Saturday, July 26, 2014

Local highway signs are a bit of living history

Ever crossed the Beltway using University Boulevard?  If you have, you've probably seen some of the oldest road signs in the D.C. area that are still in use. 

The large green signs on University Boulevard which advise drivers of the Beltway entrance ramps have been in use since 1964, making them 50 years old!  Most other road infrastructure is replaced well before reaching that age (driving surface, guardrails and barriers, bridge decks, etc) but these signs have somehow not been replaced yet.

It is not simply their age which makes them interesting.  These signs are of a certain style that is leftover from a bygone era of highway design. 

This sign on eastbound University Boulevard is 50 years old.  Sign photos courtesy of C. Patrick Zilliacus.

These signs were made in a style which has long been obsolete by the State Highway Administration and other similar agencies across the country.  The style is called "button copy", and it is one of the earliest attempts at making road signs reflective--something which is now standard practice.  It is called button copy because the letters on the signs are lined with retroreflective plastic buttons, which improve visibility at night.  This reflective quality was first applied to road signs during the beginning of the interstate era, and the button copy style was soon eclipsed by other more effective forms of reflective signage.  This generally means that any sign using button copy is at least 40 years old.  

This sign on westbound University Boulevard near Eastern Middle School is of the same vintage.  Note the raised buttons on the letters for Baltimore and Northern Virginia.
These signs are also unique for the use of smooth aluminum panels which form the green surface.  Modern signs use multiple aluminum strips to form the surface, since they are more flexible for creating different shapes, and probably cheaper to produce.  

While the signs are old, they have not gone unchanged during the last 50 years.  At some point in the 1980s or 90s, the word "Beltway" was shrunk and moved to the upper right hand corner to make room for the white "Capital Beltway" logo, which features the United States Capitol dome.  In the image above, the remains of the original "Beltway" text is still somewhat visible in dark green next to the logo, just beneath the words current location on the sign.  The Beltway used to be in button copy as well, but when it was relocated to make space for the logo, the new text was not produced in button copy.       
The back of the sign, looking west on University Boulevard over the bridge.

While these button copy signs are old and certainly historic, they are not the first Beltway signs to exist at this location.  The Beltway was built in stages, as many highways are.  In 1962, an "orphan" section the Beltway opened between Georgia Avenue and University Boulevard.  This stretch of the highway was not connected to other parts of the road at the time (hence its "orphan" status), and it basically just served as a connection between Four Corners and Forest Glen for those two years.  Since the highway was not yet completed, temporary wooden signs were erected at the current ramp from westbound University Boulevard to westbound I-495 (the tight oval shaped cloverleaf which is still in use).  These wooden signs were replaced with the current button copy ones in 1964, as the Beltway was completed that August.     

The interchange of University Boulevard and the Capital Beltway in 1963, shortly before installation of the button copy signs (they were installed when the Beltway was completed in 1964).  Image from the United States Geological Survey.

The future of these historic signs is uncertain.  They will most likely be replaced when the SHA completes the current bridge deck replacement project.  The signs are a little worn, but they seem to be in pretty good shape considering that they are 50 years old.  It would be nice to see these signs preserved after they are replaced, since they represent an important aspect of the early interstate era (no GPS back then, so these signs were really important for travelers).  

I think it would be neat if these signs could see new life in a local park, similar to how old airplanes and other random old stuff gets donated to playgrounds.  It could be a nice way to preserve a piece of local history while giving a park something unique that encourages more people to use it.  Maybe the signs could be placed by the playground at Indian Spring Terrace Park, since that park only exists because of the Beltway (the park's land used to be part of the country club, and it was donated to M-NCPPC when the Beltway forced the club to move to Glenmont).  

 But until the day these signs are retired, they will continue to serve as way-finding guides for visitors to our community, as they have been doing for the past 50 years.   



  1. They didn't just add the Capital Beltway logo (which the SHA seems to be phasing out). It also provided official directionals to the Beltway. Because the beltway was built in a circle (hence the name), there really wasn't a specific direction for the road other than clockwise (inner loop) or counter-clockwise (outer loop). The destination on the signs indicated the direction, hence 495 toward Northern Virgnia/Bethesda vs. 495 toward Baltimore/Silver Spring. This confused people, so they designated East-West and North-South sections between major landmarks (I-270, I-95 in Maryland, Wilson Bridge and I-95 in Virginia so that people knew which way they were going. Thus, folks traveling eastward from I-270 are now driving on I-495 East, rather than the inner loop toward Baltimore/Silver Spring.

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