1918 Government Housing
Rock Island's 100 Most Significant Unprotected Structures, 2009
Significance StatementSuccessful local implementation of a nationally significant federal housing project, which was the first civilian housing designed and built by the government.
Dutch Colonial; English Cottage; Foursquare
Architect / Builder
Cervin & Horn; Horst, Henry W.
U.S. Housing Corp. Preservation Plan; 1918 Government Housing
Federal Government Builds Private Civilian Homes
Between 1918 and 1919, over 600 houses were built in the Quad Cities by the United State Housing Development Corporation to provide emergency housing for war production workers. The United States Housing Corporation (USHC) was established as one of several first-ever federal programs to construct war workers' housing across the nation. Never before had the federal government been directly involved in designing and building civilian housing. Never before were so many high-quality houses built so quickly by local private builders.
Community requests for housing assistance and federal community investigations identified those war production centers like the Tri-Cities where housing shortages were impeding industrial war production. The Tri-Cities were especially hard pressed for housing given the rapid expansion of the Rock Island Arsenal beginning in 1913.
Rock Island District Project
There were three Davenport sites, four Rock Island sites, one Moline site and two East Moline sites selected as part of the USHC development regionally. The housing corporation replatted each tract with narrow 39-feet wide building lots. In order to save time, it was determined to secure close-in parcels with access to city services. As a result, the new houses were integrated into largely built up areas, using available lots.
The Tri-Cities project was unique in that it embraced two states and four cities. The Davenport firm of Temple & Burrows prepared designs for 400 Iowa houses and the Rock Island architects Cervin & Horn did the same for 421 Illinois houses. Henry W. Horst & Co. secured the contract to build the Illinois houses, and Central Engineering Company of Davenport, partnered with the Gordon-Van Tine Company, were chosen to construct the Iowa houses.
Ground was finally broken in the last days of September, 1918. Hopes for rapid progress faded in the face of chronic labor shortages, labor strife, materials shortages and delayed deliveries. The War Industries Board issued directives which forced continual redesign efforts on the part of the architects and which forced the housing corporation to run afoul of local building ordinances.
Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, arrived unexpectedly and the house building was barely underway. Work at two of the Davenport building tracts was suspended and just 173 houses were completed. Henry Horst fared better. His houses were well enough along that his contract suffered no cutbacks, a credit to his organization and economy of operations. Nationally, the vast majority of the USHC projects were cancelled or cut back, and just a handful, including the Rock Island District project, approximated their original design intentions and scale.
The houses were not accepted by the federal government until July 19, 1919, at which time 95 percent of them were rented. The Rock Island District houses were the first USHC to be publicly sold, largely to their renters who were given first choice. This local sale set the pattern for subsequent USHC sales. Some 600 of the planned 900 houses were actually built, and these housing tracts today comprise a large percentage of housing stock in the several cities.
This project was nationally significant because it was the first time the federal government became directly involved in building non-military, permanent housing for civilians. Just 37 of the 60 nationwide projects were allowed to proceed after Armistice Day in 1918. Save for projects at Vallejo, California and Bremerton, Washington, the Rock Island District was the westernmost completed USHC project. It was the largest of the four Midwest projects and its house designs directly reflected regional architectural tract house design and popular tastes. While multi-unit designs, including dormitories and hotels, dominated other project sites, the Rock Island District differed from the beginning because it valued the single-family detached house and a commitment to homeownership as the best means of securing good citizenship.
The USHC building effort strongly influenced modern house designs. The Housing Bureau manual set standards for "basements, closets, furniture space, lighting, cooking, materials, fences, gardens, open spaces, porches, rear entrances, stairs, roof, air space, ventilation, plumbing, number of rooms, arrangement and windows." These homes illustrated the refinement of a modern sanitary, safe and livable house design.
Relatively few of these homes have been left with their original siding. Additions and porch alterations are common, so integrity of these well-built homes is not high. However, all 200 of the homes built in Rock Island still exist today, a testament to their enduring quality of construction.
Cervin & Horn designed cottages, houses and double houses for the Illinois side of the project. Variations of each of these house plans were used.
The Rock Island Preservation Commission commissioned consultant James E. Jacobsen in 2000 to study the USHC project in Rock Island. In that study, "Rock Island's United States Housing Corporation Houses: A Neighborhood Historic Preservation Plan," he matches each of the 200 Rock Island homes against the house plan variants. This 155-page document contains a significant amount of historical, architectural and preservation information on these homes. There is also a walking tour brochure that features the house designs and representative samples in Rock Island.