Is it Dumbarton St. or Avenue?

Which is it? Ave or St?

Running between N and O St. is a road that is mostly called Dumbarton St. However, in more than a few places it is called Dumbarton Ave. For instance, Dumbarton United Methodist Church uses the address “3133 Dumbarton Avenue”. Also, several homes are labeled with “Dumbarton Ave.” Hell, as shown above, Google Maps can’t make up its mind and just calls it both.

So what’s the deal? Why the split personality? For the answers, follow GM back through the 18th and 19th centuries after the jump:

The name “Dumbarton” made its way to Georgetown via Scotsman Ninian Beale who was granted 75 acres from Lord Baltimore in 1703 in what would become Georgetown. Beale named the land tract “The Rock of Dumbarton” after a massive rock located in Dumbarton, Scotland. This name carries on in Dumbarton House, Dumbarton Oaks, and of course Dumbarton St./Ave.

But what’s the right name? Probably street, but it’s complicated. First of all, for the first half of its existence the name was “Dunbarton” not “Dumbarton”. As seen from this map from 1851 (the earliest GM could find displaying either name) the road was called “Dubarton St.”:

 

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

This spelling and designation continued through 1873:

 

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

and at least through 1878:

 

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

In 1871 Georgetown’s charter was revoked by Congress and the city was absorbed into District of Columbia, thus bringing to an end the autonomy of the City of Georgetown. By 1880, the street names of Georgetown were changed to be consistent with the rest of D.C.’s street grid. Thus east-west streets like Gay and Beall were changed to N and O, respectively; and north-south streets like Congress and High St. were changed to 31st and Wisconsin, respectively. Some streets, though, didn’t fit in with the grid system and so they kept their names. Dunbarton/Dumbarton was one of those.

Interesting side note: for a time after the revocation of Georgetown’s charter, the neighborhood was officially referred to as “West Washington”:

 

 

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

 

According to Washington Post archives, the name “Dunbarton Avenue” begins to show up in their pages around 1881.  Here’s an example:

While the Methodists are celebrating the year 1884 as a centenary occasion, it is interesting to know that in Georgetown, now called West Washington, Methodism was founded in 1792, or 112 years ago. This fact is made public in an interesting pamphlet, entitled “A Centennial Sketch of Methodism in Georgetown, D.C.,” and compiled by J.W. Kirkley an official member of the Dumbarton-avenue M.E. Church, Georgetown. – Washington Post – Dec. 28, 1884

Here you can see an 1886 map where the road appears a “Dunbarton Avenue”:

 

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

GM doesn’t have proof that the street renaming was what led to this, but if you look at the map above you’ll see that Olive St. was called “Olive Ave.” all of the sudden as well (not seen in this detail, but Potomac St. was listed as Potomac Ave. too). Maybe there was a decision to distinguish the non-conforming streets with the name “avenue”. This answer is still unsatisfying since Grace St. and Water St. were still listed as such.

Regardless of the objective, it appears that some change in designation occurred apparently the exact time of the street renaming. Additionally, by 1909 the “M” made its way into the name on maps, although as shown by the quote above, it had been used somewhat interchangeably by the Post for a while before that (oddly enough, the County of Dumbartonshire Scotland, where the Dumbarton Rock is located, actually changed its name to Dunbartonshire around the same time):

 

Courtesty of the Library of Congress

Courtesty of the Library of Congress

As late as 1942, maps listed the road as “Dumbarton Avenue”:

 

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Despite this surge of “Avenue”, at some point between 1942 and today it appears that the District came down on the side of “Dumbarton St.”  The street signs say “St.” and the property tax rolls list homes on Dumbarton St. (although even that has two “Dumbarton Ave.” addresses!) A call to the Georgetown Post Office confirms that at least they think its Dumbarton St., however, they said that a letter addressed to Dumbarton Ave. will be delivered just as well.

So it seems that the long story of a short road has ultimately led to “Dumbarton St.” with only a few echoes around of its brief foray into avenuehood.

