by Ann Kessler
Sunday, December 5th is the 40th anniversary of the Van Ness, Cleveland Park and Woodley Park-Zoo Metro stations’ opening ceremonies, and Monday, December 6th will mark 40 years since the stations opened for regular service.
The stations’ opening was years in the making. And while the construction of these Red Line Metro stations certainly took time, so did the process of naming them.
The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority found early on that the names chosen for new stations were often controversial. In August 1971, Metro decided to deal with this problem by asking people to mail suggestions for station names to its office at L’Enfant Plaza. Names had to be geographical and were to be “derived from that of a city, community, neighborhood, square, circle, Metro-intersecting street, etc., or from a center of activity such as a school, stadium, park, hospital, airport, shopping center, government installation, etc… [The name] should be distinctive and evoke imagery in the mind of the patron… and should be relatively brief because only 19 letters and spaces will fit on the pylons at most stops.”
This appeal for suggestions from riders elicited an interesting response from our nearby community. Someone, nameless, suggested that our future stop be named Soapstone. A sentimental choice, certainly, but not a name widely recognized outside of our immediate neighborhood. Shari Barton, a past president of the Forest Hills Citizens Association, remembered being told that Forest Hills would be the name of the station.
From a careful reading of Metro’s naming policy it seems Van Ness, being a longer and better known street than Veazey Terrace, and being easier to find on a map than Forest Hills, became the WMATA board’s choice. Besides, Van Ness Centre was the name of the new local mall that opened atop the future station’s location in 1967.
By the end of October 1971, the Metro board had approved the names of 72 stations, with one slight change for the Van Ness stop. At the request of Deputy Mayor Graham Watt, the stop would be called Van Ness/WTI for Washington Technical Institute, one of UDC’s predecessors. This change was most likely a result of a letter from Cleveland Dennard, the president of WTI, and an architect of the Van Ness we know today. Dennard wrote to Mathew Platt, the assistant planning director of WMATA, to request that the Van Ness station be called Institute/Van Ness.
In January 1973, Metro sent out a press release referring to the station as Van Ness-WTI.
The release said the station entrances would be located at Connecticut Avenue and Veazey Terrace, and Metro projected that 24,000 people would be using the station each day by 1990. Perhaps it should be noted here that average weekday usage in 1991 was 7,657. In 2017 it was 5,557.
Washington Technical Institute merged with Federal City College and DC Teachers College in 1977 to form the University of the District of Columbia, or UDC, and that was the abbreviation appended to the new station when it opened on December 5th, 1981.
The station’s name could conceivably change again. For example, Metro’s board has repeatedly discussed – and rejected – proposals to sell naming rights to the stations. A resolution from July 2012 states that WMATA will “continue current practice of not selling commercial naming rights.” But the board keeps returning to the idea. The funds raised from corporations buying the rights to put their names on stations would be a relatively painless way (as opposed to raising fares and eliminating bus lines) to help temporarily solve the financial problems of the system. When it came up again in 2017, Greater Greater Washington contributors raised concerns and also made fun of the notion. They created an alternate Metro map dubbing the Van Ness station Van Nestle-UDC.
When Metro floated the idea in 2019, selling naming rights had General Manager Paul Wiedefeld’s support. Certainly other cities subway systems have sold naming rights: see New York and Philadelphia. It’s a major change in policy, however, that the Metro board just can’t seem to finalize.
Beyond naming rights, communities can suggest new names that better reflect changes in their identities. Just look further up the Red Line, where the White Flint station’s name is a relic of a former shopping mall. In May 2021, the Montgomery County executive requested that WMATA change the name to North Bethesda Station.
What name would you choose for Van Ness-UDC today?
Sources not linked or cited above include:
Barnes, Fred. “A Subway Station Named ‘Asphyxia’?” Evening Star, August 30, 1971, 21.
Barnes, Fred. “Subway Name Game Boils,” Evening Star, August 8, 1971, 3.
Eisen, Jack. “Marine Corps Loses Battle Over Metro Station Name,” Washington Post, October 29, 1971, C3.
Eisen, Jack. “Metro Board Prepares to Name Its 82 Stations,” Washington Post, August 10, 1971, C2.
“Forest Hill [sic] Citizens Discuss Issues,” Uptown Citizen, January 4, 1973, 1, 10.
Winstel, Jeff, Architectural Historian, WMATA/METRO. Email to author, dated January 16, 2020.