Workers' Paradise:
The Forgotten Communities of World War I


-- the housing of workers will have a potent influence upon the housing of the workingman in this country for many years to come. – Lawrence Veiller, Architectural Record, April, 1918.

After the United States declared war on Germany in April, 1917 a federal agency was created to build housing for workers near war-related industries and shipyards. The United States Housing Corporation (USHC), was formed for this purpose. This agency designed and planned over 80 new housing projects within a period of two years. Although some were small and consisted of a few dozen dwellings, others were larger and approached the dimensions of new towns. For example, Cradock in Norfolk Virginia was designed on a 310 acre site with over 800 detached houses. Mare Island, in San Francisco Bay had 231 detached and 200 semidetached houses, schools, community centers and stores on a 52-acre site.

These housing projects far exceeded in design and planning any immediate needs brought on by the housing shortage. The architects, planners, and engineers involved were equally as interested in developing housing as in developing ideas that heretofore had been only subjects of theoretical debate. These ideas developed into concrete proposals about town planning, housing, and social construction, as well as decentralization of the industrial city, promotion of regionalism, infusion of nature into everyday life, and enriching of culture though the improvement of habitat conditions of the working class. Ultimately it was the success of these projects that inspired many American designers to examine new ideas about town planning, housing standards, and the government's involvement in housing well after the war was over.

USHC not only planned and built new communities, but it also published booklets on design principles and standards for neighborhood planning. Presumably this is the first time an agency of the Federal Government reviewed and adopted standards and norms for development. These guidelines and standards became the most comprehensive manual on town planning and housing standards in existence in the United States at that time. It covered a broad range of topics from large scale site planning down to the design of individual houses and street lamps. Clearly these documents and built projects provided a prescription for an ideal model of community planning and mass housing.

This Agency is also important because it employed many of the first city planners and landscape architects who later became the leading town planners throughout the country. Renowned individuals such as Henry Wright, Clarence Stein and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. were among the 120 professionals employed by USHC. This unique group of reformers, who had successfully won recognition for their profession, was posed at the end of the war to establish the country’s leading urban planning institutions. In 1923, for example, many of the architects and planners who had worked for USHC during the war formed the Regional Plan Association of America (RPAA), which was responsible for both the spread of the Garden City Movement and the building of model developments across the country.

Surprisingly, scant literature can be found on the impact that these projects and the USHC had on the design and spatial planning of neighborhoods and cities in the United States. At present no analysis or detailed study of the engineering and architectural documentation exists. (The only document summarizing the Agency’s work is a report published by the USHC in 1919.) No literature tracks the initial programming of these communities, their growth to maturity and their social narrative. Most importantly no documentation and records exist of these communities in their current condition. In fact, many cities and town public officials as well as current residents are totally unaware of the historical narrative and significance of these neighborhoods in their communities.