Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Washtenaw-Sherwin Homes, 1946-1953

When the veterans of WWII returned home they came back to a severe housing shortage.  One governmental remedy was to re-purpose housing that had been developed for war workers into inexpensive rentals for the returning soldiers and their families.

During WWII the demand for housing to support the war effort jump-started the prefabrication industry, which had always held out the promise of mass produced inexpensive homes.  In some cases the government created their own instant cities, with homes, schools, shopping centers and recreational facilities appearing practically overnight.  A famous example of this is Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where 75,000 people were housed and employed to process the uranium needed for the Manhattan Project.  To design Oak Ridge the Federal government contracted with the firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill (SOM), which later went on to postwar success in both modernist city planning and skyscraper design.  At the end of the war some of these homes designed by SOM were loaded onto trucks and sent to Chicago, where they were reconstructed along land next to the Sanitary Canal.
Rogers Park in West Ridge, Showing Temporary Housing Sites in Red.
In the West Ridge neighborhood a 10-acre plot was leased (free of charge) to the Chicago Housing Authority from the Chicago Board of Education, which owned the nearby Rogers School.  The CHA received a loan from the city to prepare the sites and install utilities.  Twenty buildings of panelized construction were located on the block south of Rogers  School, each accommodating 6 families (120 units total).  A Chicago Tribune article at the time notes that these homes were relocated from Seneca, Illinois and Evansville, Indiana. Although I was unable to find any photos of these buildings, the housing at Oak Ridge (now digitized by the Department of Energy and available on Flickr) might give some hints as to its design. In the 1950 Sanborn Map of the area the housing basically looks like 1-story barracks.

The surrounding neighbors were not pleased, claiming that this development would lower the value of their property.  They petitioned CHA to choose another site.  CHA reassured these neighbors that all temporary housing for veterans  would be demolished  in two or three years.  In actuality the Sherwin-Washtenaw homes weren't removed until 1953.  By that time the housing industry had finally started to catch up to the demand.

Memory of the temporary homes seemed to quickly fade.   In 1957 the Chicago Park District awarded a contract to develop the area and the adjacent land to the east into what would become Rogers Park.  A Tribune article notes that the property had been used as a golf driving range, truck gardens, and a site for greenhouses.  But not a word about the 20 buildings that housed 120 veterans and their families for seven years.

Of the 23 sites which were utilized for temporary housing in Chicago very little evidence remains.  But when I was putting together the map for this post I realized that the largest remaining trees in the park are located in the area which was between the north and south halves of the development.  So there's a small nod to history for those who know to look for it.

If any readers have photos of these homes I would love to see them.  You can leave a comment below or message me directly.


  1. There was a similar stink raised by residents just over the north branch of the Chicago River in Lincolnwood when the village allowed the construction of (brick) duplexes on Pratt just west of the Bell & Howell factory at McCormick & Pratt. Residents all put up "For Sale" signs on their houses to protest and no more were built. This is circa 1942. Duplexes are still there.

  2. This doesn't surprise me at all. Once a neighborhood is established the homeowners typically defend it from additional development. In the case of military housing the structures were so slight that they couldn't have remained for long.