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Atlantic Heights WWI Shipbuilder Neighborhood Story Told in Book

Atlatnci_Heights from 1925 posterHISTORY MATTERS

Not many low-rent neighborhoods are designed by high-minded architects. And few get to be the topic of an entire book. But back in 1985 Prof. Richard Candee of Boston University saw something special about “The Heights” of Portsmouth. So did many others and the book was soon out of print. Last week the only two used copies of Candee’s book on were being offered to collectors for $305.52 and $450.70 respectively. (Continued below)


Don’t worry, you can get it cheaper. This month, finally, Atlantic Heights: A World War I Shipbuilder’s Community has been re-released by the Portsmouth Marine Society Press. The paperback edition sells for $20. And with it comes a chance to tell this unique story all over again.


A limited number of copies of Prof. Richard M. Candee’s reprinted Atlantic Heights: A World War I Shipbuilder’s Community will be available for sale at Discover Portsmouth, 10 Middle Street, Portsmouth, NH.  Call for holiday shopping house: 603-436-8433 and for further information to reserve your copy of the book.

An English village setting

Atlantic_Heights_CovIt 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.”

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. Named for a famous Portsmouth ship built in the Civil War, Kearsage leads to a cluster of roads named for other locally-built ships – Ranger, Porpoise, Raleigh, Preble, Falkland, Congress, Crescent, 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.

That 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, the progressive 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 raging, the federal government needed lots of large new freighters built quickly. The Atlantic Corporation, located in an old paper factory on the Piscataqua River, received a lucrative contract to construct steel ships for Uncle Sam. The new company needed scores of skilled workers quickly, and Atlantic Heights was created to house them.

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. But the war ended suddenly and The Atlantic Corporation closed quickly thereafter. The entire government-owned housing complex was sold a few years later in a two-day auction. A colorful poster picturing Atlantic Heights 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 on their house at six percent interest. Most renters could not meet those stringent terms, 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.

CONTINUE First Federal Housing History

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Monday, January 22, 2018 
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