Taking the proverbial walk by the old school this Christmas, I was pleased to notice that Arlington County had installed a new metal historic sign.
Marking what in my youth was James Madison Elementary School (now the Madison senior citizens center, on Old Glebe Road) stands a plaque noting the site of what in the early decades of the 20th century was the Saegmuller school.
It was named for its benefactor, George Saegmuller (1847-1934), the wealthy German-born inventor who in America became an early officer of the Bausch & Lomb Optical Co. His Nuremberg castle-inspired mansion ended up as home to the Arlington chapter of the Knights of Columbus.
I’d long thought it odd that the name of Saegmuller, an education luminary who chaired Arlington’s 19th-century board of supervisors, would be removed from the school and replaced, just five years after the man died, with an all-American nod to a founding father.
Then one day it hit me. Arlington’s James Madison Elementary was so-named in 1939. That’s when Hitler was threatening the world and German names in this country were anything but fashionable.
It’s a fine example of how the names that guide us around our community reflect our politics, culture and commerce.
This month, the Arlington Historical Society published, for the first time in book form, its collection “Why Do We Call It…?: Thumbnail Histories of Arlington County Place Names.” It was edited by society member Alice Andors, with research help by Arlington librarian Diane Gates, using items from old Northern Virginia Sun.
The $10 stocking stuffer offers a factual tidbit to charm residents of nearly every county nook and cranny. Some of its findings are as historically grand as George Washington and Robert E. Lee’s family ties to Arlington House. (Hey, I’m aware Falls Church and other Virginia towns boast historic ties to the mother country, but can you top this?: 17th-century English King Charles II had three major ministers in his Cabinet-Lord Arlington, Lord Buckingham and Lord Clarendon.)
The book’s lesser scoops include the origins of the name Rosslyn (coined around 1860 likely through combining syllables from the names of landowner William ROSS and wife CaroLYN) and Lorcom Lane (landowner Joseph Taber Johnson combined the names of his sons LORen and BasCOM.
But there is rich history here. Native American legacies abound in Arlington. It’s fun to be reminded that the word Potomac meant “trading place” and that “Tuckahoe” was Indian for a plant used to make flour. The streets in my neighborhood known exotically as 22nd and 24th at one time bore signs that said Indian Trail and Moccasin Trail, respectively.
Upton Hill off Wilson Boulevard was named for Charles Upton, a newspaper editor who came from Ohio to build a large house that would figure as a Civil War lookout. The name Columbia Pike is short for the Columbian Turnpike Co. that in the 19-century was a key transport line from the district across what then was the Long Bridge.
It’s fascinating how much indulgence subdivision developers enjoyed in naming streets and neighborhoods-“Aurora Hills” got its moniker because someone got inspired viewing it at dawn. And who would have remembered that Military Road in 1935 was almost renamed North Chain Bridge Road? (Locals successfully resisted).
Personally, I was gratified to solve a mystery. The book confirmed my notion that the Roosevelt St. on which I live was named for Teddy Roosevelt and not Franklin.
It’s complicated, since the houses on our block were built in 1951, just six years after the death of FDR. But Williamsburg neighborhood folks have long recalled that Teddy in the early 1900s used to ride his horse around Minor Hill up top of Sycamore St.
The book notes that when Arlington in 1935 imposed its street grid (alphabetically, first the one-syllables, then two, then three), planners got stuck finding another three-syllable Q name to go between existing Quantico and Roosevelt. (They finessed it by importing “Quintana” from Mexico.)
Someday a future edition of the book will explain that Reagan National Airport used to be National Airport and that Virginia Hospital Center used to be Arlington Hospital. For many of us Arlingtonians, they still are.
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My Dec. 21 column on an Arlington bicycle charity drew a call from Keith Oberg, longtime director of a like organization, Bikes for the World, whose network over the past five years has shipped some 50,000 donated bicycles to needy riders overseas. Oberg too also lives in bike-crazy Arlington. More’s the point!
Charlie Clark may be e-mailed at [email protected]