Architecture

Architecture

The planners of the 158 homesteads were not just shooting for bare subsistence--they provided families with modern and comfortable houses that anyone could be proud to own. The goal of the architects was to offer "Negro tenants now occupying highly inadequate Negro housing facilities of nearby cities the substitution of modern low-cost, well-planned garden homes in a rural environment located upon highly productive trucking land" (1936 Walton memo). Aberdeen Gardens was not a slip-shod temporary housing arrangement for industrial servants. The RA planned that this project would become a community, equal to white neighborhoods, that would last.

The "garden" notion of Aberdeen Gardens was taken from a long architectural tradition that held that undeveloped open spaces in the midst of neighborhoods and cities would help residents maintain their both their connection to the country and not be degraded by city living--garden spots were thought to improve the state of the middle class worker (Wagner, 2). The term "garden" was specifically taken from To-morrow by Ebenezer Howard, whose garden theories influences architects like Central Park designers Frederick Law Olmstead and Calvert Vaux (Wagner, 2).

Resettlement Architects like Robinson took these ideas and combined them with a commitment to building modern housing. By necessity, they favored practical architecture. Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace and RA director William Alexander wrote in a 1937 Architectural Forum article that "In the case of farmers, the Administration has not only striven to build better farm houses but also to build them in proper relationship to the farmsteads of which they are units. And where rural homes are an integral part of a community, it has built with the intention of relating each house to the community (475)."


Two homes connected through garage.
The architects tried to maintain a delicate balance between function and regional preferences. In Newport News, the houses were built with brick over wooden frames in a colonial revival style. In a 1936 memo to Tugwell, Special Plans Director Lewis Walton described the Newport News homes: "The architectural design of these house-garden units is an embodiment of the best from the local traditional style together with the best from the modern functional style, combining the aesthetic and the practical in a way that subjects the homesteader to the minimum hazard of aesthetic depreciation. The homesteader is investing in a type of house, the architectural style of which, after 250 years of constant employment, is still most in demand for the best type of building." To alleviate hot southern summers, the Newport News Homesteads were built with porches next to the kitchen, and the houses were designed to provide good cross ventilation in all the rooms (Alexander and Wallace, 497). The porches were also built with the intent of allowing for "neighborly visiting" to express the homesteader's "gregarious instinct" (1936 Walton memo).


Coal bin in garage.
There were seven variations of houses in the Newport News Homesteads, varying in size from three to five rooms and built on three-eighths to a half acre of land. Each was two stories high and every home was built with a garage--although by no means did every family own a car--and a chicken coop for keeping poultry. Some of the houses were connected through the garages, sharing a wall. The garages also served as workshops and laundries (Alexander and Wallace, 496). In the interests of practicality, the kitchen and dining room area was combined with the living room. See floor plan of one of the houses.


Typical kitchen.
The architects also took the homesteader's wife into consideration. Walton wrote that, "Fundamental in the soundness of the budget set-up for the homesteaders is the full cooperation of the homesteader's wife. Here, immediately at hand, are the tools essential for her daily domestic activities of cooking, child care, cleaning, laundering, gardening, poultry raising, canning, etc" (1936 memo}.

All facets of the larger community life were also planned for; RA architects set aside room for churches and designed a school. They intended to build a community center, but that project was never finished so homesteaders used the school for that purpose. Aberdeen Gardens included one house that was not designed by the Resettlement Administration, the Wesley Johnson property. The "Johnson farm house" was built in 1898 and the RA purchased the house from a local family in 1936. The Johnson family was allowed to live in that house because they had the most children-ten. The house has four bedrooms and is built in the Victorian style with a wrap-around porch. Although the property is set off from the rest of the neighborhood, 600 feet from Aberdeen Road, it is still considered part of the community.