My own moment of typographical double-think, the equivalent of Jasper Johns’s trick of stencilling names of colors onto his canvasses in paint of a different color: to look up from my copy of Against the Day, out the window of the subway car at a stop on the Orange Line in Arlington, only to see Clarendon rendered in bold Helvetica.

More Metro

Although Zachary Schrag’s book doesn’t address the considerations that went into Metro having only tracks for local service (as opposed to, say, a third track for skip-stop service), it does remind us of the simple, descriptive, efficient names that architect Harry Weese and general manager Jackson Graham (ex-Army Corps of Engineers) intended for the stations:

a. Some names come naturally: Rosslyn, Pentagon, DuPont Circle [sic], Bethesda, Prince Georges Plaza.

b. Others indicate location by at least one coordinate: Backlick Road, Monroe Avenue, Georgia Avenue, Suitland Parkway.

c. We have used, where possible, traditional and/or colorful words (Foggy Bottom, Navy Yard) rather than mechanical terms (23rd and I St., N.W., 3rd and M, S.W.)

d. We have limited names to two words, preferably only one.

(Graham to Board, 8 January 1969, quoted in Schrag, pp. 255-256)

Schrag says that WMATA’s original policy, upheld for many years, was to limit station names to nineteen letters and spaces, thirteen for transfer stations. O tempora! O mores! Now we have capriciously punctuated mouthfuls like U St/African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo and Vienna-Fairfax/GMU. Yeah, George Mason University is walking distance from the station, if you’ve got half an hour.

Schrag also tells a story almost too good to be true about how the big downtown transfer station got its name, the one that outlanders insist on calling just “Metro.”

…planner William Herman complained that the system’s main transfer station was badly named. He argued that “12th and G” was both confusing (several entrances would be on other streets) and too undistinguished for so important a station. Ever reasonable, Graham agreed to let Herman choose a better name. “I’ll let you know,” responded a relieved Herman. “No,” Graham explained, “I’ll give you twenty seconds.” Stunned, Herman blurted out the first words that came into his head: “Metro Center.” “Fine, that’s it, go on to the next one,” replied the general. And they did. (Schrag, p. 153)

Less is more?

Via DCist, another organization dedicated to linking Montgomery and P.G. County suburbs with light rail. See also the Inner Purple Line. My predeliction is for heavy rail, but I look at the twisty alignments that are being discussed, and I consider the graceful, older neighborhoods involved, and I begin to think that light rail is the better choice.

Compare the Anacostia light rail project in the District, for which ground has been broken (but, disturbingly, with little progress to report since 2004), and the Columbia Pike initiative in Arlington, in the planning stages.

At least they didn’t specify marble

If you’ve ever wondered why all the underground stations of Metro look so much alike, and why you can’t just glance out the window and find where you are from the color of the posts (as in Chicago, for instance), you have the Commission of Fine Arts to thank, in part. The CFA had oversight over Harry Weese’s station designs, and reviewed them at critical points in 1967, according to Zachary M. Schrag’s excellent The Great Society Subway: A History of the Washington Metro. Certain members of the CFA, among them architecture critic Aline Saarinen, admitted that they had little experience with underground transit—she took hired cars in New York—and yet she said, “I don’t really believe if I’m on a subway I come to and say, ‘Oh, that’s the blue station; I’ve got to get off here.'” (Schrag, p. 91)

Of course, our out-of-town visitors sometimes take the Red Line/Orange Line/etc. designations too literally, and wonder why the stations aren’t the same color as the line designation, instead of their impressive and uniform concrete gray, brick red tile, and granite.