Washington DC History Resources

Matthew B. Gilmore

The “Highway Plan” in the District of Columbia–the Permanent System of Highways for the District of Columbia

Recent articles in reference to planning at Walter Reed touch on the District’s “Highway Plan”. Properly called the “Permanent System of Highways for the District of Columbia”, the history leading to its creation was documented in Michael R. Harrison, “The ‘Evil of the Misfit Subdivisions’: Creating the Permanent System of Highways of the District of Columbia,” 26-55, in the Spring/Summer 2002, 14 (1) issue of Washington History.

Congress passed the legislation in 1893 – Mar. 2, 1893, 27 Stat. 532, ch. 197. Amending the plan required congressional legislation until the responsibility was passed the the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC).

The idea was to provide an orderly and regular framework for the expansion of development what had been “Washington County”–replacing the hop-scotch/higgledy-piggledy subdivisions laid out since the 1860s. (see Matthew B. Gilmore and Michael R. Harrison, “A Catalog of Suburban Subdivisions of the District of Columbia, 1854-1902,” 26-55 in the Fall/Winter 2002-2003, 14 (2) issue of Washington History  Creating the plan was rather long and torturous and once legal challenges were met the plan (begun in 1893) was completed in 1908. The old subdivisions were grandfathered in.

Permanent System legend

Permanent System legend

At the time the road network for Washington County (1893-1908) was planned “highway” was the term of art, and is unconnected to later highway/freeway planning.

Official maps issued by the District of Columbia used the (1968) permanent system of highways basemap up until the 1980s. It was also the basemap used in the Senate Park Commission (McMillan Commission) maps in 1901.  Maintenance of the plan lay with the National Capital Planning Commission until the introduction of Home Rule. Numerous amendments were made (and continue to be made–the Surveyor of the District of Columbia routinely takes abandonments of highway plan right of way through the process with the Council and NCPC).

Few of these maps have piqued the interest of those digitizing records but you can see an example click here: 1933 Permanent System map

Here’s a snippet around Walter Reed:

Walter Reed 1933

Walter Reed 1933

Click: NCPC Walter Reed PSH synopsis

NCPC file

NCPC file

Note: The Baist real estate atlases also show the highway plan (as dashed lines.)

There is, however, no existing up-to-date map of the current Permanent System of Highways updated with abandonments since 1968.

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2 comments on “The “Highway Plan” in the District of Columbia–the Permanent System of Highways for the District of Columbia

  1. pweiss
    July 1, 2015

    Frederick Law Olmsted Sr and John C. Olmsted were involved in creating the Permanent Plan of Highways and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr, was involved in the McMillan Plan.

    • dchistorystuff
      July 2, 2015

      Very true. This was just a sketch introduction; there’s much more to say.

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