By Gail Littlefield, HPC member / photo by George Paine ::
Hey, what’s the big deal about our street signs?
Did you know our brown wood street signs with white letters, on wood posts, found at intersections throughout the Town, are a rare and endangered species? Washington Grove is the only historic district in Montgomery County to have preserved its historic street signs (metal or wood), and the only one in the whole state of Maryland to have preserved its historic wood street signage. Wood street signs were features of camp meeting communities—former camp meeting communities of Zoar in Ohio and Pacific Grove in California have also maintained their very similar brown wood with white letters street signs.
Are you aware of any other examples, past or present?
The originals of these signs were first installed in the late 1930’s, as part of Washington Grove’s infrastructure upgrade as it transitioned from a camp meeting association to an incorporated Town. (See Phil Edwards’ Washington Grove history 1937-1977 at 39 and 159 for some pictures of 1940’s-50’s signs.) Our street signs are considered historic because they originated more than 50 years ago and have been replaced in kind ever since. They are historically significant because they tell the story of life in Washington Grove in its early days and contribute to its unique “sense of place.” They show that Washington Grove cares about preserving its unique landscape.
Historic buildings and structures in the Grove are rustic, rural, vernacular, and made of a natural material, wood, to blend in with the unique natural environment of our “Town within a forest.” This distinguishes us from our neighbor Oakmont, with its much more suburban feel. The sign system (around 150 individual signs) is an integral part of our historic rustic road, street, and avenue system. Visitors entering the Grove for the first time at Grove Road and Railroad Street know instantly as they pass a series of brown wood signs that this is no Gaithersburg subdivision—“What is this place?!”
After 1986, Town Maintenance Supervisor Jim Fletcher began a variation of the basic sign, replacing the flat white letters with routered ones. In the center of the signs, he painted a picture of a native plant or creature, with genus species name and common name. While this variation is not itself historic, since it did not exist 50 years ago, it contributes in the same way as the original signs to the historic and natural character of our town and our roadways.
The Federal Highway Administration has recognized the historic significance of street signs in historic districts, and has exempted their historic streets signs from the usual specifications for city street signs. It gives historic districts flexibility to provide effective navigational information to road users, while maintaining their historic street signs.
Town Council is currently considering proposals for reflective aluminum and for reflective wooden street signs. Mockups of samples of each will be mounted at Grove Road and Brown Street for your perusal.