EFC builds houses too well

Apparently not rickety enough for Congress

In several columns I have referred to the role of the mysterious Emergency Fleet Corp. in the development of our hometown. I say mysterious because, at a remove of 86 years and in an era of skepticism and mistrust of massively intrusive government action, the dimly remembered actions of this short-lived but powerful organization cannot help but invoke a sense that we’re not seeing the whole picture. But, at the risk of invoking the wrath of long-dead civil servants and military intelligence agents, I will endeavor here shine a clinical light on this nearly forgotten agency and examine the steps it took to build and shape Dundalk.

Since we’ve spent the last few times discussing the Palmer Report, I thought a look at the Emergency Fleet Corp. was the next logical step. As you’ll recall, the Palmer report was a lengthy and detailed description of the need for and plan of the town of Dundalk prepared in October 1917 by Dundalk Co. architect Edward Palmer. Replying to a government order, he submitted the report to the Housing Advisory Committee of the Council of National Defense in order to demonstrate that the Dundalk Co. could provide sufficient and humane living quarters for the huge influx of workers needed to operate the Sparrows Point plants and yards during World War I (The U.S. entered the war in April 1917).

The committee’s efforts were part of a larger plan to deal with a big gap in America’s military armor. The age of the robber barons had produced a nation in which housing for industrial workers was shockingly inadequate. The primitive housing provided for working-class housing kept production low because, as the noted urban planner Frederick Law Olmstead Jr. was to later observe, conditions kept morale low and turnover high.

Most employers didn’t see a problem with treating their employees as little more than animals, and war production suffered. In response, the U.S. Congress hastily appropriated $75 million dollars to the Emergency Fleet Corp., an agency originally created to cobble together, through purchase, production or confiscation, a merchant marine fleet for the war. The U.S. had entered the war with virtually no way to get men and equipment to Europe. The EFC was supposed to change this strategically disastrous shortcoming fast.

In 1918, the task of seeing shipyard workers (who were, of course, building the ships that the U.S. badly needed) adequately housed fell, naturally, to the EFC.

The plan of Dundalk represented a revolutionary shift from the old view of workers’ housing. But the Dundalk Co. could not implement the plan fast enough to suit the government. In 1918, the EFC took over. Generally, the organization hastened building projects by providing financing and imposing rigid timelines. The output of the Sparrows Point shipyards was, however, so important that, in Dundalk the EFC took complete control, establishing the Liberty Housing Corp to construct and fill the town.

Fortunately for us, the Dundalk Co. had made significant inroads into building Dundalk’s infrastructure, such as water and sewer lines. The EFC had to follow the Dundalk Co.’s plan, especially because there was no time to create another. As a result, we still got the advantages of Palmer’s vision of sturdy homes, gracefully curving streets and a town center with parks and room for schools and a shopping district.

Palmer’s plan called for an immediate focus on the construction of 500 homes in Old Dundalk on the Ship streets. The EFC agreed and eventually built 531 houses prior to the end of the war.

In a separate project, the agency also constructed extensive facilities in St. Helena. Unfortunately, there was no plan to follow, and the EFC wanted bachelor’s dormitories, so Dundalk’s oldest neighborhood did not receive the garden city treatment. It ended up with street upon street of squat rowhouses that, because the men were expected to eat in a communal refectory, were not even provided with kitchens. Many of these structures, with kitchens added, still stand.

During my research in the treasure trove that is the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society archives, I discovered many reports from locals who claimed that the EFC ruined Palmer’s plan by constructing rowhouses in Dundalk as well. While it is true that most of the EFC houses were connected, their size and location were consistent with Palmer’s plan to provide variety in housing styles, including rowhouses, while avoiding monotony by interrupting the rows and interspersing detached and semidetached housing throughout the neighborhood. Perhaps the EFC added more rowhomes than Palmer intended, but it probably wasn’t much more.

The EFC was disbanded soon after the cessation of hostilities, but it created a controversy that endured and demonstrated that the robber baron mentality was alive and well. After the war, members of Congress criticized the agency’s efforts, claiming that garden city concepts like Dundalk resulted in housing that was “too ambitious and expensive for practical dwellings for the general run of workmen.” The workers could build the nation’s munitions and ships and die on its battlefields, but shouldn’t expect warm, comfortable or durable homes.

But, the nasty hindsight of an industry-friendly legislature aside, we got Dundalk. Rich folks could complain all they liked, but in the end, they had to lump it.

(First posted January 28, 2004)

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