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Atlantic Heights WWI Shipbuilder Neighborhood Story Told in Book

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

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Wednesday, November 22, 2017 
 
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