Alaska was hot on the minds of many in D.C. years before it won statehood

Alexander "Boss" Shepherd's summer mansion, Bleak House, once stood near present-day Alaska Avenue NW. It was razed in 1916. Back then, the area was referred to as Sixteenth Street Heights.
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 12, 2011; 9:35 PM

My husband and I lived in Alaska for many years, and while driving in the District one weekend, we turned off of 16th Street NW onto Alaska Avenue. What was it called before it was called Alaska Avenue? It seems that the neighborhood it runs through is older than Alaska has been a state. Has it always been Alaska? If not, was it another street that was renamed when Alaska became a state?

- Maureen Fittig,

Silver Spring

On Feb. 12, 1911 - almost exactly 100 years ago, Answer Man notes - The Washington Post's real estate section carried a story about a new subdivision planned for upper Northwest. It was to be known as Sixteenth Street Heights.

About 217 acres had been acquired by a "syndicate of out-of-town capitalists," including American Tobacco Co. executive Benjamin Newton Duke. They promised a "high-class" neighborhood of detached houses on large, well-treed lots boasting magnificent views of Rock Creek Park.

According to The Post: "Cutting the tract from Georgia avenue to Sixteenth street will be a magnificent boulevard, to be known as Alaska avenue. This avenue will run diagonally through the subdivision, and will make an unexcelled drive for automobiles and carriages."

That was 44 years after the United States had purchased Alaska from the Russians but 48 years before it became a state. Why name the new street after the frozen wasteland? Answer Man supposes Alaska was on people's minds. Its great mineral wealth - gold, copper - had all sorts of interests jockeying for control. In 1912, Alaska became a U.S. territory. Four years later, the first bill proposing statehood was introduced in Congress.

Though we wouldn't call it one today, Sixteenth Street Heights back then was known as a suburb. Sixteenth Street ended a few miles short of Silver Spring and had to be extended.

We wouldn't call it Sixteenth Street Heights, either. That name didn't stick. Instead, we know the neighborhood as Shepherd Park. Alexander "Boss" Shepherd had owned most of the land. His mansard-roofed summer mansion- called Bleak House - stood at what is now 13th and Geranium until it was torn down in 1916.

What about our other far-flung state? Well, in January 1938, Hawaii's delegate to Congress, Samuel W. King, requested that the next avenue to be named in Washington honor his territory.

He pointed out that Hawaii was larger in area than three states, had a greater population than four and made a larger contribution to the national treasury in the form of taxes than 17. A 20-member congressional delegation had just visited Hawaii to ponder the question of statehood.

In February 1939, the District's $1.1 million road budget included money for the creation of Hawaii Avenue, described as "an approach road to the Taylor Street viaduct from North Capitol Street." By June, permits had already been issued to build houses on Hawaii Avenue.

Every state in the union is honored by name with a thoroughfare in Washington. All are avenues except two: Ohio Drive and California Street.

Alaska became a state on Jan. 3, 1959. Hawaii followed suit on Aug. 21, 1959. The nation's capital already has a Washington Avenue and a Columbia Avenue. Perhaps D.C. statehood advocates should lobby for a "Washington, District of Columbia, Avenue." Statehood would surely follow.

'Tally's Corner'

Can the reader who e-mailed Answer Man a while back about E lliot Liebow's "Tally's Corner" please get in touch again? Your address has been misplaced.

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