In the early days of the pandemic, I went on a quixotic quest to walk every one of the 1,114 blocks in my Arlington, Virginia, ZIP code, cataloging the styles of the address numbers on every house along the way. Not only did I learn a lot about how my neighborhood has evolved over the years and is changing even now, I also got to see some really spectacular and creative home design.
I would say that 99 percent of the house numbers I observed were what I would describe as “normal house number size”: three or four inches tall, visible from the sidewalk but not particularly notable. There were exceptions, though, and the largest house numbers in my ZIP code were on a house on Military Road. (You can see them on the right in this image.)
Of course, I have kept an eye on the house numbers in Arlington ever since, and imagine my joy this spring when suddenly, on a street I biked down every week, a new set of enormous house numbers appeared. A 5, two zeros and a 6, so large that you could see them from space, so bright and silly that my heart sang every time I rode past them. They were by far the biggest house numbers I’d ever seen, much bigger than the ones on Military Road. I had to find out who had put these positively gigantic house numbers up, and why, so one morning I rang the doorbell. No one was home, so I left a note on their door.
On Friday afternoon, my phone rang, and on the other end of the line was the delightful Caryn Wagner. “My husband found your note,” she said. “What would you like to know?” Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dan Kois: I consider myself an aficionado of house numbers, and yours are the biggest I’ve ever seen. Why did you choose these truly giant house numbers?
Caryn Wagner: It all started when we first moved in. It’s a 1951 brick rambler, and we made some changes over the years, and one of the changes was we added a bay window to the master bedroom. That’s the window over the garage.
When did you move in?
Hmmm … in 1996, I think. [Indistinct yelling from the background] My husband’s yelling, “1999.”
So you added the bay window …
Yes, and it had the circular window above it, but it didn’t have anything on the bottom to balance it out. And every time after that, when I looked at that wall, it looked out of balance. I felt like I needed something over the garage to balance it. I thought maybe a piece of art? I had a crappy Tuesday Morning sun hanging there for a while.
So recently I decided to paint the window trim and the garage door these bright colors to brighten things up. Like you, I’ve been walking around, looking at other people’s houses, taking inspiration from what they do. I’ve always loved those Frank Lloyd Wright kind of numbers, that Arts & Crafts style. That’s what they are, although they’re so big you sort of lose that part. They maybe didn’t quite have to be that big.
How did you find them?
I went online and looked up “large house numbers.”
You simply Googled “large house numbers”?
That’s exactly what I did. And I found this company, Woodland Manufacturing—you tell them how big to make them. I went out and measured and thought, Well, I think I can get some really big numbers. The four digits will go across the garage, and they’ll give the house a little bit of a quirky punch, and then I won’t have to tell the Uber driver where my house is.
That’s been a problem?
Oh yeah. “We’re on your left, but there’s no defining characteristic, it looks like all the other houses.”
How tall are they actually? I thought they were at least a foot and a half.
They’re 2 feet tall.
Have you gotten reactions?
Oh, yes. Now I will say that the paint colors did not turn out exactly as I hoped. The overall look is “the circus came to town.” But the numbers have been a huge hit. People take pictures; people stop and talk to me. I’ve become a kind of mini-celebrity on Yorktown Boulevard. So when you left the note on our door, my husband found it and said, “Caryn, now a reporter wants to talk to you about the numbers.”
You say that you were thinking about putting up artwork, but I think you sort of did.
It is, I think it is kind of a utilitarian piece of art.
Last year when I was walking around I noticed a lot of people were upgrading their house numbers, because the pandemic was causing them to order way more things online and have them delivered to their house, and delivery people couldn’t find them.
Oh sure, like, “Amazon, here!” The other thing about Yorktown Boulevard, for some reason the house numbers go up by six every house. Our neighbors are 5000 and 5012, and you can’t see that many of the house numbers, and you can go pretty far past our house before you figure out the numbering system.
Are you a design person, someone who looks for visual harmony? In work and in life?
In my life, yes, and I can carry it to extremes. My friends say, Caryn, things can be a little too symmetrical. I’m the person who straightens the pictures in hotel rooms.
But not for work? What do you do?
I am retired. I was a government employee, and I worked in the intelligence community.
Really? Your house numbers are awfully big and visible for someone in intelligence.
I was never undercover. I’m an open book!
We changed our house numbers, too, to something sort of big and loud, and some of our friends thought it was a lot. Do you ever think, “This is a lot”?
No. The colors are more of a problem for me than the numbers. I had this vision in my mind, but I picked the wrong blue [trim]. I’m going to have it repainted, to make it darker, more marine, a navy kind of blue.
But you know what, these houses on Yorktown, they’re great houses, I love them, but there’s not a lot of curb appeal. I was looking for a way to give it a little personality. I go in and out of my house every day, and I see my great big numbers, and that makes me happy.