28 Dec 2009

Lost Capitol Hill: B Street, South (pt. 1)

To all of us living on the Hill, the names of Constitution and Independence Avenues are a part of our daily routine just as much as H Street or Pennsylvania Avenue. They are not, however, the names originally given these thoroughfares by Pierre L’Enfant: He had given the designation of ‘Avenue’ only to those routes that were at an angle to his carefully designed grid, and it was only much later that this change was made.

Today, we will look at how B Street, South, became Independence Avenue.

There is no clear reason given for why the names of both B Street North and B Street South were changed, but having two such important thoroughfares, with so similar names located quite close to another, must have caused some confusion.  This is the reason usually given for the change, and although I have found no direct evidence to support this contention it is certainly the most likely reason.

As early as 1928, at least one person was determined to give a street in Washington the name “Independence Avenue.” The following letter to the editor ran in the Washington Post on December 13, 1928:

Sir: If Congress wants to do something nice for Washington, and at the same time honor a group of Americans who deserve all honor, why does it not consider the suggestion made some months ago by a correspondent of The Post, that the name Sixteenth street be changed to Independence avenue and that it be decorated with statues of the 52 signers of the Declaration of Independence.

How seriously this suggestion was taken is unknown, but three years later, B Street NW was given the name Constitution Avenue, and almost immediately thereafter, a bill was introduced in the Senate to change the name of B Street, SW, as well. This bill was not passed, for unknown reasons, and it wasn’t until 1934 that it was reintroduced, and, along with a number of other DC-related bills, passed the House on April 9, after already having passed the Senate, and so became Public law 73-150.

Detail of 1941 map of DC, showing the newly renamed Independence Avenue

The Washington Post noted the event with the laconic comment:

The other bills included six which have passed the Senate. They […] (3) change the name of B street southwest to Independence avenue; […]

How B Street SE had its name changed is a topic for another column. And if someone wants to come up with 52 statues to plant along Independence Avenue, I’d be more than happy to help set them up.

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2 responses to “Lost Capitol Hill: B Street, South (pt. 1)”

  1. Joey says:

    I don’t think L’Enfant actually named any of the streets. He laid out a concept plan, which was taken over by Andrew Ellicott. It was he (or someone contemporary or subsequent to him) that named the Streets and Avenues.

  2. Mike says:

    Basically, B Street NW was widened when the Federal Triangle was built, so it was given a grander name deemed appropriate to its new, improved condition. B Street SW was then renamed to match. These efforts had nothing to do with any confusion over duplicate names.

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