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Atlantic Heights was Architecture for the Poor

Uncle Sam sells Atlantic Heights in NH in 1925/ ? art courtesy Kevin LafondLIVING IN THE SEACOAST

The brainstorm was to build affordable housing that low income workers actually liked. The result in 1919 was one of the first federally funded housing projects in the nation. When Uncle Sam sold off these "garden city" movement houses, poor renters were offered a deal. But things rarely go the way Uncle Sam plans.



It looks vaguely like an English village poised above the dark Piscataqua River, and with good reason. Atlantic Heights, a Portsmouth neighborhood of red brick dwellings, was supposed to break the mold of drab homes for working-class families. Designed in 1918 in just ten days, built in eight months, the nation’s first federally funded housing project was a bold experiment in community design. And the experiment is still bubbling.

"I remember we were coming across the I-95 bridge from Maine," Atlantic Heights homeowner Jacqueline Scarpetti recalls. "It was January and I looked down and saw this lovely little neighborhood. It sort of reminded me of Georgetown in Washington."

Atlantic Heights 1919 design sketch / courtesy Kevin Lafond

Only one road, Kearsage Way, leads to and from "The Heights" huddled beneath the towering Interstate halfway between the city’s bustling Market Square and the malls of Newington. Ken and Jacqueline Scarpetti did not find the inroad easily on their first visit. Kearsage Way, named for a famous Portsmouth ship built in the Civil War, leads to a cluster of roads named for other ships – Ranger, Porpoise, Raleigh, Preble, Falkland, Saratoga. Many lifetime Portsmouth residents have never seen the crisp rows of small homes created in the architectural style of the English Garden-City Movement.

Big Rock Park at Atlantic Heights toda, Portsmouth, NH / SeacoastNH.comThat design concept evolved from the work of English town planner Sir Ebenezer Howard, who imagined ideal self-sustaining villages adjacent to industrial work areas. Transplanted to America in the early 20th century, in a nutshell, the idea was to build entire communities of artistically pleasing low-income homes on peaceful open land. Poor workers, especially ethnic immigrants, the designers argued, would become happier, more patriotic American citizens, if they did not have to live in a crowded slum. With World War I approaching, the federal government needed lots of large new freighters built quickly. The Atlantic Corporation, located in an old paper factory on the river near Portsmouth, received a lucrative contract to construct ships for Uncle Sam. The new company needed scores of skilled workers quickly, and Atlantic Heights was born.

The original complex included 278 units in 150 detached, semi-detached and row houses with one to six families per building. There was also a series of worker dormitories, a brick store block, cafeteria and school. Workers walked en masse to the shipyard nearby, or traveled by trolley. The Atlantic Corporation closed quickly. The war ended suddenly, and the entire complex was sold a few years later in a two-day auction. A colorful poster from 1925 announced, "Uncle Sam is going out of the landlord business." Workers who could come up with 30 percent of the auctioned cost were allowed up to three years to pay the balance at six percent interest. Most could not, especially with the shipyard closed, and for decades a small cluster of landlords ruled "The Heights" under one central property manager who lived in the village.

The Heights, today, looks much as it did in its original 1918 architectural sketches. Unlike typical New Hampshire rural homes sitting in the center of a two-acre plot, Atlantic Heights residents live close, but not crowded lives. A few buildings were torn down to accommodate the Interstate. There are public tennis courts under the highway, a walking trail along the river and a top-notch baseball diamond. Using federal funds, the city has just rebuilt two small parks and modernized two key roads, adding sidewalks and granite curbing.

Donald Hersey, a retired postman, delights in the changes he has seen since he moved here in 1941. Like many residents, he has owned a number of homes in the neighborhood, inching his way over fifty years toward one of the coveted water side homes that looks across the river to the boat yard in Eliot, Maine. He recalls being taunted in high school for being a "Heights" kid.

"This was not a desirable place to live," he remembers. "We were definitely second-class citizens."


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Saturday, February 24, 2018 
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