long lists informing readers what was changing: Indianapolis Street became Jackson Street, Madison became Quakenbos, etc.

In an ugly illustration of what Washington was like in those days, and an odd foreshadowing about Bacon, in 1906 a resident of one of the many Oak streets complained about his street being renamed Oak Court. According to The Washington Post, the man felt "the name conveyed the impression that the street was inhabited by negroes, as there are numerous 'courts' in this city of this character." The commissioners agreed and dubbed it Oakdale Place instead.

Bacon died on Valentine's Day in 1914. His will left a 100-acre parcel to the city of Macon to be used as a whites-only park. (He said he had only the kindest feelings toward negroes but believed that "in their social relations the two races should be forever separate.")

In 1966, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Macon couldn't keep black people out without violating the Constitution's equal-protection clause. But four years later, the court allowed the park to be closed, deciding that would affect all races equally.

Other streets have been renamed in the District: Conduit Road became MacArthur Boulevard, Nichols Avenue became Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue. And for a while in 1996, then-mayor Marion Barry wanted to rename Seventh Street. He wanted to call the whole thing Georgia Avenue.

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