House Numbering and Street Naming Systems

By G. H. Herrold, Managing Director, St. Paul City Planning Board
The purpose of naming or numbering streets and designating houses by numbers is to facilitate locating them. In small communities this is not so necessary, although even then desirable. For instance, in a small town it is possible to direct one somewhat as follows:

"It is the house with a cupola, on the right hand side, four blocks from the post office on Main Street." The complexity of modern life, new means of transportation, the great number of utilities serving practically every house, delivery systems, paper routes, etc., make definite means of location imperative.

A telephone company can by the name of an exchange and number, or with the automatic system by a number alone, designate any building within the city. If such a system was used your address might be 96210 St. Paul. The Register of Deeds or Recorder's Office can by name of additions, lot and block numbers designate the location of any real property within the city; these methods are not simple enough for everyday use.
The Post Office Department now requires before establishment of a free delivery service that a town provide itself with street names, street signs, and house numbers. This is done to facilitate the work of the letter carriers, for in order to make a distribution of mail the letter carriers must while still at the office arrange their mail in the order in which their patrons reside on their routes. Grocery delivery routes are made up in the same way. It is, therefore, necessary that there be no duplication of names and that houses be numbered in some logical sequence and that streets be named in some order that their location may be at once determined.

In the matter of house numbering, a centesimal system is generally recognized as being the best, as the numbers are then not only in sequence but they change from 100 to 200 and 200 to 300, etc., at every block corner or at least at certain designated streets. In order to carry out a numbering system there must be some starting point or base line.

The most simple way of doing this would be to select the north or south City Limits line for the base line to start the numbering system for north and south streets and the east or west City Limits line as the base line for starting the numbering on east and west streets. The use of the City Limits line for base lines, however, can only be used when there is no possibility of an extension of the City Limits in that direction, otherwise, in time the house numbering system would have to be revised to a new base line, but this is the simplest system because in designating a given location you would simply say, "2624 Western Avenue," without any prefixes or suffixes to indicate any particular part of the town. One of the objections to this system is that if the business center was about the center of the area then the numbers are high in the business district, but this is probably only a notion and there is no basic objection to this.
One of the common methods used by cities is to take some central point in the business district and pass two base lines through this point and designate the streets and avenues in each quadrant formed by these two base lines as N.W.; N.E.; S.W., etc., but if any mistake is made in the address, then there is no means of telling within which quadrant the address was intended. The city of Washington, D.C., has a system of this kind but citizens admit that the system would be intolerable if it was not for the fact that the larger part of the city lies in the northwest quadrant and they always assume that that simpler method would be to give a name to each quadrant as a borough. It would be difficult to confuse or interchange two names but easy to confuse the letters N.W., N.E., S.W., etc.

For instance, if the district or borough was given the name of "Como," then an address would read -

Mr. John Doe,
2617 Minnehaha Ave., Como,
St. Paul, Minn.
or these districts, boroughs or quadrants might be given numbers, the N.W. quadrant being called No. 1, the N.E. quadrant No. 2, the S.E. quadrant No. 3 and the S. W. quadrant No. 4, and these numbers would appear on every house number indicating in which quadrant the house was located. For instance, if your house number was 2251 Hudson Avenue and it was in the N.E. or No. 2 district, your number would be 22251 Hudson Avenue, the first number always indicating the district.

In any street naming scheme the very first principle to adopt is that streets running in one direction should be called "avenues" and those running at right angles thereto "streets," and all diagonal thoroughfares "roads." Short or disconnected streets, parallel with avenues, should be called "courts" and when parallel with streets “places." Curved streets or those having both an east and west and north and south and diagonal direction should be called "drives." This at once simplifies the problem. A further simplification would be to number all streets running in one direction and name all streets running at right angles thereto and this would be especially true if the named streets were alphabetically arranged. For instance, the letters of the alphabet might be used for the named streets like "A" Street, "B" Street, "C" Street, etc.; when the entire alphabet was used begin over again using in alphabetical arrangement the name of trees as "Ash Street," "Beech Street," "Cedar Street," etc. When this system is exhausted begin again using in alphabetical order the names of places as "Albany Street," "Baltimore Street," Cincinnati Street," etc., and this plan could be carried on indefinitely.
Where cities are laid out rectangular and streets run on section or quarter sections as they do in many places another method would be to call the east and west streets one mile apart "numbered" avenues, and north and south streets one mile apart "Numbered" streets. Assign one thousand numbers to each mile and you would then have for instance, 10th Ave., 20th Ave., 30th Ave., each one mile apart and 10th St., 20th St. and 30th St., each one mile apart crossing the avenues. These numbered streets and numbered avenues would serve to fix the mind in determining locations and the starting point for each series of one thousand house numbers. The intermediate streets and avenues would then be named. All streets between 1st Ave. and 10th Ave. beginning with the letter "a" and all streets between 10th Ave. and 20th Ave. beginning with the letter "B," etc; this provides a system that might be easily adopted. In many cities there are a great many different sizes of blocks and it would be difficult to assign one hundred numbers to a block. The mile is simply a large block and provides a little more flexible method for keeping the numbers in proper alignment. In numbering diagonal roads the mistake should not be made of running the numbers independently, they must check up with the numbers on east and west or north and south streets so that at 20th Ave., for instance, the number on the cross street and the number on the diagonal would be 2001. The plan of using odd numbers on one side of the street and even on the other facilitates finding an address, for it is known at once on which side of the street to look for it. If this had not become such an established custom there are other uses of odd and even numbers that would be more valuable. For instance, if all the houses in the eastern part of the city were even numbers and all in the western part of the city odd numbers the general location would be indicated instantly and provide a check on other indications.
In any scheme adopted it must be remembered that simplification is the first thing to be considered, for that town is greatly blessed that has a system of street naming and house numbering which is quickly grasped by the new citizen or visitor, and it is one of the greatest assets to have a simple system. After adopting a system, it is also wise to put in a complete sign system as this is of great assistance to everyone. The gas company, the electric company, the water department, in fact all utilities and many departments of city government carry their records by house numbers, and where a city is contemplating changing these records should be taken into consideration. When adopting a street nomenclature and house numbering system greater care should be taken than is ordinarily done to devise a system which will fit the topography and layout of the town. Be as simple as possible and thus avoid the necessity of changing the system after thousands of records have once based upon it. The name of a street has a sentimental, financial, and historical value which increases rather than diminishes with time. It is a privilege to live in a community where the streets are well named and the houses properly numbered.