Carl Mackley Homes: Unionism and Collaborative Design
October 23, 2006 § 13 Comments
When the pall of the Great Depression settled on Philadelphia, the predominantly Republican Quaker City mobilized its preexisting network of voluntaristic organizations (organizations formed from individuals’ voluntary cooperative efforts as opposed to those orchestrated by some external political force) to remedy the growing poverty in the city. The city placed its hope in its numerous private charitable organizations—staffed by affluent and well meaning Philadelphians, until these organizations were overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of needy.
The loss of homes through foreclosure hurt industrial workers in Philadelphia, many of whom had taken out onerous mortgages in pursuit of that cornerstone of the American dream: home ownership. Homeless encampments caustically referred to as Hoovervilles sprouted up along the Schuylkill. In industrial districts, according to historian Roger D. Simon, “crowds harassed and sometimes chased away constables making evictions.” In May and August 1932, the unemployed marched on City Hall urging an expansion of public relief. But Philadelphia’s stodgy Republican administration, perhaps weaned on the myths of Horatio Alger and his uplifting tales of personal responsibility saw public relief as unmanly, economically deleterious, and not a small bit Socialist.
Reformers took the collapse of Philadelphia’s housing market as an opportunity to suggest a new course. For Catherine Bauer, a housing reformer who had toured machine-built modern European housing projects in the 1930s, building decent low cost housing as a public utility would counteract “the criminal waste of land speculation, … jerry building,…and chaotic and exploitative proprietorship,” associated with the private housing market. During her travels in Europe she cultivated friendships with the leading advocates of social housing and became accustomed to the design elements of “hygenic” housing. Through her investigations Bauer realized that the call for better housing had to come from the bottom up: from assertive workers’ groups making stern demands. Her blueprint for bringing about affordable housing appears in her 1934 classic Modern Housing.
By 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Housing Division of the Public Works Administration had opened the door for one such assertive worker group to put forward its plan for low-cost communitarian housing. Heading the newly-formed Housing Division was Robert D. Kohn, a socially-conscious planner who was sanguine to the idea of limited-dividend workers housing. Kohn had the power to dispense $125 million to demolish slums and offer loans for low-cost housing projects, and a flurry of designs crossed his desk in the fall of 1933. Although he rejected most, the Carl Mackley project, the joint product of architect Oscar Stonorov and the American Federation of Full-Fashioned Hosiery Workers, caught his attention.
As Gail Radford points out in her Modern Housing for America, Stonorov’s plans for the Carl Mackley Homes (named for a striking hosiery worker killed in a gun battle with police in 1931) incorporated the desire of the Hosiery Workers to create a total community. Not surprisingly, Stonorov’s consultations and sociological surveys produced a honeycomb design very much in line with the principles of his one-time mentor Le Corbusier. Rejecting the subdivision of blocks by alleyways (often done by builders to accommodate more rowhomes), Stonorov’s design filled an entire block in the city’s Juniata Park section bounded by Cayuga, M St., Castor, and Bristol Sts., giving the community a sense of peaceful separateness. Four large serpentine units, each composed of individual apartments or “cells” in the Corbuserian lexicon, run north-south. Large open spaces are left between these four solid walls, and breezeways allow both air and pedestrian circulation. The entire complex is clothed in yellow to beige terra-cotta tiles which, in the sunlight, cast a serene and warm light into the courtyards. Stonorov also allowed for large non-residential spaces on the outer perimeter of the houses—places for daycare centers, small cooperative stores, and community meeting rooms. These spaces are now still occupied, now by private businesses. Stonorov also saw that the Homes had a pool which has since been covered up (although you can still see the concrete foundation and moderne-looking railing in the lower southwestern corner of the complex).
While the Hosiery Workers’ militancy may have inspired the design and construction of the Mackley Homes, by 1934 Washington’s attitude toward subsidized public housing had cooled. Kohn resigned that year and was replaced by an unimaginative administrator who placed the Housing Division’s emphases elsewhere. Not many grassroots-inspired housing projects received Federal assent. In the history of American public housing, the story of the Mackley Homes’ collaborative design has been largely forgotten, eclipsed by stories of dehumanizing, colorless designs foisted on the urban poor in the 1950s-60s. But as Radford successfully argues, the story of the Mackley Homes shows that a middle road does exist between corrosive public housing and a private housing market skewed towards the wealthy. While the bare-bones complex probably shows its age in the individual units, it appears that the Carl Mackley Apartments continue to catalyze community interaction in the extremely diverse and sometimes embattled Juniata Park section.