Wartime Housing at Atchison Village
Atchison Village was entered into the National
Register of Historic Places on May 30, 2003.
History of Atchison Village Richmond, California by Thomas K. Butt, FAIA
On June 11, 1941, President Roosevelt approved funds for the erection of 450 units of housing for defense industry workers in Richmond, California, pursuant to the "Lanham Act." The Richmond Housing Authority was designated as the Agent of the Federal Works Administrator for the construction, having been chosen as the first Local Housing Authority in the United States to manage a defense project by the Division of Defense Housing.On October 30, 1941, Building permit #15777 was issued to the Richmond Housing Authority for a permit for the 450-unit Atchison Village (National Defense Project Cal. 4171-X) . On the same date, permit #15778 was issued to the Richmond Housing Authority for a permit of $290,000 for 100 units known as Atchison Village Annex.
The architects for Atchison Village were Carl I. Warnecke (father of Fred Warnecke, and grandfather of John Carl Warnecke) and Andrew T. Hass ; the structural engineer was R.J. Fisher and the mechanical engineer George E. Atkin. The architect for the Annex was Frederick H. Reimers. The construction contract for $1,490,877 awarded to Leo Epp of San Francisco on September 23, 1941. The order to proceed was issued October 16, 1941.
The property was purchased from the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad and was named "Atchison Village" in honor of its former president. It is situated east of and across Garrard Boulevard from the present Burlington Northern Santa Fe (formerly Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad) yards and the former depot. The combined site area is 56.63 acres with 15.4 per cent land coverage by buildings.
Atchison Village includes 97 one-story buildings containing 228 units and 65 two-story buildings containing 222 units. There is also a one-story administration building and park. The buildings are of five different designs, three of which are one-story buildings. The foundations are perimeter unreinforced concrete, 12 inches wide, with two rows of intermediate piers. The crawl spaces provide a 18-inch clearance, but the exterior grade appears to have been filled in after the foundations were set, resulting in drainage problems.
Atchison Village Annex has 50 one-story duplex buildings for a total of 100 units, each containing one, two or three bedrooms. The Annex buildings are of a lower standard of construction than the Village. The foundations are only piers and the framing undersized - 2 x 3 studs spaced 24 inches on center. Partitions and wall are "demountable" plywood. The Richmond Master Plan reported in 1950 that "permanent" public housing such as Atchison Village and Atchison Village Annex had "a structural life" of from forty to sixty years. After 60 years, Atchison Village in Richmond, California, continues to be a unique living laboratory for housing policy, planning, urban design - and historic preservation.
Built in 1941 by the U.S. government to house the vanguard of an influx of workers for the burgeoning Kaiser shipyards, the modest 450-unit complex was hailed at the time as a cutting-edge example of worker housing designed following the tenets of the "city beautiful" and "garden city" movements. Atchison Village, built across the street from the former location of the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad depot and yards, was designed with winding streets, spacious yards, simple one and two story wood duplexes and fourplexes and a community center and park.
Nearly thirty years ago, A Guide to Architecture in San Francisco and Northern California (Gebhard, 1973) described Atchison Village: This World War II housing project offers an object lesson in the meaning of housing quality. It demonstrates that environmental concern and tender, loving care can make the difference between decent housing and a slum.
In 1940, Henry Kaiser started building lend-lease liberty ships in Richmond, and by the time WW II had ended 5 years later, Richmond was truly an "Arsenal of Democracy," having hosted 53 defense industries, including the largest and most productive shipyards on earth. Because of its role in the shipyard buildup, Atchison Village is now an ancillary site in America's newest national park, the Rosie the Riveter WW II Home Front National Historic Park. There was also a downside to the shipyard era. When the war ended, tens of thousands were left jobless, and Richmond entered an economic decline that lasted nearly fifty years. Particularly hard hit were African Americans who had been recruited from the South to fill the critical manpower shortages. Racial discrimination made it difficult to compete for jobs with returning G.I.'s. Atchison Village happened to be in one of the older neighborhoods that slipped into poverty and crime. Atchison Village remained, however, an example of what pride and good design can achieve.
In 1956, the government sold the complex to its residents for $1.5 million, and it became one of the first housing cooperatives in California. The Atchison Village Mutual Homes Corp. allowed the new owners to purchase their homes for as little as $273. Today, the purchase price of a unit ranges from $20,000 to $70,000, with monthly fees ranging from $169 to $186.
