Pembroke Village Historic District
The Pembroke Village Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1988. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document.  Adaptation copyright © 2009, The Gombach Group.
The Pembroke Village Historic District is in the northeast section of Bethlehem, Northampton County, and was begun in 1918 as a government-sponsored development to house Bethlehem Steel Company workers employed during World War I. The Pembroke Village Historic District contains houses laid out along curved streets on either side of Washington Avenue northwest of its intersection with Stefko Boulevard. The 63 single and multiple dwellings are set back roughly 30 feet from the street, some 20 feet from each other. They are constructed of brick in largely uniform two-story height, with Colonial Revival detailing. The houses retain good integrity, having had few major changes and only limited infill of later houses not conforming to the original plan.
Pembroke Village was planned by officials of the United States Housing Corporation (USHC) as an extensive, largely self-contained community of public buildings and single- and multi-family dwellings.
The 170-acre plan included rows of houses in concentric circles around a hub of stores that would service the community. This plan never was completed; by the end of the war and the dissolution of USHC, about one-eighth of the proposed project was laid out. House construction begun by the USHC was finished by private owners. Although the proposed plan never was fully executed, the Pembroke Village Historic District still portrays the original USHC intent and plan.
USHC planners had intended to create a circular village of substantial housing that met the needs of workers. Toward that end, they canvassed workers and their families and discovered a preference for six- or eight-room residences and traditional "Colonial" houses. The housing corporation provided a majority of six-room dwellings in Pembroke Village, exhibiting Colonial Revival influence. Some 10 per cent of them have attic rooms, reflecting a local custom of boarding lodgers in attics.
The curving streets and the placement of the buildings' front entrances along those streets establishes Pembroke Village Historic District as the distinct neighborhood envisioned by its creators.
Materials, scale, and configuration, as well as style, further unify the project. Brick is the principal wall material. Original doors and windows were in wood. The buildings typically are two stories high, each employing one of several floor plans. The multiple dwellings have a front porch for each apartment in the house.
Several architectural elements are repeated throughout the Pembroke Village Historic District, including brick walls, laid in running bond, and Colonial Revival style details. An ornamental soldier course at the base of the brick typically separates the main exterior wall from the concrete foundation. A belt course between the first and second floor is a standard feature, further ornamenting the wall, as does the double row lock course at the window heads. Windows with the six-over-six sashes typical of the Colonial Revival style are hung in two- or three-bay patterns. Porches have wooden square posts or round columns or brick piers. Some wooden porch railings also suggest Colonial Revival influence. Roofs arc cabled, gambrelled or hipped, and shed-roof or cabled dormers appear throughout the development. Semi-circular fan light vents or gable-end lights are common.
Although Pembroke Village is unified in materials, scale, and design, differences in detailing and recombination of several basic unit types provide variety. The contributing buildings consist of six single-family dwellings, 17 doubles, 6 triples, 12 four-unit, 6 five-unit and 4 six-unit buildings. The single and various multiple units are scattered throughout the Pembroke Village Historic District.
The single houses take several forms. One version is a one-and-one-half story-high house with a steeply gabled roof and shed-roof dormers, a shed-roof portico covering a small porch, and a single window on either side of a central door. Another form is two stories high, cross gabled and without dormers and featuring an L-shaped covered porch. A hipped-roof version with a single dormer may have either a small triangular pediment over the central door or a roof covering the whole porch, which extends across the whole front of the house. This variety also is two stories high.
Two- and three-unit buildings also take several forms. Double units include one plan with a two-and-one-half story gable-roofed, six-bay main block, and roof ridge parallel to the street. Tall paired cross gables cap four bays that protrude from the center of this block. One-story, gable-roofed porches flank each side of the protruding bays. Triple units include a two-and-one-half story type in several sections. A four-bay section with small paired cross cables is flanked to one side by a recessed gable-roofed, one-bay wing. To the other side is a four-bay, gable-roofed section with a small cross gable. This section, in turn, is joined by a small ell which extends toward the street. Another type of triple unit consists of a two-and-one-half story gable-roofed section with two protruding cross-gabled bays joined at one end by a two-bay hipped roof section and at the other end by a recessed, one-bay portion. Two shed-roofed porches and a gable roofed porch are spaced irregularly along the front facade.
