WWII Veterans’ Housing in West Ridge, 1946–1947

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #13 in April 2013]

In September 1946, the Chicago Daily Tribune printed an article announcing plans for a 92-unit development intended for WWII veterans on 3.6 acres on Ridge Avenue, north of Devon. At the time this was a sparsely developed area, dotted with the single-family frame houses and small truck farms that epitomized the early character of West Ridge.

The architect was listed as Edwin H. Mittelbusher of Howard T. Fisher & Associates, Inc. Mittelbusher served as the Assistant Chief Architect for the Chicago office of the Federal Housing Administration from 1940 to 1945. Howard Fisher was the founder of General Housing, Inc. and pioneered the development of prefabricated housing. He served as director of the Development Board of Industrial Housing for the National Housing Agency in 1946–1947 (1). In short, this development was designed by people skilled at working within a bureaucracy.

The project itself consists of eight two-story brick veneer buildings with hipped roofs arranged around green inner courts. The outer courts accommodate parking areas. The buildings are a restrained version of the Colonial Revival, with modern touches such as concrete sun shades on the first floor corners and entrance stairs illuminated with large glass-block windows. They were constructed as a combination of four- and five-room rentals. This project was initiated under the Veteran’s Emergency Housing Program  (VEHP, established in May 1946), but between the time these buildings were planned and when they were completed, the VEHP became functionally obsolete.

The Veterans Emergency Housing Program was developed and proposed by Wilson Wyatt , former mayor of Louisville, Kentucky, at the direction of President Truman. The initial goal was to create 2.7 million housing units to serve veterans, many of whom returned to crowded conditions and shared housing. To accomplish this, wartime price and wage controls were to be maintained and priority was given to housing development through a series of federal directives. These included curtailing commercial and industrial construction, channeling available building supplies to projects that could be sold or rented affordably, providing technical assistance in developing plans and specifications for new housing, directing government surplus to approved housing projects, and providing premium payments to industries that substantially increased their production of building materials. This was designed as a program of priority and production assistance to the private builder and materials producer rather than direct government control of the production of new housing. Although there was broad public support for this program, private industry chafed under what they viewed as an extension of wartime austerity (3).

Six months later, Republicans took control of Congress and eliminated economic controls, resulting in a sharp increase in costs in response to pent-up demands and limited supply. The program had been responsible for over 1 million housing starts in 1946, but many stood half-constructed because of shortages of building materials. Much of these materials went to supply commercial and industrial expansions, which had greater profit margins. Soon a unit that would have sold for $6,000 in 1945 was priced at $8,000. Many veterans were marrying and starting families; rather than buy a house at an inflated price, many chose to find rental housing (4). The buildings in West Ridge reflect this situation.

The construction of two brick buildings between Farwell  and Morse  was also advertised in the Daily Tribune  in November of 1946. The architects and builders, Charles and Arthur Schreiber, established their firm in 1938 and later went on to design many modernist structures in the Southwest (6).  These four- and five-room rentals were intended to accommodate 74 veteran families. They are similar to earlier courtyard buildings in the neighborhood, but with large sunken courts and parking along the alley. The restrained details, portal windows, and limestone door surrounds suggest the Modern style, which lent itself to construction on a budget.

In February 1947 the Daily Tribune  published an article about these three buildings, which were constructed as cooperative housing for veterans and designed by architect Clarence Johnson. They’re traditional in form and ornamentation, including decorative entrances, corner quoins, water tables, and limestone details. These are located on wide lots but are quite shallow because of the cemetery immediately to the west. The cooperative ownership structure is unusual; the article informs readers that this is one of Chicago’s first cooperative apartment buildings developed under the GI Bill  (cooperative ownership had first been introduced to Chicago in the 1920s). Titles to these buildings were conveyed to a corporation, and each buyer purchased shares of that corporation. Cooperative ownership was (and is) rare in Chicago, and has been largely eclipsed by condominium ownership. Of the three building projects examined here, this is the only one that wasn’t intended as a straight rental property. This is not a comprehensive look at veterans’ housing in Chicago (or even in West Ridge), but does provide some examples of the types of development that were feasible immediately following WWII. This era set the stage for the suburban explosion of the 1950s, when affordable single-family homes became widely available, fundamentally changing the character of the American landscape. ◊


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