World War I poster for the United States Shipping Board, Emergency Fleet Corporation.
By William Morgan
Bath, Maine, was one of the largest seaports in the country in the mid-19th century. The shipwrights’ prowess that created majestic schooners continued with the construction of warships in both World Wars. The dozens of small shipyards are gone, but Bath Iron Works remains the state’s fifth largest private employer (behind Hannaford, Wal-Mart, and L.L. Bean). Bath-built guided missile destroyers sail down the Kennebec River to their missions in the Persian Gulf and beyond.
While Bath is but a shadow of what it was during its shipbuilding heyday, the town is a treasure trove of magnificent houses paid for by maritime trade. Stretching a mile from Route One to Clapp Point, Washington Street is lined with textbook examples of domestic American styles from the Federal period through the Shingle Style: Greek temples, Gothic Revival cottages, Italianate villas, and Colonial Revival mansions.
Double houses on Meadow Way in the North End Project.
Just as intriguing but much less known is the North End Project, built by the United States Shipping Board’s Emergency Fleet Corporation to house World War I shipyard workers at the Texas Steamship Company. Not far from Washington Street’s history and glamour, the development is a well-preserved American version of an English garden city. As a noble experiment in progressive wartime housing, the North End represents the government’s effort to provide inexpensive yet attractive homes for low-income workers.
Plan of Bath’s North End from a 1996 survey of the development with notes by Blythe Edwards and Theresa Mattor. Mattor is the co-author of the book Designing the Maine Landscape (Down East Books, 2009), which has a chapter on shipyard housing in Bath.
So many workers flooded Bath during the Great War that many were living in makeshift shelters. In the summer of 1918, Texas Steamship’s own tent city was replaced with 109 units in 67 brick houses, consisting of bungalows and semi-detached duplexes, along with a few dormitories. These handsome dwellings were laid out in a meandering plan, with generously treed sidewalks, and a community school, all at a cost of $1.5 million. As the noted Boston designer and project architect, R. Clipston Sturgis, wrote: “The main demand is the house shall look like an attractive comfortable home lived in by a happy family.”
A single-family house and a duplex in the Brick Project.
With end of the war, shipyard workers moved elsewhere, the Texas Steamship Company left town, and the North End went through less than prosperous times. Revival came with another generation of welders and riveters who flocked to Bath to build the armada that would defeat the German and Japanese fleets. North End houses were eagerly snapped up during the post-war housing demand and have remained an important part of Bath’s housing stock ever since.
Private homeownership challenged the uniformity of the garden city idyll,
as owners treated their properties differently. Porches and sunrooms were added, yards fenced in, and trim was painted different colors. If anything, the individuality has created a livelier, less stolid suburban aspect for the North End. With its near century-old construction, warm brick, and a setting of winding streets and gentling rolling topography, it remains a tribute to enlightened government patronage for the workingman.
Duplex house on Oliver Street. Note the unusual flat-peaked dormers and the slate roof.
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