Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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My high school buddy Dave McGarry worked for the Arlington County Planning Office back in the 1970s. With his bosses’ permission, he copied five blue-print-style engineering maps of our sainted 26 square miles, covering 1935 to 1975.

He bequeathed them to me in his recent downsizing move. As befits my role as “Our Nerd in Arlington,“ I pored over them and extracted some nifty forgotten facts about our hometown.

The April 1935 map was the first executed after Arlington reshuffled its street names, during which Memorial Drive/Garrison Street became Washington Blvd. and North Pennyman Street became Madison Street.

It shows lesser-known waterways: Roaches Run near the modern-day 14th Street Bridge and the Three Sisters Islands in “Little River” off Roosevelt Island, which until the late 1930s was Analostan. (Three Sisters was the name for the 1960s proposed Spout Run commuter bridge that never got built.)

The map shows how few homes then occupied the woods along the Potomac off Military Road, in what today are nestled the subdivisions of Bellevue Forest and Rivercrest.

I spotted vanished streets, such as “College Lane” near the Buckingham apartments. My own Roosevelt Street in the ‘30s stopped east of Lee Highway, and Sycamore Street was truncated around Little Falls Road. A shorter Old Dominion Drive stops at Lee Highway before Stratford Junior High existed.

Most noticeable were the long-shuttered schools. Nellie Custis Elementary (near today’s Crystal City); James Monroe (on Key Blvd.); Henry Clay (7th and Highland in Clarendon); Hume (now the Arlington Historical Society) and Cherrydale. Three were labeled “colored”– Hoffman Boston High School (now an elementary), John Langston (now a community center), and Kemper (renamed Drew in 1952). Several names were attached to buildings still standing but repurposed: Stonewall Jackson (now Arlington Traditional), Woodmont and Lee schools (now community centers; Maury (an arts center), and Saegmuller (the Madison senior center).

On the 1942 map, you find the then-new Pentagon, along with a stream near Barcroft Park called Doctor’s Branch. Today’s 14th Street Bridge is labeled the “Highway Bridge,” and you see elementary schools Reed and Barrett.

On the 1952 map, I noticed an Old Dominion School (the main building of today’s Marymount University) next door to John Marshall Elementary School at 26th and Glebe Road, now the site of newer Marymount buildings. (I knew it as the Marshall Annex baseball field in the 1960s, before the Yorktown Blvd. underpass was built.) At South Glebe and modern I-395 stood Dolly Madison Junior High. On North Underwood, you found Charles Stewart Elementary School (now a soccer field). Yorktown High School then was an elementary school. I spied a now-vanished Frazier Road near Arlandria. (It still shows Arlington Blvd. as Lee Blvd. though that change was made soon after.

The 1961 map (with projections to 1966) has Sycamore Street continuing across Lee Highway and Washington Blvd. past today’s East Falls Church Metro. Because the drawing was done before I-66 pierced the county, it shows routes of Fairfax Drive and Bluemont Drive that are longer than today’s.

By 1975, the engineers’ map was multi-colored and for the first time showed Metro stops. I-396 was still called Henry G. Shirley Memorial Highway.

Viewed together, the maps quietly dramatize how the sands of time have shifted in our cozy 26 square miles. I’m giving them to Arlington Central Library’s Center for Local History.

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Perhaps you heard that Arlington is warming to a proposal to build a sky-line gondola service to connect commuters from Rosslyn to Georgetown. The D.C. Council and Georgetown Business Improvement District are planning a feasibility study, and our county board is all ears, according to news reports.

My concern is that the ski-lift-like electrical lines and people-mover capsules would clutter the beautiful Potomac River vista that showcases the Rosslyn high-rises, Key Bridge, Roosevelt Island and the Kennedy Center. Similar fears were common when Paris added the Eiffel Tower and the British capital planners layered on the London Eye Ferris wheel. Also, Metro, with all its recent troubles, might feel bypassed.