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Arthurdale

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On August 18, 1933, during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first year as president, a “tall, slender woman in a dark blue skirt and white blouse, with a white bandeau around her head,” as her friend Lorena Hickock described her, arrived in a roadster at Scotts Run, a series of former coal company camps near Morgantown in Monongalia County. She came at the instigation of Hickock, whom the Federal Emergency Relief Administration had assigned to assess the effects of the Depression on living conditions across the country. Hickock, who had already visited a number of communities, declared Scott's Run “the worst place I'd ever seen.” Meeting with members of the American Friends Service Committee, the visitor learned how they and the West Virginia University Extension Service were trying to improve conditions for out-of-work coal miners and their families. Because the woman “had not been photographed often enough then to be recognized,” she recalled in her autobiography, she “was able to spend a whole day … without anyone's discovering” her identity. She promised to help, and when she returned to Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt kept her word.

At the time, the Subsistence Homestead Program, one of FDR's New Deal efforts to spur the country's recovery, was untried. Section 208 of Title II of the National Industrial Recovery Act, passed in the summer of 1933, authorized the program and appropriated $25 million to carry it out. Roosevelt chose the Interior Department to administer the program, and Bulletin No. 1 of the department's division that was established to direct the effort defined what a subsistence homestead was to be: “a modern but inexpensive house and outbuildings located on a plot of ground upon which a family may produce a considerable portion of the food required for home consumption.”

Eventually the program would establish some ninety-three subsistence homestead communities and, under various governmental agencies, would become one of the New Deal's major undertakings. Eleanor Roosevelt convinced her husband that resettling West Virginia's Scott's Run miners should be the pilot project. On October 13, 1933, less than two months after she visited Scotts Run, the government purchased the 1,000-acre Arthur Farm in Preston County. The day before, Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes issued a press release announcing that 200 families would be resettled there. First called the Reedsville Experimental Community, after the nearest town, the fledgling settlement soon became known nationally as Arthurdale. It was located some fifteen miles from Scotts Run.

Although the Arthur house, a frame Queen Anne structure that contained twenty-two rooms, was one of the largest in the county, it was never intended to remain after the subsistence homestead was completed, primarily because its architecture was deemed oldfashioned. Architecture, in fact, was among the most studied aspects of the new community, and along with every other aspect, it received press coverage from every quarter. Mistakes were made, and publications inimical to Roosevelt's programs pounced in ridicule. Other journals touted the goals and progress that Arthurdale exemplified, as the evolving community became a growing symbol of a brighter future for the unemployed.

On October 13, 1933, the day the property was purchased, fourteen women identifying themselves as miners' wives from Scott's Run wrote the president's wife, outlining their hopes for a place where they and their families could “at last become self-supporting citizens.” They asked for “six-room houses for those of us who have large families,” and, because most had “very little furniture,” they “would be glad to have cupboards and closets in most of the rooms.” They also requested indoor plumbing, which they did not have at Scotts Run, and space “for storing preserves and canned goods.” In addition to individual needs, they considered “it very important to have a school house—also a community house.” The first lady took their suggestions to heart as the community began to take shape.

Almost immediately after the land was bought, engineers and architects arrived, and by November, fifty miners from Scott's Run began clearing the land and preparing roads. The first roadways were originally covered with “red dog,” or slag, from area coal mines, and portions of this surfacing remain.

The Arthur mansion was pressed into temporary service to house early arrivals. Colonel Louis McHenry Howe, FDR's confidential secretary, promised the first settlers that they would move into their new homes by Christmas, and in an attempt to make good on his promise, made a telephone call to the E. F. Hodgson Company in Boston, ordering fifty pre-built houses to be delivered in two weeks.

Architectural Forumreported in its November 1933 issue: “the first 50 homes are being rushed knocked-down from [the Hodgson Company].” Those to follow were to be “designed by Architect W. E. Trevett of Chicago who has indicated that they will be of the Cape Cod type.” Forumalso announced that houses would be surrounded by plots ranging from one to four acres, and would sell for “from $2,000 to $2,500.” Purchasers would make small down payments, with subsequent monthly payments. Walter Trevett and his associate, Benjamin Lane Smith, platted the project's configuration of houses on individual plots. They replaced the original landscape designers, John Nolen and Russell Van Nest Black, because Colonel Howe declared their plan, which proposed clusters of closely spaced houses with large areas of communal land, “too communistic.”

The Hodgson prefabs, intended as summer vacation cottages, were hardly suitable for winter habitation, whether in New England or West Virginia. Moreover, by the time the first six “knock-downs” arrived on December 6, foundations had been dug, and the excavations were found to be too large. In an attempt to remedy the situation, Mrs. Roosevelt instructed a team of New York architects, led by her friend Eric Gugler, to go to Arthurdale. Construction was temporarily halted until the plans could be revamped. Wesley Stout, writing in the August 4, 1934, edition of The Saturday Evening Post, was disgusted by the disorganization and the fact that it took “ten architects and draftsmen” from New York to handle it: “sometime in January [they] decided to bury the camp houses in a meringue of wings, bay windows, fireplaces, porches, terraces and pergolas,” to make the frames fit the foundations. Slowly, during the winter and spring of 1934, “the tortured houses pushed their way to the fireplaces (that had been built along with the foundations) and absorbed them.” Photographs verify the ludicrousness of the situation, which was made all the worse, Stout asserted, because foundations continued “to be set up on the original plan, to the fiftieth one.”

