Back in March 2006, this column explored the conventions naming interstates, state and county routes in the Old Dominion (“Finding One’s Way: Signs of Virginia,” March 20, 2006). But there is another level of street names that has a more colorful history.
In the commonwealth’s earliest towns, such as Williamsburg and Alexandria, streets tended to be named for landmarks, topographic features, directions or symbols of power. (“History of Street Names and Street Naming in North America”). Thus, you have Duke of Gloucester Street in colonial Williamsburg and streets named Queen, King, and Prince in Alexandria. There are a number of Church Streets scattered throughout Virginia towns, including one in Lynchburg on which there are no longer any houses of worship. Other common early names for streets were Market, Monument, Canal, Wall, Court, Hill and Water. After the American Revolution, streets named Washington and Jefferson became common.
At first the term “street” was not a part of a byway’s proper name. It was considered just a descriptor, since streets were considered parts of towns. Roads not in cities were often not named at all. Early references in more urban areas might refer to “Hill street” or “King street.”
There were a few exceptions to these early naming patterns. William Penn was ahead of his time by laying Philadelphia out in a grid pattern and naming some of the streets after trees in the late 18th-century. Tree names didn’t become popular in other areas of the country until the 1850s as a result of a new movement that affected all the arts, including landscape and urban design. The romantic and more picturesque Gothic Revival style of architecture replaced the classical and orderly Greek Revival school. There was also a Rural Cemetery Movement that started to replace crowded church graveyards with “parks.” The most popular tree names for streets in the mid-19th-century were Elm, followed by Maple, Pine, Walnut, etc.
In Richmond, it would be 100 years before the city’s streets required names.
Finally, in the mid-18th century, Richmond adopted a grid system similar to the Philadelphia model. Streets that ran east to west were alphabetized and north-south streets were numbered (“Discover Richmond: History Behind Many of Richmond’s Street Names”). By the 1780s, as the city grew, new naming patterns evolved. For example, “A” street became “Arch” because of an arch over it; “B” street became “Byrd” for the city’s founder and “C” became “Canal” for the nearby waterway.
After the end of the Civil War, urban areas exploded and private real estate developers created “additions.” New subdivisions began to develop with names such as “Raymond H. Chase’s Addition to the City of Springfield.” This is the beginning of the use of surnames for streets and roads.
The descriptors evolved, as well. Around 1880, “avenue” became used much more than “street.” The City Beautiful Movement in the late-nineteenth and early 20th century gave rise to new descriptions, such as “boulevard,” “park” and “court.” By the 1920s, “drive” had replaced “avenue” and in the 1960s, it was unusual to see any names other than “drive” in most subdivisions. Floral names, suffixes such as “wood” and “land” became popular, as did famous colleges and universities, English counties, world cities — any name that would attribute a positive image to a development.
In the 21st century, getting street name approval is a bit more complicated than a century ago. It varies from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but is a part of the zoning and planning process a developer must follow.
For example, in Fredrick County, Va., a request for a road name must be submitted by a single landowner or developer with sole control over the road or by a petition from adjacent landowners. There must be at least three existing homes with a right-of-way on the street before the name request can be submitted. Among other requirements: no road name can be abbreviated; no road name can include punctuation; no road names are accepted if the first name matches a road name in use (“Request for Approval of a New Road Name,” Frederick County, Va.).
Spotsylvania County also has restrictions on names that are similar and with punctuation, but also restricts roads named after businesses, individuals (except historical) names longer than 24 characters (“Spotsylvania County Road and Street Naming Policy”).
Still, despite the best intentions of urban planners or local bureaucrats’ rules and regulations, some strange street names have survived. If you are ever in Charlottesville, you may want to explore Pinch’em Slyly Place or should you find yourself in Virginia Beach, cruise down Witchduck Road, named after Grace Sherwood, the only woman in Virginiaever convicted of witchcraft.
It would take quite a creative developer to beat those street tags!
NEXT: Riffles and Cascades: Waterfalls in Virginia