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Crestwood Street Names (Part 1)

Tue, June 06, 2017 3:39 PM | Anonymous member (Administrator)

Where they came from and why

Before getting into today's blog post, let me thank the Humanities Council of Washington DC for generously funding a grant so that the history of Crestwood can be published in book form. The grant period ends October 15. So expect to be able to purchase a book in the fall, with proceeds to benefit the Crestwood Citizens Association. It should be full of maps, photos and drawings that help tell the story of our neighborhood and how it arose from a single estate established nearly 300 years ago.

This week’s blog is for those of you who have wondered why the names of streets on one side of Rock Creek Park are generally different from the ones on the other. For example, in Crestwood we have Allison, Buchanan, Crittenden and Decatur Streets. But west of the park the streets are Albemarle, Brandywine, Chesapeake and Davenport.

It all goes back to a decision announced August 14, 1901. The DC Commissioners released a plan for naming streets in more than 100 subdivisions, including the streets that would eventually be extended into Crestwood. The system formalized the pattern we see today with numbered streets running north and south; east-west streets were to be arranged in alphabetical order with a series of one-syllable, two-syllable and then three-syllable names. Moreover, each of the east-west streets was to be named after a famous American.

Not only did that rule out street names like Albemarle and Brandywine, it also changed the names of streets that were on planning maps or already constructed east of our neighborhood in Petworth and Brightwood Park. Here is a list of some of the former names of streets and what they were changed to:

Philadelphia was changed to Quincy...Quincy to Randolph...Richmond to Shepherd...Savannah to Taylor...Trenton to Upshur...Utica to Varnum...Vallejo to Webster...Yuma to Allison...Zanesville to Buchanan...Albemarle to Crittenden...Brandywine to Decatur.

Some of the mandated changes did not wind up as part of the street grid. Wilmington Street was to become Yancey, and Xenia was to change to Ziegler. Today there is no Yancey or Ziegler Street, although you can find Wilmington Place and Xenia Street in Southeast. In Columbia Heights, Harvard Street, Kenyon Street and Columbia Road were all slated to be renamed. Those changes also did not take effect.

Some street names were altered in Mt. Pleasant in anticipation of the extension of 16th Street into our neighborhood. Pine Street in Mt. Pleasant became 16th Street itself. However, one block of Pine Street still exists. Going north on 16th, in order to turn west on Park Road, you have to veer right onto Pine Street by the Shrine of the Sacred Heart Catholic Church.

Also, Piney Branch Road in Mt. Pleasant was renamed 17th Street. That seems appropriate, since the road used to come north from Mt. Pleasant, cross the creek over a small bridge, follow what is still an official right-of-way behind the site of the Crestwood Apartments, then continue north into Crestwood along what is also called 17th Street today.

The old street names make everyday places seem unfamiliar. For example, if the road system had not been changed, Grace Lutheran Church would be at Piney Branch and Utica, not 16th and Varnum.

Next week we’ll look at the people after whom many of the Crestwood roads were named.

Here are several updates on last week’s blog about 1907 Quincy Street, which was the home of Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson in the years 1953-1961 and later became the official residence of Yugoslav diplomats.

George Lady recalls when he was a teenager in Crestwood and Edward R. Murrow interviewed Secretary Benson live on CBS television from the Quincy Street home. Mr. Lady writes:

"This involved the arrival of a number of large CBS network trucks and the setting up of much gear in order to shoot the show…There was, accordingly, much excitement in the neighborhood, especially among the kids…There was a thought, passed among the community of kids hovering around the occasion, which was swamped with bright lights, that it might be fun to figure out how to pull the plug on the whole business. No one figured out how to do it; or at least, it wasn't done.”

Murrow interviewed Benson at least twice. The first time was on the program See It Now on October 13, 1953; the broadcast also featured Winston Churchill. It is more likely that George Lady was recalling the episode of Person To Person from September 25, 1954. That show featured interviews in the homes of Mr. Benson and actress Eva Marie Saint.

I have also done further checking into a statement I quoted from a Washington Post story about Benson in 1953 that declared he was "the first clergyman of any faith ever to become a Cabinet member." Clearly, many early American politicians were trained as ministers, and a number of them went on to serve in the cabinet. However, Benson seems to have been the first clergyman in the cabinet for quite a while. Benson biographers have concluded you have to go back nearly a century to 1852, when Edward Everett became Secretary of State under Millard Fillmore. By the way, Everett is remembered most today for a two-hour oration he gave in Pennsylvania -- immediately preceding a short speech by Abraham Lincoln that we now call the Gettysburg Address.

And Crestwood neighbor Jonathan Higman forwarded an interesting response to last week's post. As Yugoslavia broke apart, the diplomatic residence on Quincy Street was abandoned, and I had suggested that might have taken place after Yugoslavia withdrew its ambassador in 1989. Jonathan writes that a Serbian diplomat was still living there in the early 1990s.

He goes on to describe frustrating conversations with the diplomat’s daughter, who claimed the White House and the Washington Post were "making up lies about the sufferings of the Bosnians." Jonathan says the daughter also thought Americans were foolish to feed their dogs commercial dog food; her family gave their great Dane chicken and rice. He tells a story about walking his own dog one night shortly before midnight:

“There was a man holding a rifle standing on the lawn of 1907, a man I recognized as the diplomat. So I asked him what he was doing. 'We have rats,' he replied. 'We have rats in the yard.' Again I held my peace, though I felt like pointing out that if you live only yards from Rock Creek Park and leave chicken and rice glop outside, you will get rats. Anyway, Mr. Diplomat said, 'I was a great hunter in Yugoslavia. I used to go up into the mountains and shoot deer and wild boar and everything.' I nodded but said that if he shot off a rifle in Crestwood at midnight, there might be an unfriendly reaction. I guess he agreed with me, since I never heard a gunshot."

--David Swerdloff, Trumbull Terrace

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