Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ April 2016

History Corner(s)

Fairway:  The South Four Corners Ghost Town

By David S. Rotenstein

For a brief period during World War II, Four Corners had a ghost town.  At least, that’s what some critics of a 238-unit public housing project built in South Four Corners called it.  In 1942, Washington’s slum clearance agency (the Alley Dwelling Authority; later, the National Capital Housing Authority) and the Federal Public Housing Administration condemned about 28 acres north of Forest Glen Road and south of University Blvd. (then known as Old Bladensburg Road).  The “Fairway Houses” project was one of three temporary defense housing communities built in suburban Maryland.

Fairway Houses was part of a larger regional effort to provide temporary low-rent housing during the war.  By 1944, the agency had completed 22 war housing projects in the District of Columbia and Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.  Except for the memories of a few aging residents in Four Corners and anecdotal mentions in local historic preservation documents, Fairway Houses has all but faded from the local historical record.

The public housing was built among some of the region’s newest and exclusive residential subdivisions.  In the years between the world wars, Four Corners was an upwardly mobile Washington suburb.  Once a sleepy agricultural crossroads hamlet, Four Corners development included two country clubs and lots of former farmland ripe for residential subdivisions.  Some of the earliest subdivisions laid out in Four Corners were conceived by Montgomery County political boss E. Brooke Lee — the “Colonel.”  Through his Fairway Land Company, Lee bought and platted subdivisions with names like Fairway, Country Club View, and Country Club Park.

‘Demountable’ houses — prefabricated buildings that could be deconstructed, sold, and moved after the war — were one of four types defense housing agencies built at Fairway. [Credit: National Archives and Records Administration]

Lee’s subdivisions were conceived as upper-middle class communities convenient to golfing, shopping in Silver Spring, and downtown Washington.  Pre-war ads touted spacious homes in a “highly restricted community,” code for properties with racially restrictive covenants and minimum house costs.  South Four Corners homes completed in the period revival styles popular at the time were selling between $8,400 to $12,000 ($140,000 to $197,000 in today’s dollars).

In an age before zoning laws and homeowner associations, Lee and his many real estate counterparts used restrictive covenants that passed from one property owner to the next to regulate land use, aesthetics, class, and race in their subdivisions.  Covenants attached to Lee’s properties restricted their sale and occupancy to whites; established building setback lines; required new homes cost at least $7,500; and that all proposed architectural designs be approved by Lee and his partners or their successors.

Relatively few homes were completed in South Four Corners before the U.S. entered World War II in 1941.  Despite plenty of open land and mostly completed infrastructure (streets and sewer), the building lots in Lee’s South Four Corners subdivisions remained simply lines in plat maps.  Four Corners offered government agencies charged with housing government workers and people employed in wartime industries an attractive location.

An appropriations act passed in March 1941 gave federal agencies the powers to acquire land and construct houses in areas with housing shortages.  The entire Washington region was one of the areas determined critical to national defense with a deficit of safe, decent, and affordable housing.

Fairway Houses public housing project site plan in South Four Corners.  [NARA]

Planning for the Fairway Houses began in early 1942.  A Chicago company, Charles B. Johnson and Sons, Inc., won the Fairway contract in July 1942.  Johnson was to construct 238 “demountable” single-family homes based on designs by another Chicago company, General Houses, Inc. Demountable houses — prefabricated buildings that could be deconstructed, sold, and moved after the war — were one of four types defense housing agencies used.  The others were permanent houses, so-called “demolishables,” and mobile homes.

In July 1942, the Public Housing Authority notified the Fairway Land Company that condemnation proceedings were underway.  The properties were supposed to surrendered before 1 August 1942.  Because government’s initial declaration of taking failed to include owners who had bought homes in the subdivisions, amendments were filed adding those individuals to the proceeding.

The amendment extended the period for affected parties to contest the taking.  The Fairway Land Company and about 150 individuals who had bought homes in the subdivisions (adjacent to the properties the government wanted) filed counter claims.  The company asserted that that the proposed public housing violated restrictive covenants carried with the properties.  Neighbors complained that the temporary and less expensive housing would diminish their property values.