For what it’s worth, GM prefers Dumbarton Avenue. What do you think?

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19 Comments

Filed under History

19 responses to “Is it Dumbarton St. or Avenue?

  1. Jim McCarthy

    Excellent research work, GM. Can’t help but wonder: if true, wouldn’t that make Dumbarton the only one-way avenue in the city..?

    Keep up the great work. Jim

  2. GM

    Well, there’s Idaho and Independence Ave. They’re both one way at least for some of the way. I can’t think of any others, but there probably are at least one or two more…

  3. bigrab

    Jim I have a business in Dumbarton Scotland. The name comes from the Gaelic Dùn Breatainn which means Fort of the Britons, and dates from Roman Times. This would suggest that DuNbarton was in fact the original spelling however both spellings have been used over the years. These days the town is Dumbarton whilst the county is West Dunbartonshire. Dumbarton was the ancient capital of Strathclyde which was a kingdom established in the ninth century which pre-dated Scotland.
    I was surprised on a visit to Washington DC in 1996 to find there was a Dumbarton Avenue. I agree with you that Dumbarton Avenue has a better ring than Dumbarton Street.

  4. gotta go with street. that’s what fits into the district’s nomenclature. for the most part, avenues are diagonals, and short streets on the grid are either “streets” or “places”.

  5. Olive

    Interesting article. We live on Olive Street, and the mailing address is Olive Avenue. In fact, DC sends our Olive Street house tax assessment to our address on Olive Avenue. Initially, it caused some confusion (Comcast does not provide service to Olive St., only Olive Ave.), but now we’re used to it.

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  7. Andy

    I used to live on Reservoir St – the one block of Reservoir Rd that is east of Wisconsin. Can’t tell you how many cabdrivers tried to correct me when I told them destination.

  8. Andy

    I used to live on Reservoir St – the one block of Reservoir Rd that is east of Wisconsin. Can’t tell you how many cabdrivers tried to correct me when I told them my destination.

  9. Jody McPherson

    I believe pattern of the names of DC’s streets is that those that are E/W, beginning with the Mall, have names that are single letters, then words with single syllables, then words with double syllables, then words with triple syllables. Streets that run N/S are numbered.

    Thoroughfares that do not fit into this pattern, like Dumbarton, are to be called avenues, places, roads, etc. If Dumbarton fit the pattern, it would be much farther north, after Chesapeake, before Ellicott. As it is, it lies between N and O Streets. I live on Sherier Place, which should be about 51st or 52nd Street.

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  13. B G Beall

    “… ad naseum…” ? Not to some of us.

    Beall, not Beale, though it seems that quite a few of us do tend to minimize the second l when signing our name.

    And I’m sure that you know it is pronounced bell.

  14. Kate Whitmore

    When I was a kid, Scheele’s was on Dumbarton Avenue, so that is what I usually call it, although I know it is officially a Street now.

    Nice research! Can you give us some URLs of those maps you used?

  15. Bill Offutt

    It is NOT Dumbarton – it is Dunbarton since that is what Ninian Beall called it and that’s what on the big stone. And it was Dunbarton Street, as you noted. It’s all a stupid mistake. Beall was captured at the Battle of Dunbar, sent to the New World as a POW, came to Maryland, got rich and used the Georgetown property as a kind of very inside joke.
    It was changed out of ignorance and preserved the same way. I guess it’s too late to fix it – damn!

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  17. Well, Joe Alsop called it Dumbarton Avenue, and that’s what I’m going with. For my book, “The Georgetown Set: The Washington Insiders Who Wage–and Won–the Cold War” (Knopf, 2013?), I’m interested in anyone who is still around who knew Joe, or Frank and Polly Wisner, or Phil and Kay Graham. Cheers! –Gregg Herken, Emeritus Professor History, University of California [greggherken@gmail.com]

  18. it was actually Dunbartonshire after the town in Scotland. And because there were hundereds of folks from Scotland in Georgetown. Still are if you count those in Oak Hill

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