Monday, June 22, 2015

Why do many street names in Four Corners contain "East"?

East Franklin Avenue.  East Wayne Avenue.  East Indian Spring Drive.  University Boulevard East.

Have you ever wondered why many roads around Four Corners have the prefix of "East", or why University Boulevard is divided into University Blvd. East and University Blvd. West?  The answer has to do with our proximity to Washington, D.C., and Montgomery County's planning history.

Why does University Blvd have the "East" and "West" suffixes?  Photo by the author.  

Those who are familiar with Washington, D.C. know that all street names contain the quadrant of the city they are in, and that the inclusion of the quadrants are essential to finding the right address.  For example, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW is the White House, while 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue SE is an unused address near Barney Circle.

All of D.C.'s quadrants are divided by the axis of the Capitol Building, NE, SE, SW, and NW.  Were the quadrants to extend into Montgomery County, our jurisdiction would fall within the Northwest and Northeast quadrants.  The north axis of the Capitol Building passes right through Four Corners (red line seen below), and this axis is what affects our street names and address numbering.

The red line drawn across Four Corners represents 0° due North of the Capitol Building.  Aerial image from Google Earth.  

Sometime in the 1940's or perhaps the 1950's, Montgomery County decided to adopt a numbering system that corresponded to the District of Columbia's.  This is why addresses on most north-south roads in the county relate roughly to the number of miles they are from the Capitol.  For example, Most buildings on Colesville Road in Four Corners fall within the 9000 or 10000 range of numbers, and since Four Corners is about 9 miles from the Capitol, this makes some sense.    

But when the county adopted the numbering convention for east-west streets, it wasn't that simple.  The county wanted to start its east and west numbers from roughly the Capitol axis, but there were many existing streets and roads that crossed this axis, making renumbering a challenge.  This is why the county added "East" to the beginning or end of many street names, to avoid duplicate numbers.  

There was still one other issue, however.  Montgomery County doesn't have a grid of streets like D.C. does, so various geographic dividing points in the vicinity of the north axis had be identified as places for the numbering system to originate from (and a spot for roads to change names if needed).  In D.C., streets like North Capitol, East Capitol, South Capitol, and the National Mall serve this purpose of address origin points.

In the county, we don't have a straight North Capitol Street to neatly separate addresses, so the planning department had to improvise by using geographic features like creek valleys and a few pre-existing north-south roads (like Flower Avenue and Colesville Road) as the origin point.  I call this rough line the "origin line" as it serves as the beginning point for east-west addresses.

The yellow line represents the origin line.
Drawn by the author using Google Earth.
The first geographic feature used by the planning department as the address origin line is Sligo Creek.  This is why Wayne Avenue become East Wayne Avenue after is crosses Sligo Creek, since that is where the origin point is down there.

In the vicinity of Oak View Elementary School, the origin line cuts over from the creek and begins to travel along Flower Avenue through Indian Spring to the Beltway.

The part of the origin line that follows Flower Avenue from Melbourne Avenue to the Beltway is probably the most visible part of the origin line, as multiple roads that cross it add the "East" prefix.  These include: East Melbourne Ave, East Hamilton Ave, East Franklin Ave, East Indian Spring Dr, and East Granville Dr.  All of these roads lack the "East" prefix on the west of Flower Avenue.

Upon crossing the Beltway, the origin line jumps over the Colesville Road.  This is why University Boulevard changes from "West" to "East" at Colesville.

University Boulevard East at Williamsburg Drive.  Photo by the author.

While there are no other roads in Woodmoor, Northwood, and South Four Corners with "East" in the name, the impact of the origin line can still be seen in the addresses of various east-west streets in the area.

For example Williamsburg Drive begins with the 100 block because the origin line runs through the Blair High School site, and there is room for a unit block were the road to ever be extended west across University.  A similar example can be seen with Lanark Way, which begins with the 300 block at the intersection of Colesville Road, since the origin line is located a bit to the east of Colesville (so in theory, there is room for a 001, 100, and 200 block before the 300 block begins).  

Timberwood Avenue is an interesting exemption to the origin line, and it is the only such exception I know of.  Because the piece of Timberwood Avenue east of Colesville Road is so short, the "west" numbers actually begin on the Woodmoor (east) side of Colesville.

The unit block of Timberwood is between Pierce Drive and Colesville Road, while the 100, 200, and 300 blocks are found on the Northwood side of Colesville Road, west of the origin line.  Since there are only one or two houses that front the unit block of Timberwood Ave, I guess the planning department saw no need for an "East Timberwood Avenue".

The first short block of Timberwood Avenue at right in this image is an exception to the origin line.  Image from Google Earth

The only other street that crosses Colesville Road between University Boulevard and Northwest Branch is Lorain Avenue.  However, because that road is classified as a north-south street, it does not become "East Lorain Avenue" after crossing Colesville and is therefore not affected by the origin line, since its numbering reflects its north-south designation (Lorain addresses range from the 9600 block in North Hills of Sligo to the 10800 block in the back of Woodmoor).

North of Four Corners, the origin line follows Northwest Branch Creek to somewhere near Springbrook High School, where it cuts over to New Hampshire Avenue.  This is why Randolph Road becomes "East Randolph Road" in Colesville.  After this point the origin line becomes less relevant, as the areas north of Colesville are much less densely populated up to the Patuxent River, and many roads in the vicinity of the line change names anyway, making "East" prefixes unnecessary.

If you live(d) in Four Corners, does the origin line affect your street?  If you live on an east-west street, it probably does.  In a follow up post to this one, we'll look at which streets in Four Corners run east-west, and which ones are north-south, and how to tell the difference (sometimes it's obvious, other times not so much).  Stay tuned!


  1. Ah ha! I noticed a few years ago after we moved to South Four Corners (sofoco) from the District that we were roughly due north of 5th St NW but only now do I realize that's why our house is on the 500 block. Thanks for the post!

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