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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

Atlantic_Heights Neighborhood map from 1918 / Portsmouth, NH

Won’t you be my neighbor?

The Heights today looks much as it did in its original 1918 architectural sketches and is now officially on the National Register of Historic Places. 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 some of the key roads, adding sidewalks and granite curbing.

Former resident Donald Hersey, a retired postman, recalls the changes he witnessed after moving to Atlantic Heights as a boy in 1941. Like many residents, he owned a number of homes in the neighborhood, inching his way over 50 years toward one of the coveted water side homes that looks across the river to the boat yard in Eliot, Maine. Hersey recalled being taunted as a “Height’s Kid” when he was in high school.

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

The Atlantic Heights Neighborhood Association now meets regular to hash out local issues. They sponsor holiday block parties, yard sales and a well-attended 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 Facebook page 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. If a skunk or coyote is on the prowl, neighbors know.

“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 over 80 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.

Now retired, historian Candee notes that the inherent neighborliness of today’s residents 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. 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 Archives, 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. No one back then envisioned two-car families, wide-screen TVs, kitchen islands, or large plush sofas. While a few homes have seen extensive additions in recent years, most sit on a footprint too small for growth.

CONTINUE Atlantic Heights low-income houseing


Gentrified but much the same

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. In an emergency, there is only one road out. The control towers of massive tankers glide along the water off Crescent Way like houses moving in the background.  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 prices and property taxes are out of reach for many.

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

Marion Fritz, 88, 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.

“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, but the number of owner-occupied units is increasing.

Clearly the neighborhood is gentrified.  New and longtime members of the community still enjoy trading tales of changing prices. The 1925 sales poster shows that units were then renting for as low as $6 per month. Today that figure hovers over $1,000. Don Hersey remembers when a local developer bought four run-down Atlantic Heights duplexes for a total of $8,800 in the 1980s.  A decade ago Atlantic Heights properties were selling for under $100,000. Today that figure has doubled and sometimes tripled, bringing fear of overwhelming property taxes to elderly and low-income residents.

Don Hersey, who lived in four Atlantic Heights homes before retiring to Florida, 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 reminds us that -- he who laughs last, laughs best.


Copyright © 2012 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site He is the author of 11 books including UNDER THE ISLES OF SHOALS and AMERICA’S PRIVATEER: He lives in Atlantic Heights with his wife Maryellen Burke.

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