Old-time road signs survive
By John Kelly,
What’s the deal with the sign saying “Kenwood Golf and Country Club” that is at Westmoreland Circle? I assume it’s from years ago.
— Lisa Vigdor-Peck, Bethesda
It is a handsome sign indeed. It sits atop a fluted cast-iron column, with an arrow pointing to the right above raised letters spelling out the club’s name. Three letters in an oval at the top give a clue to the sign’s origins. They read AAA, for the sign was placed by the American Automobile Association.
Many of the first road signs that dotted the landscape after the advent of the automobile were placed by AAA. The group was founded in 1902 in Chicago after the merger of earlier clubs. From the beginning it agitated for something its members needed: decent roads. It was no use having a car if you had nothing to drive it on. (The League of American Wheelmen, a group of devoted bicyclists, were even earlier proponents of flat, paved roads.)
Of course, even if you have a road to drive on, you need to know where you’re going.
“The very first signs were erected by the auto clubs on behalf of their members,” said Ron Kosh, AAA’s vice president of public and government affairs. “They were originally wooden and didn’t always survive.”
AAA began to place iron signs after World War I. “At one time in the Washington area — in D.C., Alexandria, Arlington — there were probably 90 or 100 of those around,” Ron said.
It’s hard to say exactly when the Kenwood sign was placed at Massachusetts and Western avenues NW, but it was after 1928, which is when the club opened.
Some AAA signs were directional, such as the one that’s at South Pitt and Wolfe streets in Alexandria, pointing motorists toward the Old Presbyterian Meeting House. Others gave mileage to nearby cities.
Most of the signs did not survive the scrap metal drives of World War II, when disparate bits of iron and steel were collected to be melted down for war materiel. It’s a miracle that the Westmoreland Circle sign has lasted into the age of the Global Positioning System.
Ever since I moved to D.C. in 1975 there has been a sign at the Georgetown end of Pennsylvania Avenue, next to the filling station and across the street from the Four Seasons Hotel. Within the last year it disappeared. Who placed it there and where is it today?
— Marilyn Worseldine, Washington
The sign is currently under the watchful eyes of Jerry McCoy, an individual who, if not for the fact that he is the librarian overseeing the Peabody Room of the Georgetown public library, might be a candidate for that show “Hoarders.” He’s also a bit of a savior.
On Aug. 4, Jerry saw on the Georgetown Metropolitan blog that the aforementioned sign had been spotted under the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge, resting in Rock Creek Park. It had apparently been pulled out by a vandal and tossed.
Within the hour, Jerry jumped into his Toyota, drove over, loaded up the sign and then drove very carefully up 28th Street NW with it sticking out his passenger window. The sign is now in the Peabody Room, a repository of all things Georgetown.
It’s harder to say who placed the sign. Jerry suspects it was put up in 1951, during Georgetown’s bicentennial, probably by a civic or business group.
“There were probably at least two or three more marking the major traditional entry ways, at upper Wisconsin Avenue, maybe Canal Road, maybe Q Street,” he said.
This was the last one standing. “That’s why I was so freaked out when I saw it down in Rock Creek Park,” Jerry said.
Jerry has been in touch with the Citizens Association of Georgetown, and it’s hoped that money can be raised to refurbish the sign — it’s a bit bent and rusty — and put it back up.
“I want to know the history, the provenance, of this piece of street furniture,” Jerry said. “I’m sure somebody out there knows, probably some 80-year-old who’ll say, ‘I installed that back in ’51.’ ”
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