Atlantic Heights was Architecture for the Poor
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Written by J. Dennis Robinson

Uncle Sam sells Atlantic Heights in NH in 1925/ SeacoastNH.com ? 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 / SeacoastNH.com 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."

CONTINUE with ATLANTIC HEIGHTS history 

FIREST FEDERAL HOUSING PROJECT (continued)

The Atlantic Heights Neighborhood Association meets bimonthly to hash out local issues. They sponsor holiday block parties, a heavily attended annual yard sale and a pocket garden tour. Members exchange information on the best home repair vendors, lobby for group heating oil discounts and host political discussions with local candidates. The association has its own web site, a newsletter and an email "list serve". If a car is seen moving dangerously fast through the neighborhood streets, one Heights resident notes, 60 people will know instantly via the Internet and the offender’s license plate number turned over to the police.

Architect design Atlantic Heights, NH 1919 / SeacoastNH.com courtesy Richard Candee"You can’t buy what this neighborhood offers," one homeowner says. "We have every kind of diversity – ethnic, sexual, social, economic, age. I am friends with a woman who has lived in Atlantic Heights for 78 years."

The brick village layout is repetitive, but not stark. The streets conform to the curve of the land and, although the houses are alike, no street or grouping is identical. Six distinct house styles are disbursed around the neighborhood, incorporating architectural details borrowed from historic colonial homes of Portsmouth. Each unit has its own postage-stamp lawn with a public entrance and a private area at the back in the English garden style.

Boston University professor emeritus Richard Candee has written an entire book about Atlantic Heights. Its inherent neighborliness, he says, proves that the progressive designers at the turn of the last century knew what they were doing. Under the guise of a war emergency during Democrat Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, Candee explains, a group of social reformers were able to rapidly envision, fund and build the village.

"They are beautifully designed as a landscape," says Candee, an architectural historian, "and extremely well built. This is when they really knew how to build. The homes are in solid shape and that has kept this from being a tear-down neighborhood."

"The Heights" is not for everyone. Most units, with two rooms up and two rooms down, are no larger than a city apartment. The original architect’s notes, now in the National Archive, Candee says, suggested that the living rooms should accommodate no more furniture than the family could haul in a small pickup truck. Larger rooms, the designers concluded, would make the homes attractive to middle-class families who would then buy them out from under their blue collar occupants.

Today Atlantic Heights is still a working-class neighborhood, wedged among an electric power plant, a gypsum factory, the perpetually singing Interstate and a fuel storage depot. The control towers of massive tankers glide along the water off Crescent Way like moving houses. Even with converted attics and cellars, "The Heights" seems most attractive to singles, childless couples, very small families and "empty nesters". For them, it is the affordable way to settle down within view of the historic and artistic Port City nearby where real estate rates are out of reach for many.

"It’s a real house that’s apartment sized," Candee says.

Marion Fritz, 80, recalls that Atlantic Heights had the same effect on young home-buyers in the post-War "Baby Boom" generation. She raised three children here and is forever loyal to the little brick village, and is active today in the Neighborhood Association.

Artist rendering Atlantic Heights door design, Portsmouth, NH / SeacoastNH.com courtesy Richard Candee"After the War we paid $26.50 rent a month which was what my husband was making at the shipyard in 1945. I don’t know how we got by, but we did," Fritz says. "It was an ideal spot to raise children. We weren’t professionals. None of us were rich up here, but everybody kept their house nice. I never felt that I was a second-class citizen."

Back then, Fritz says, all the children attended the Atlantic Heights school, now converted to elderly housing. There were three little corner stores built into people’s homes. There was a barbershop, a yarn shop, a saw-sharpening barn and a pharmacy and a church. Everybody fished down by the river where locals kept a small wharf and a little beach for swimming in between the dangerous fast-flowing tides.

Most longtime residents agree that Atlantic Heights hit its nadir in the 1970s and 80s when a new cluster of absentee landlords let their low- cost apartments run down. Abandoned cars piled up in a tight streetscape never designed to accommodate automobiles. "The Heights" gained a reputation as a hangout for drug sellers, but it was only "a few bad apples" neighbors say. Then as property became scarce and Portsmouth’s popularity revived, Atlantic Heights became one of the last affordable neighborhoods in town. Today "The Heights" is still 60 percent rentals, says Association co-chair Robin McIntosh, but the number of owner-occupied units is increasing.

New and longtime members of the community enjoy trading tales of changing prices. The 1925 sales poster shows that units were then renting for as low as $6 per month. One local renter is now paying a reported $1,800 a month, although apartments renting in the $1,000 a month range are more common. Don Hersey remembers when a local developer bought four run-down Atlantic Heights duplexes for a total of $8,800 in the 1980s. Just four years ago Atlantic Heights properties were selling for under $100,000. Today that figure has doubled and even tripled in some cases, bringing fear of overwhelming property taxes to elderly and low-income residents.

But no one is facing the future alone in "The Heights" anymore.

"There’s now a shared knowledge in the community," McIntosh says. "We are mobilized, and not just over negative things. We have a common voice. When one of the industrial companies on either side of us is planning something, they contact us, instead of waiting for us to notice what they are doing and react. It’s not just adversarial and we’re no longer just a hidden community."

Don Hersey has moved three times since high school, always owning homes within "The Heights". He says he knew, even when kids poked fun, that he came from one of Portsmouth’s coolest neighborhoods. Having seen his investment grow four thousand percent he feels secure that he who laughs last, laughs best.

Copyright © 2006 by J. Dennis Robinson. All rights reserved. Robinson is editor of SeacoastNH.com, a popular regional web site. He currently lives and works in Atlantic Heights where he shares a tiny brick house with his wife Maryellen, a small corgi and a small cat.

Atlantic Heights Neighborhood 1919 plan / SeacoastNH.com courtesy Richard Candee

 

By J. Dennis Robinson. Copyright SeacoastNH.com. All rights reserved.

A READER RESPONDS:

MEMORIES OF ATLANTIC HEIGHTS
SeacoastNH scores again! (“Atlantic Heights was Architecture for the Poor”) For a short while at the age of 10, I lived in Atlantic Heights on Concord Way.  We had moved from Columbia Street in Portsmouth. A classmate of my older sister lived on Kearsarge Way. I remember attending Atlantic Heights School in fifth grade, and ice skating on the school grounds.  There was a dip in the ground that was filled with water in the winter to form a skating rink.  I slipped on the ice while skating and caught quite a gash on my knee when I was clipped by another skater as I went down.  I also remember walking in the woods, looking at all the white birch trees, and checking out the high-tension power lines, the gypsum plant, and the tank farm. Thanks for more history of Atlantic Heights.
Robert Garland

EDITOR’S REPLY:  You might be interested to know that the skating area is still there and flooded each winter. The school is now housing for the elderly and the woods, I’m afraid, are all but gone – filled to the brim with more and more new housing units that match neither the charm or price of the original brick village. Be sure to search used books stores for the complete history of Atlantic Heights, a now out-of-print history of the heights by architectural historian Richard Candee.