D.C.’s Streets: The Story of the Grid

The first thing you need to know when it comes to understanding the history and logic behind D.C.’s grid system is know that Washington was only a partially planned city. The entire area north of the rivers, and south of Florida Ave, is technically L’Enfant City – which was the original city of Washington.

It is named for the man who designed it – Pierre L’Enfant and Andrew Ellicott. It was designed as a “rectilinear grid” equipped with transverse diagonal avenues which are superimposed on the grid. It is in-between these intersecting avenues where triangular and bow-tie shaped parks are located.

Now, from this point L’Enfant began planning the actual buildings. The Capitol was to be the center of the city, as its structure held both the legislative and judicial branch of the government, at the time. From this building, the axes we know so well flow – NW, SW, SE, NE. The city is divided into these quadrants, whose lines emanate from the Capitol.

These axes also provide the naming system for the streets! Lettered streets increase alphabetically (A->Z) as they increase in distance both north and south of the Mall (and East Capitol Street). Numbered streets, then, increase in number as they increase in distance both east and west of North and South Capitol Streets.

However, when the city began to expand the naming system also had to keep up. In order to continue to have an alphabetical progression of streets, the alphabet starts over. Only “streets” are subject to the convention. Avenues, roads, drives, and other minor streets do not conform to the alphabetical progression.

Then, when the first alphabet runs out of letters, street names have to restart alphabetically with 2-syllable names. For example, “Adams Street” follows “W Street”. Once this has been exhausted, the process begins again but with 3-word syllables.

Only NW has fourth alphabet – this is unsurprising, as it is the largest quadrant. However, it doesn’t use four syllable words. Instead, it uses the names of plans in alphabetical order.

But wait kids, we aren’t even close to done! Because, there are state names, too – that aren’t even a part of the syllable systems I just described above.

Because they don’t conform to the system, they make everything a little more…confusing. Not to mention, when the plan was laid out there were only 13 states. The avenues are all named after states.  the avenues served as quicker forms of transportation and provided nice views towards important plazas and circles.

Speaking of the circles that we all know so well – wanna know a fun fact? Almost all of the circles and plazas were placed where they were..to make it easier to orient yourself. Why? Well, the distance between them is about the farthest distance a person can see. They are also used to form the centers of neighborhoods.


Greater Greater Washington, Curbed