Where the Streets Still Have Old Names: Bank Alley

This week for Where the Streets Had Old Names, GM is mixing it up a bit to explore the inspiration for an old street name that still is in use: Bank Alley.

As GM has written about a bunch in the past, when Georgetown was an independent city, it had a different street naming system from that used in the rest of the District of Columbia. But the independent municipality of Georgetown (and the city of Washington) came to an end in 1871. By the 1890s, Congress forced Georgetown to change most of its street names to comport with the DC system. So most of the old names went away.

But some streets didn’t fit in with the DC system and were left as is. These include Dumbarton, Olive, Prospect, etc. On this list included Bank St. (GM will get to the street versus alley question below).

So we’ve still got Bank Alley/Street. But where did the name come from?

The Bank of Columbia.

The Bank of Columbia was the first bank chartered in Georgetown when it was formed in 1793. It played a prominent role in the business and government affairs of Georgetown during its lifetime. George Washington was a director of the bank and a large shareholder in it.

The bank was located on the east side of Bank Street along Bridge St. (i.e. M St.):

The Bank Street name was first formally adopted by the Corporation of Georgetown in 1806:

This was actually the second location for the bank. The bank’s first location was what is now 3210 M St.:

The bank built this building in 1796. It occupied it until it moved to its new home in 1806. The old building was later the home of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the city hall of Georgetown, and a firehouse (and much, much later a Burger King:

The picture at the top of this article shows the bank building on Bank St. It was a quite elegant property befitting the bank’s prominent reputation.

But sadly it collapsed 1826, with residents across the city losing money either as shareholders, deposit holders, or both. (The FDIC would not be created for over 100 years at that point). The date of the illustration of the building shows it in 1839, after the bank failure. It was used for various purposes at that point, including hosting a reception for William Henry Harrison during his exceptionally brief presidency. Later it was converted into a private home.

You can see it in this detail from a spectacular photo of the Georgetown Waterfront from 1865:

GM is not certain when this beautiful building was taken down. It appears to have been in the late 1880s or early 1890s. You can see it in this 1887 map, but it’s gone in the 1894 map below it:

So is it Bank Street or Bank Alley? There’s not really a right answer. Going bank to the 19th century the names were used pretty interchangeably, although Bank St. seemed more popular and the name on all the maps GM found. To this day property deeds for the lots on the street use both names.

A more relevant question is why does the DC government call it Bank Alley? It’s the city that put that name on the street signs, despite it not being the name used for most of its existence. It seems to be a similar story to how Dumbarton Ave. became Dumbarton St. Perhaps DC has a policy that a block long thoroughfare shouldn’t be called a street? Although that doesn’t really make sense since the city uses the name Poplar St. despite the fact that it is also just one block long and actually was historically called an alley.

Surely there’s an explanation but unfortunately GM doesn’t have it.

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