Four-unit dwellings also include two forms. One type features a two-and-one-half-story section with gable roof and paired protruding cross gables. Two-and one-half story, hipped-roofed portions are balanced on each end of the center block. Four hipped-roof porches are spread regularly across the front elevation.
A second two-and-one-half-story type shows two main hipped-roof blocks with hipped-roof dormers. These are connected by a two-and-one-half story, gable-roofed section and flanked to the right side by a two-and-one-half story, hipped-roofed portion. Four porches wrapped around the corners of the two main sections punctuate this type.
Five- and six-unit dwellings include types that repeat the hipped-roofed main blocks of the second type of four-unit buildings. A five-unit type has four, two-and-one-half story, hipped-roofed portions. Gable-roofed, two-and-one-half story sections connect these main blocks. Front porches either span the facades or wrap around the corners of the main sections. A six-unit type features very similar massing; the only major difference is a hipped-roofed section which has hipped-roofed, protruding bays.
Although the dwellings were finished by private owners, most follow faithfully the USHC plans. Complete sets of plans were furnished to the builders, who were asked to follow them in completing the houses. A comparison of the buildings as they stand today and the drawings provided for the original project show that the houses often were executed faithfully. Even units which differ from the architect's scheme in some ways generally preserve the main concepts, either adhering to planned configuration or choice of building materials. The single, double and four-unit residences on Washington Avenue between Radclyffe and Media streets, for example, were constructed of pale yellow brick rather than the standard red, but they do follow the original floor plans and elevations. The four-family building at 743-756 Washington Avenue has red brick on the first floor, but wood — now covered with aluminum — on the second floor. The original facade is maintained, nonetheless, other than for the change in material.
Several buildings have been sided in aluminum and some have been repainted in individual color patterns. In addition, a total of 10 non-contributing houses have been erected in the Pembroke Village Historic District, including a Bungalow style residence, a pair of 1920s single-family houses and nine 1950s Cape Cod style dwelling. Most of the non-contributing buildings are similar in scale and size to the contributing single units. Despite these changes, the Pembroke Village Historic District portrays the USHC plan concepts with very good integrity.
Pembroke Village Historic District is historically significant as an important representative in Pennsylvania of communities planned by the United States Housing Corporation (USHC). USHC was a major federal-government program designed to provide housing for defense industry workers during World War I. USHC planners devised housing which would serve the needs and meet the preferences of those workers, and be superior to standard industrial residences. Pembroke is a well-preserved example of this design concept in Pennsylvania. Of 12 USHC projects proposed in the commonwealth, only five, including Pembroke, were begun or completed according to USHC plans.
Bethlehem was founded in 1741 by Moravians, members of a German religious sect. In 1844, the Moravians opened the community for the first time to outsiders, and Bethlehem began to grow. The Lehigh Canal, the Lehigh Valley Railroad and the burgeoning steel industry encouraged economic and physical expansion. The outbreak of World War I in 1914 accelerated that process as Bethlehem Steel Corporation became a major supplier of war materials to European armies. The entry of the United States into the war in 1917 spurred even more industrial expansion. In 1914, Bethlehem Steel had 11,000 employees; in 1917 it had 28,000, and another 7,000 were expected to be added the following year.
Although housing had been growing in Bethlehem, it was insufficient to meet the demands of the mushrooming work force. Overcrowding was blamed for health problems, and skilled laborers refused to stay in such conditions.
Several private developers erected housing of various styles in different parts of Bethlehem. The city's first planned, unified neighborhood, Elmwood Park, was begun in 1917. Managers of Bethlehem's principal employer, Bethlehem Steel, involved their firm in housing, developing sections of Third Street through the company's subsidiary, Saucon Land and Development Company. A site plan was prepared and several barracks built for another Saucon project, but the proposal was abandoned for lack of financing. Bethlehem Steel also lobbied the United States government for help with housing.
