The Chrysler Village Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2014. Portions of the content on this page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright ©2014, The Gombach Group.
Chrysler Village exemplifies a fundamental but often unacknowledged moment in the history of housing in twentieth century America. It is the preeminent example of a planned community conceived and constructed in Chicago during World War II. It was completed through a partnership between private developers and the federal government to meet a national effort to house war industries workers. Chrysler Village also stands as the apotheosis of nationally renowned developer Joseph E. Merrion's innovative approach to public-private partnerships in Chicago's wartime housing market. Proximate to and named after the famed Dodge-Chrysler Plant, home to the production of the B-29 "Superfortress" bomber engines, Chrysler Village represents both the evolution of earlier working-class home ownership through Depression and wartime building as well as an important rehearsal for expanded federal housing initiatives initially conceived to address a postwar housing shortage.
In the middle of nineteenth century, former U.S. Congressman and Mayor of Chicago "Long" John Wentworth bought over 4,700 acres of prairie that is now known as the Clearing neighborhood in southwest Chicago. Wentworth primarily used the vast amount of open land for hunting. Following his death, Wentworth's family leased the land to German and Dutch immigrants for farming. At the turn of the twentieth century, Henry H. Porter of the Chicago Clearing and Transfer Company placed an assemblage of rail yards in the area. The open land of Clearing was advantageous to industrial businesses as the city of Chicago grew more congested and space for development became scarcer. By the time Chicago annexed Clearing in 1915, seventeen additional industrial businesses flocked to the area. The Clearing Industrial District emerged in the early twentieth century as one of the earliest and largest industrial districts in the United States.
In 1926, the Chicago Public Schools leased land in Clearing and neighboring Garfield Ridge for the city of Chicago to build an airport. A year later the few remaining farms were cleared and Mayor William Hale Thompson dedicated Chicago Municipal Airport to the city of Chicago. Meanwhile, the Clearing Industrial District grew to include over ninety businesses.
With the entry of the United States into World War II, Chicago's industry transitioned into focusing on the war effort. In 1942, the federal government announced plans to build a 6.3 million square feet defense plant next to Clearing and Chicago Municipal Airport. A year later, the Chrysler Defense Plant was completed and the production of B-29 Bomber airplanes commenced. The stage was set for a planned community to house wartime workers.
After Chrysler announced the construction of the $100 million Dodge-Chrysler defense plant on the south side of Chicago, federal and private entities worked together to provide housing for the estimated 30,000 plant workers. In 1942, developers Joseph E. Merrion and F.J. Walsh received priorities for building quotas from the FHA to build the homes of Chrysler Village. Located in the Clearing neighborhood directly south of Midway Airport, the 64-acre planned community included 700 housing units for defense workers in the form of single family homes, duplexes, and multi-unit row houses. Responsible for constructing the majority of houses Chrysler Village, Merrion and Walsh hired architects Harold E. Anderson and H.A. Stahl to design the Minimal Traditional homes for workers. While independent investment companies financed Merrion and Walsh's building, all loans were insured by the FHA. At the intersection of private and federal interests, Chrysler Village emerged as a distinct product of World War II construction in Chicago.
As the most vocal and prominent developer of Chrysler Village, Joseph E. Merrion brought with him a history of building low-cost homes for defense workers. From 1940-1941, Merrion built the residential development of Merrionette Park near the Grand Trunk railroad southwest of Chicago for the purpose of housing defense workers. Merrion asserted that the cost of the homes in Merrionette Park would fall below $6,000 in order to obtain building material priorities from the federal government. Merrion also called for the Cook County Zoning Board of Appeals to reduce the minimum home lot to 5,000 square feet in order to allow the building of more homes per acre. The lot reduction helped individuals own a home for a more affordable price. As Merrion claimed, "to require them to have twice the area that is required in other metropolitan regions means that they are required to pay for two lots instead of one and in most cases takes away from them the privilege of owning a home." From 1940 to 1941, J.E. Merrion and Company built over 2,000 homes priced from $1,000 to $5,000. His ability to build thousands of stable, comfortable homes on less land for comparably low prices propelled Merrion to prominence in the national home building industry.
