The height of the Great Depression saw the nation’s housing industry mired in high unemployment, tight financing, and poor housing conditions. The average home loan required short terms ranging from three to five years. Reform was necessary to counter the large down payments, second mortgages, and high interest rates that were commonplace. Congress responded to these needs by passing the National Housing Act of 1934 by releasing private credit in banks and lending institutions for home repairs and construction. The new agency responsible for accomplishing these programs through the Act of 1934 was the Federal Housing Administration (FHA).
The National Housing Act established two basic mortgage insurance programs: Section 203 mortgage insurance for one to four family homes; and Section 207 multifamily project mortgages. The FHA’s programs made it possible to reduce the size of loan, which resulted in new modest-income housing developments across the nation such as the Colonial Village in Arlington, Virginia (first image, right).
Colonial Village, the first Section 207 project developed in the country, served as a model for affordable housing facilitated by federal housing initiatives. The apartment buildings were arranged in clusters around traffic-free courtyards that were linked by greenways and sidewalks (second image). Existing hills, trees and shrubs were enhanced in order to create a bucolic context for the site. Colonial Village remains a popular (and affordable) housing option in Arlington and its gardens are a quiet distraction from the nearby office towers and traffic of the Washington DC suburb.
These initial reforms by Congress were furthered by the approval of the Housing Act of 1937 to establish a public housing program. The Act was administered by the newly established United States Housing Authority which lent funding to local public housing agencies for modest-rent public housing construction expenses.
Locally, High Point’s Housing Authority was established in 1940, the first in Guilford County. High Point had few social problems as a village at the turn of the twentieth century, but that began to change by the 1920s as the village quickly grew into a city. By 1940 conditions were declining rapidly; government statistics showed that 55.5% of dwellings in the city were substandard, and nearly 80% of High Point’s homes were overcrowded.
When the undertaking was first announced, many High Point citizens did not wholly embrace initiatives for housing reform. Some accused government officials and architects as the true beneficiaries of the effort while others felt that public housing competed unfairly with private landlords. In time, the debate died down, and the housing authority moved forward.
The Authority borrowed $1,770,000 funds from the United States Housing Authority to clear areas that qualified as slums and create new neighborhoods of apartments in their place. In accordance with segregation laws of the time, the Authority moved forward with two “separate but equal” projects. On the east side of the city a site was selected near William Penn High School for African-American citizens (third image). This complex of 200 apartments was named to honor Reverend Daniel Brooks, a popular Methodist minister best remembered for negotiating the sale of land that later became William Penn High School. Prominent local architect Tyson Ferree patterned the design for Daniel Brooks Homes on mid-nineteenth century English worker housing with brick walls, steep-pitched roofs, and numerous chimneys. A second project was slightly larger – a 250-unit complex located between Asheboro, Park, and East Russell streets reserved for white citizens (destroyed 2004).
Located at 1431 West Avenue, the construction of Daniel Brooks Homes sought to provide a solution to the substandard and crowded housing conditions experienced in High Point during the 1930s. In contrast to market-rate residences that existed across the city, these federally financed units could be operated by the local authority on the basis of need.
Daniel Brooks Homes opened in 1944, and its design articulated social reform ideals of the day (forth image). These design ideals sought to engineer resident behavior in way anticipated to improve their lives…with attention to safety, proximity to nature, social interaction, and order. Units were configured with direct access to a network of curvilinear greenways that were flanked by lawns, shrubs, and trees. These greenways would not only improve the health of residents by encouraging walking, but they might increase the frequency of social interaction. The incorporation of gently curving walkways separate from roads was part of the “garden city” ideal, first expressed in Great Britain, where clusters of buildings were surrounded by open spaces or village greens in contrast to the dense urban and industrial landscapes typical of manufacturing cities.
Colonial Village in Arlington and Daniel Brooks Homes in High Point have similar pedigrees that date to early housing reform efforts of the Great Depression, but the projects have matured in remarkably different ways. Heavy landscaping and security features have served to maintain the desirability and pride of living in Colonial Village. Daniel Brooks retains its signature stone walls, distinctive chimneys, and meandering greenways (fifth image) but reduced maintenance and deferred upgrades have contributed to low occupancy and vacancies.
The importance of Daniel Brooks was recognized as early as 1979 when architectural historian H. McKelden included it in his survey of High Point and Guilford County in 1979. Later, in 2001, Daniel Brooks Homes was inscribed to the National Register Study List as a first step to inclusion on that list. To-date, however, High Point’s earliest example of housing reform has a questionable future in spite of its rich history.