If you harbor gripes that our county government gets too ambitious, consider an episode from the 1930s.
In what probably ranks as the most disruptive Arlington project ever, our entire street grid was renamed. The modern system of (mostly) logical groups of streets by numbers and syllables was an engineering and citizen consultation feat that foreshadowed what we call the “Arlington Way.”
The tale was told in a 1959 Arlington Historical Magazine by C.L. Kinnier, who directed Arlington’s Engineering Department when the streets were renamed.
Authority came after 1932, when Arlington switched to the county manager system and the board appointed Roy Braden to the new job. Braden’s recommendation for a new street system diagnosed a status quo that inflicted multiple hassles.
Duplication: too many “improperly named” streets labeled Washington, Lee, Arlington or Fairfax. Some residents had to add their subdivision (Radnor Heights, Country Club Hills) to their address to receive mail or deliveries. Rural folks had to use “Alexandria RFD.” The old streets were a hodgepodge of “tree names” followed by streets named for friends or family, local or historical, Braden noted.
The problems were traced to understaffing and the county’s growth from 16,040 persons in 1920 to 26,615 in 1930.
The board farmed the job out to the Engineering Department after naming a committee on March 1, 1932, chaired by Monroe Sockett. It heard pleas from the Arlington Civic Federation and the Chamber of Commerce, which pointed out that reforms were vital if Arlington was to get a central Post Office. The committee also sought advice from the American Municipal League, the County Managers Association and engineering firms.
Kibitzers suggested new street names, even whole schemes. Some wanted a continuation of District of Columbia streets. “Each thought it better to change the name of the other man’s street rather than his,” Kinnier wrote.
The planners hung a giant map in their work room. They had to divide the county into North and South (rejecting a proposal for quadrants). They considered what today is Washington Blvd. as the divider. (At the time, that road had sections called Memorial Dr., Garrison Rd. and Brown Ave.) Instead they chose Lee Blvd. (now Arlington Blvd.).
The list of must-keep old names included traditional Virginia standbys and state roads — Lee Highway, Old Dominion Dr. and Jefferson Davis Highway (that lasted until 2019).
Rules required that streets at right angles to the divider have names; that streets parallel be numbered.
Sockett’s monthly work sessions for a year had been open, but the final system was formally vetted at a June 21, 1933, hearing.
Thirty months after its start, the committee saw its recommendations win board approval on Aug. 30, 1934. The county then reassigned house numbers. “Houses on the south and west sides of the streets would have even numbers and those opposite would have odd numbers,” Kinnier wrote. They had to update and scrub all Courthouse information and create signs at 3,000 intersections. Total appropriated funds: $7,500.
The new system took effect July 1, 1935. The board passed an ordinance declaring that “if any majority of the citizens of one street did not like the name selected, and wished to change it to some other name that would fit the ordinance, it could have the change made provided they would pay for the signs.”
Fun memory of Hollywood glamour in 1960s Arlington comes from my boyhood friend Gary Glover.
Gary’s grandfather Joe Fuschini, founder of the old Progressive Cleaners in Cherrydale, kept an immaculate home and yard on Huntington St. in Westover. One day Ira Beaty, father of Washington-Lee (now Washington-Liberty) grads and movie stars Shirley MacLaine and Warren Beatty, knocked on his door and offered to buy the property. Fuschini slept on the proposal and then called Beaty to accept his offer.
Two weeks later, however, it was daughter MacLaine who showed up and wrote the check for her dad at Joe’s price. In business back then, Gary said, “Your word was your bond.”