During World War II, Joseph Merrion served as President of the National Home Builders Association and became one of the most outspoken critics of federal government regulation in the housing industry. In May 1942, Merrion argued that the federal government's quota on homes built in Chicago would prove disastrous with the sudden influx of new defense workers to the city. "With Chicago's quota of 3000 homes for war workers for the six months ending Sept. 1 already exhausted," Merrion stated in the Chicago Tribune, "this city will face a serious housing situation in the near future unless the War Productions Board takes prompt steps to permit more home building...all that the building industry asks is the cooperation of the various governmental agencies that function in the housing field." Merrion was rightly concerned with the government's quotas. Earlier in the year, Gael Sullivan, Illinois' director of the Federal Housing Administration, estimated that Chicago would need 30,000 new homes before 1944 to provide for workers migrating from rural areas and other metropolitan regions to fill 150,000 new jobs throughout the Chicagoland area. The housing situation was further exacerbated by the relocation of some federal government bureaus from Washington to Chicago. Despite the massive influx of workers into the city, the War Production Board restricted developers from building more than 3,000 homes every six months.
Merrion's involvement in the construction of Chrysler Village coincided with and critically informed his work as President of the National Home Builders Association during World War II. Even after 1945, Merrion continued to engage in national conversations about the government's post-War regulation of building materials, arguing for quicker and more efficient building construction to accommodate returning veterans and an expanding population after World War II. Merrion's prominence as a critic of wartime home building regulations confirms the local and national significance of Chrysler Village as a remarkable accomplishment in World War II Chicago. Despite the restrictive measures that Merrion spoke so vehemently against, his company was still able to develop Chrysler Village and open homes to Dodge-Chrysler workers by the end of the war.
After the war, many residents of Chrysler Village found work in the surrounding industrial factories and at Midway Airport. With O'Hare's expansion into an international airport in 1955, however, many business owners left Midway and the Clearing neighborhood. After the resulting departure of workers, a new influx of young married couples seeking home ownership arrived from the surrounding neighborhoods. The low prices of Chrysler Village and close proximity to industrial jobs attracted many first time homebuyers in the 1960s. Many people living in the single-family homes and duplexes stayed in Chrysler Village to raise their families. Within the neighborhood, programs for children and adults were hosted at the Lawler Park field house, including softball, sewing classes, and the annual Halloween party. Many children of Chrysler Village attended Fleming Grammar School. The multi-flats with smaller living spaced experienced a higher rate of turnover. As the factories surrounding Chrysler Village began to shut down during the 1970s and 1980s, another generation of first-time homeowners moved into the neighborhood. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, Hispanic families increasingly moved into the neighborhood, maintaining a close-knit working class culture.
Today, Chrysler Village remains a distinct subdivision within the Clearing neighborhood. With the exception of garages and structures added to Lawler Park at the center of the subdivision, all of the buildings in Chrysler Village were originally built during the period of significance from 1942 and 1945. The residences maintain a Minimal Traditional architectural style, reflecting the original function of the buildings as affordable homes for workers. A largely working class community continues to inhabit the neighborhood. With concentric rectangular streets lined by single family and multiple unit residences, Chrysler Village still stands out in the urban landscape of Chicago as a unique planned community built during World War II.
Chrysler Village represents a critical transition in the history of housing in United States cities. As a planned community built during World War II, Chrysler Village serves as the link between early twentieth century bungalow neighborhoods and post-war Levittowns. As an intentional community characterized by winding streets and affordable homes, Chrysler Village also serves as significant aberration in the landscape of wartime Chicago. The development of Chrysler Village also demonstrates the unique private-public partnership between local developers like J.E. Merrion and the federal government to provide housing to the workers in wartime industries. The "Village" is a unique product of the intersection of World War II industry and local and national housing development.
Joshua Arens, Courtney Baxter, Rachel Boyle, Kim Connelly Hicks, Chelsea Denault, Mairead O'Malley and Gregory Ruth, Loyola University Chicago, Chrysler Village, Cook County, IL, nomination document, 2013, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.