Last year, the West County Times called it "an unbelievably inexpensive island in a sea of soaring East Bay home prices." Inspired by the defensible space philosophy of Oscar Newman, the City of Richmond Planning Department proposed a pilot program in 1995 with the goals of reducing crime, increasing neighborhood pride, improving properties and property values, promoting interaction among neighbors, and reducing transient vehicle traffic while encouraging pedestrian and bicycle traffic. Accompanying these goals was a monitoring plan to measure crime reduction as well as any adverse impact on public safety and public services. To bolster the legality of the plan, the City Council adopted a resolution in 1996 that cited as authority Section 21101 of the California Vehicle Code, described consistency with the General Plan, and set forth procedures for implementation of traffic barriers and diverters. Atchison Village was selected as the first pilot project because it was a coherent neighborhood with an existing organizational fabric, and it happened to be in one of Richmond's highest crime areas. It has three entrances that connect it to the surrounding street grid. The proposal was to install gates at two of the three entrances to allow access by pedestrians and bicycle riders, but not motor vehicles. After extensive public outreach, nearly half of the residents cast ballots on the proposal. It was not without controversy with several bitter opponents. However, 71 per cent voted in favor of gating, in concept, and 52 per cent in favor specifically of gating two of the three entrances.
In November of 1998, two entrance roadways were fitted with attractive steel gates. In accordance with the prescribed monitoring plan, statistics were carefully compiled before and after implementation. Comparing the one-year period before the gates were installed with the one-year period after installation, extraordinary reductions in crime occurred.
Although Richmond, like most American cities, has experienced a continual decrease in crime over the last decade, the almost instantaneous decrease in and around Atchison Village far outstripped decreases citywide during the same period. The only downside effect appears to be an inverse effect on vehicle traffic outside the gates. Average speed in the adjacent neighborhood increased 14 per cent; average maximum speed increased 8 per cent and total vehicle traffic increased 44 per cent. There is speculation that this may subside when the new traffic patterns become better known. Two years after the gates were installed, an article in the West County Times described Atchison Village as having: … a vigilant neighborhood watch organization and a public park with soccer fields and a baseball diamond. It is the kind of neighborhood where people knock on your door when your lights are on … Atchison Village's well-lighted streetsand racial diversity are a contrast to surrounding neighborhoods. At midday, white, Latin and black residents take walks, play in the park and garden in their yards.
In an interesting sidelight, the owner of a small grocery store just outside one of the gates and a resident of Atchison Village petitioned the Superior Court in March of 1998 for a writ of mandate (Hugais, et l. v. City of Richmond) to direct removal of the gates.
In June of 1998, the Court ruled that the City acted properly in compliance with City and State law, that the installation of the gates implemented the General Plan Circulation Element, and that there was adequate evidence in the record to support the Council's traffic-related justification. Today, virtually all the residents acknowledge that the defensible space project was successful in dramatically improving the quality of life in Atchison Village.
Atchison Village was entered into the National Register of Historic Places on May 30, 2003. The National Register of Historic Places is the Nation's official list of cultural resources worthy of preservation. Authorized under the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, the National Register is part of a national program to coordinate and support public and private efforts to identify, evaluate, and protect our historic and archeological resources. Properties listed in the Register include districts, sites, buildings, structures, and objects that are significant in American history, architecture, archeology, engineering, and culture. The National Register is administered by the National Park Service, which is part of the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The nomination was authorized by the Atchison Village Board of Directors in 2002, and the nomination, prepared by Carey & Co., Historic Preservation Architects, was paid for by the Rosie the Riveter Trust. The nomination form, which includes a detailed historical description of Atchison Village, can be viewed at http://www.rosietheriveter.org/AtchisonNationalRegNom.pdf.
Atchison Village is also an official part of the Rosie the Riveter WW II/Home Front National Historical Park, established by H.R. 4063 / Public Law 106-352, Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park Establishment Act of 2000 (Oct. 24, 2000; 114 Stat. 1370. The legislation was signed by President Clinton in October 2000. See http://frwebgate.access.gpo.gov/cgi-bin/getdoc.cgi?dbname=106_cong_public_laws&docid=f:publ352.106.pdf.
The Richmond Housing Authority was the first housing authority in the country to manage a defense housing project built under the Lanham Act of 1940, and Atchison Village was the first project of the fledgling Richmond Housing Authority. Atchison Village was actually started in 1941, prior to Pearl Harbor, as the Richmond Kaiser shipyards cranked up to build ships for Great Britain via the Lend-Lease Program. Eventually, Richmond developed the largest federally funded housing program in the nation, totaling some 21,000 units. Most were torn down after the war, but Atchison Village, built to higher standards than most of the later projects, survived.
Listing on the National Register of Historic places not only will bring prestige to Atchison Village but will open up a number of benefits connected to preservation incentives, including the opportunity to receive grant funding and assistance for a variety of uses, tax credits and more flexible building codes ( see http://ohp.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=1074 for more information).
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