Built into the masonry of the Georgetown Visitation convent is a marble marker indicating the cross-streets of another era. Those earlier streets, at what is now 35th and P streets NW, were apparently Third Street and Fayette Street. Georgetown predates the Federal City. At some point, evidently, the District of Columbia absorbed Old Georgetown and rewrote the street names. What is the story around that? And have you ever addressed the provenance of Volta Place, a street not far away?
— Rocky Semmes, Alexandria
Answer Man loves seeing parts of the past that persevere in the present. Georgetown is a good place to glimpse such palimpsests, which include the cobbles and streetcar tracks on O and P streets.
Those two thoroughfares, like many in Georgetown, used to have different names. You can see two of those earlier monikers set in the bricks of the Georgetown Visitation Monastery building. P Street was once Third Street. And what today is 35th Street was Fayette Street. (Why Fayette? It was in honor of celebrated Frenchman Marquis de Lafayette, as are most geographical places named Fayette in the United States.)
Georgetown was its own thriving city when Congress decided in 1791 to incorporate it within the 10-square-mile diamond that would become the U.S. capital. Georgetown continued as its own place within the District of Columbia, an entity that also included Washington City (the largely federal enclave), Washington County (the area beyond the city) and, until retrocession in 1847, Alexandria and Alexandria County.
Some of Georgetown’s original street names were a reflection of where they were, such as Water Street, just up from the Potomac River. (Today, it’s K Street.) But in 1871, Congress revoked Georgetown’s charter. Eight years later, Georgetown started renaming its streets and renumbering its addresses. Among the changes: Fayette became 35th Street and Third Street became P Street.
More changes occurred in 1895, when Georgetown was officially consolidated into Washington. By then, developers were building homes in Washington’s “suburbs” — meaning its outer neighborhoods — and the city was trying to impose uniform street nomenclature across the board.
In Georgetown, 32nd Street became Wisconsin Avenue. Some streets that had received new names in 1879 were renamed again. For example, Q Street, which had been Fourth Street, would henceforth be Volta Place.
Why Volta? Well, that story is downright electrifying.
In a roundabout way, the street takes its name from Italy’s Alessandro Volta (1745-1827). He was a science prodigy, even if he didn’t speak until he was 4. (His first word? “No.”)
Volta did many things — he isolated the gas methane — but is most closely associated with electricity. He discovered he could create and store electricity by sandwiching zinc and copper plates with disks of brine-soaked fabric. This was the first battery. Volta’s name lives on in one of the units we use to measure electricity: the volt.
Volta conducted his experiments at a time when world leaders believed in science. He was celebrated by Napoleon Bonaparte, and in 1852, Napoleon’s nephew, Napoleon III, established the Volta Prize in his honor. Awardees received 50,000 francs for contributions to the study of electricity.
In 1880, the Volta Prize was awarded to Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. A year earlier, Bell had moved from Massachusetts to Washington, home of his wife Mabel’s family.
With money from his prize, Bell established the Volta Laboratory at 1221 Connecticut Ave. NW. There, he and his associates worked on sound-recording technology. Bell was interested in human speech and deafness — he met his wife at a school for the deaf where he taught — and in 1894, he dedicated a striking building at 35th and Q streets NW. It housed the Volta Bureau, “for the increase and diffusion of knowledge relating to the deaf.”
In 1905, Q Street there was changed to Volta Place as a tribute to Bell’s work. (Present-day Q Street is one block north of Volta Place.)
Changing a street’s name can rile people up. Witness the current discussion over turning Good Hope Road into Marion S. Barry Jr. Avenue. In 1901, The Post noted that many residents “have a feeling of personal injury when any attempt is made to take away the old name or to foist a new one upon them in which they have no interest or which is actually distasteful to them.”
Some in Georgetown never forgot. In 1951, the Georgetown Citizens Association asked the city’s commissioners to restore the old street names. “O Street,” they argued, was boring compared to its original name: “Beall Street.” That name came from George Beall, one of the owners of the land upon which Georgetown was built.
The commissioners declined to restore the names.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.