The Hodgson houses, clad with Oregon cedar over pine frames and painted white, were one story high over concrete block basements. Originally, three different plan types were shipped, but after the “meringue” additions were made, four different configurations emerged. All were identified by letter designations indicating their shape: I, T, L, and H.Hodgsons, as they came to be known, had four to six rooms, electricity, indoor plumbing, and coal-fired furnaces, amenities that had been virtually nonexistent in Scotts Run. Nancy Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt's partner in their Val-Kill furniture operation in New York, planned the interiors, and the first demonstration house opened for inspection early in June 1934. Even Wesley Stout grudgingly admired the living room with its brick fireplace “flanked by paneled walls of stained and waxed white pine and fir.” He also approved the early American handmade maple and walnut furniture from the Mountaineer Craftsmen's Cooperative Shop in Morgantown. Stout also noted that each Hodgson was equipped with “one double and four single beds with springs, mattresses and mattress covers, two chests of drawers, three tables of varying sizes and design, a dozen chairs, … twelve towels, six pillows, … eight pairs of curtains, six rag rugs, table runners and small tapestries.” The requests the miners' wives had made to Eleanor Roosevelt had been answered in full measure—and more.

In addition to the house, each property had “a combined cow shed and poultry house,” while “a bit of lawn with a flower garden” made up the front yard. The remainder of each plot was intended for an orchard and space for subsistence farming.

Soon additional houses were planned. Stout informed his readers that these would be “wholly different [from the Hodgson houses], though in architectural harmony, built largely of native lumber and stone … more farm than urban in type.” In all, seventy-five houses were erected during the second building campaign, which lasted from December 1934 through the next year. These are the Wagner houses, named for their architect, Steward Wagner. Wagner, a fellow of the AIA, was a partner in the prominent New York architecture firm of Felheimer and Wagner and a consultant in the Housing Division of the Public Works Administration. He replaced Eric Gugler in September 1934 as Arthurdale's project architect and, in addition to designing the second group of houses, was responsible for the community's schools. Wagner houses are one-and-one-half or two stories tall, with raised concrete block foundations and first stories, and wood siding on their upper stories. Only six of the group had basements. Like almost all Arthurdale houses, they were accompanied by outbuildings for poultry, a cow, and a hog.

Construction of the last forty houses began in the summer of 1936. All of this third group are veneered with sandstone quarried nearby and are known as the Stone Houses. There were three types: one-and-one-half-story bungalows, two-story Tudor Revival houses, and two-story Colonial Revival houses, although specific architectural references to either of the revival styles are minimal. Containing from five to seven rooms, each had a stone fireplace in the living room. None had basements, but root cellars were built close by for storage of vegetables and canned goods. The last of the Stone Houses, which brought the total to the 165 houses originally envisioned, were finished in 1937.

In addition to houses, Arthurdale had other facilities and amenities. These included a community center, a factory, and—most important to Eleanor Roosevelt—schools. Planners realized that industries would be essential to the success of subsistence homesteads. Arthurdale's signal failure to establish any viable economic enterprise was not unique; it was one of the most egregious faults of subsistence communities in general. A powerful furniture-making lobby convinced Congress to negate the initial proposal to manufacture post office equipment. Subsequently, a vacuum cleaner enterprise failed, as did a shirt factory and a farm equipment operation at Arthurdale. While management may have been partially at fault in some instances, a lack of markets during the Depression was the main cause of failure. Only the Mountaineer Craftsmen's Cooperative Association, a furniture-making operation originally established in Morgantown, had a modicum of success.

As the Depression ended, support for the program diminished, and in 1939 Congress eliminated funding. The government sold its first Arthurdale homestead in 1941 and followed with other sales. When World War II commenced, bringing increased employment, the government decided to abolish the program altogether. In 1946 the program was transferred from the Farm Security Administration to the Farmers Home Corporation, which was given eighteen months to close out its operations. On July 27, 1946, Business Weekannounced the sale of Arthurdale's last government-owned properties in an article poignantly titled “Eden Liquidated.”

Of all the government's subsistence homestead programs, Arthurdale had been the most costly. Although exact figures have never been ascertained, based on the project's total expenses, the average individual cost of the 165 houses has been estimated at more than $16,000. This was, of course, far more than the homesteaders were required to pay, and if judged purely on these economic grounds, Arthurdale did not succeed. On the other hand, most of the families who occupied its houses purchased them, a clear indication that those who lived in Arthurdale considered it a success. The spacious acreage that surrounded each house has proved a boon over the years, as owners have enlarged their houses, or as second or third generations have built next door to their parents' houses.

While later and far more expensive public housing projects have been demolished in cities across the country, just the reverse is happening in Arthurdale. Arthurdale Heritage, Inc., has spearheaded a restoration effort in recent years. In 1995 the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development provided a grant to assist in restoring the town center, with the Charleston architecture firm of Paul D. Marshall and Associates in charge. In recent years, Arthurdale has become something of a mecca for faculty at West Virginia University in Morgantown who have chosen to live in the comfortable environment that the community provides.

Certainly Arthurdale exceeded its founder's wildest dreams. As long as she was in the White House, Eleanor Roosevelt attended each high school graduation, distributing the diplomas herself. In 1938 she even convinced FDR to deliver the commencement address. Thanks to the efforts of many, her pet project remains a vivid testament to her faith in humanity and the American spirit.

Arthurdale is easily toured via automobile. Maps and a self-guided driving tour are available at the visitor center in the former administration building in the Town Center ( PR8). Roads are conveniently designated by letters (another of Mrs. Roosevelt's suggestions) and are clearly marked.

Writing Credits

Author: 
S. Allen Chambers Jr.

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