“Although no land is actually taken,” wrote the neighbors in legal filings, they had “a property interest in the property which has been or is to be condemned in these proceedings.”  The Fairway Land Company wrote that the public housing development would “destroy [the] restrictive covenants insofar as the parcels taken in this proceeding were concerned.”  And it wrote that the federal project would “depreciate the value of the other lots in the development covered by said restrictive covenants.”

Fairway Land Company plat showing lots proposed for defense housing acquisition.  [NARA]

Work to build the public housing began as the legal case worked its way through federal court.  Construction started on 5 October 1942, and was completed in May 1943.  Sixty three-bedroom homes and 178 two-bedroom homes were built.  Each unit had a kitchen, living room, porch, and storage room.  They were rectangular wood-frame buildings constructed on concrete pier foundations.  Wood siding clad the exteriors and pitched roofs had asphalt shingles.  Utilities included electricity, hot and cold water, and sewer connections.  The houses also had a space heater and a five-cubic-foot icebox.  Each unit cost $4,672 and rents varied from $11 to $46 per month.

County officials anticipated that the new residents would strain local resources.  Funds, including federal Lanham Act monies, were allocated to add classrooms at Four Corners Elementary School.  “The large amount of new building in the area, including the Alley Dwelling project in Fairway,” wrote the Maryland News in June 1943, “is expected to bring a number of hundred school-age children to the Four Corners community.”

After the homes were completed, federal officials decided to build a one-story community building at Lanark Way and Greenock Road.  The Fairway Community Center housed a day camp, health clinic, and nursery school.  Recreational activities were programmed by the MNCPPC.

Targeted to government agency workers and restricted to white residents, the Fairway project houses first became available in early 1943; the government, like its private sector counterparts, still practiced discriminatory housing policies at the time.  The Alley Dwelling Authority failed to attract tenants from the outset.  Some observers attributed the reasons to its “outlying” location; others to the “starkly plain war-standard dwelling equipment.”  One Washington real estate professional in 1944 told a Senate subcommittee that the demountable housing looked like “glorified shacks.”  He added, “I imagine a lot of people would not care to live in them.”

Fairway Houses illustrated in the Report of the National Capital Housing Authority for 1944.

By the spring of 1944, Fairway remained about 63 percent vacant, with only 87 units rented.  Washington builder Clarke Daniel told Senators investigating the National Capital Housing Authority that Fairway was a waste of government resources.  Daniel criticized the addition of a community center to the mostly vacant development.  “Another questionable move is the present erection of, in Fairway Village, a community center,” Daniel said.  “This community center is being erected at an estimated cost of $54,000 for what is practically a ghost town.”

The litigation over Fairway wasn’t settled until early 1945.  Property owners in the Fairway subdivisions failed to get financial compensation for their claims that the public housing devalued their investments.  They did, however, get assurances from the government that the houses would be removed within one year after the end of the declared “war emergency.”

The Fairway houses were sold slowly in the years after the war.  Approximately 115 houses remained in Fairway in 1954 when the Public Housing Administration began the process to sell the remaining buildings and the property.  All of the houses were removed by September 1954 when bids were accepted on the lots and the community building, which served as a sales office that year.

Between December 1954 and the spring of 1957, the agency sold the properties to builders and to individual buyers.  Within a few years, all of the former Fairway sites had new brick ramblers and more vernacular small houses on them.  The community building, which had occupied three lots, was removed and replaced by three single-family homes.

Today, half a century after the Fairway houses were disassembled and the federal government left Four Corners, no evidence of the public housing survives in the landscape.  Once conceived as an exclusive enclave, the South Four Corners neighborhood has undergone several historically significant development episodes.  The brief period as a public housing project and the protracted legal battle fought over restrictive covenants make Fairway one of the most interesting and hidden chapters in our community’s history.   ■

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