Bethlehem was not unique in its lack of satisfactory dwellings. The authors of a National Council of Defense report declared in 1917 that 167 United States cities had acute housing shortages. In 1918, the United States Congress repeatedly appropriated funds for worker housing, including money to establish and operate the United States Housing Corporation.
Housing corporation investigators chose the site of the abandoned Saucon development as the spot for a large-scale, government-sponsored housing project in Bethlehem. The site was selected because of the suitability of its terrain, its proximity to the Bethlehem plant, and the presence of existing streets.
The housing corporation hired the planners and architects. Thomas W. Sears was named town planner. Milton Bennett Medary of Philadelphia, who was chairman of the housing corporation, was charged with architectural design. Together they conceived a unified, distinct neighborhood. They proposed a largely self-sufficient residential community with local public services and attractive housing.
These houses were meant to provide more than minimal or stopgap shelter. Bethlehem Steel executives encouraged the development of durable dwellings that would be in demand even after the war. Medary designed houses reflecting preferences revealed in a housing corporation survey of workers. Although he completed designs for 8 three-room, 43 four-room, and 21 five-room houses, most of Pembroke Village's houses were to have the six or eight rooms those interviewed commonly said they wanted. Elaborate brick detailing, use of slate for roofs and application of lattice work and other ornamentation all suggest an intention to achieve better than minimal housing. Indeed, the inclusion of some of these details was questioned by USHC board members, but Hedary prevailed, perhaps through the strength of his dual position as architect and housing corporation chairman.
Sears laid out circular streets encompassing a park, with space reserved for a community building, a fire hall, a theatre and schools, so that the result would be a largely self-contained residential district. Medary envisioned the houses tied to together by the repeated use of brick, by their common scale and the application of Colonial Revival details throughout the project. The end of the war interrupted work on Pembroke Village, with roughly one eighth of the planned houses begun. The United States Housing Corporation terminated its contracts December 1918, with none of the houses habitable and most not even begun. None of the public buildings was erected.
The partially finished houses were sold in July 1919, accompanied by complete sets of plans for finishing them and requests that the plans be followed. Despite some deviations, of varying degrees of significance, most of the houses today are as the architect planned them. Even later individualizing, such as changes in roof coverings have not spoiled the Pembroke Village Historic District's cohesiveness.
Pembroke is a well-preserved example of USHC-planned communities in Pennsylvania. USHC officials intended to construct 11 other developments for World War I industrial workers across the state. Five projects — Butler, Neville Island, Sharon, Erie-South, and Philadelphia-Penrose Avenue — were partially or completely designed, but never built. The Chester-Eddystone and Chester-Ridley Park were planned, but only temporary dormitories, rather than permanent houses, were built before the war's end. One community, Philadelphia-Tacony, was planned and begun by USHC workmen, but completed in accordance with USHC plans by private owners. Only three were planned and finished by the USHC: Erie-East, Erie-West, and Philadelphia-Oregon Avenue. Thus, of a total of 12 USHC projects in Pennsylvania, only five, including Pembroke, were begun or completed according to USHC plans.
Pembroke also is representative of USHC designs. The housing corporation's planners intended to provide substantial housing that met worker's needs. Most dwellings in the planned or completed developments were brick. As in Pembroke, most of them were multiple units. Some developments repeated Colonial Revival elements found in Pembroke. Erie-East, for example, has gabled and hipped-roof houses made of red brick with six-over-six windows and front porches. Many projects, including Butler, Chester-Eddystone, Neville Island, Philadelphia-Penrose Avenue, Sharon, and Pembroke were based on curvilinear street patterns.
Many of the developments were planned to be self-contained communities with village centers, including Chester-Eddystone, Chester-Ridley Park, Erie-West, Philadelphia-Penrose, and Pembroke. As planned, Pembroke was among the largest USHC projects, with 1,253 units proposed. Most other developments were planned to contain 16 to 596 units. As built with 160 units, Pembroke is more comparable in size. Most of the completed developments are smaller than planned, averaging 300 units.
Pembroke and the other USHC projects were part of a larger, federal effort to provide housing for World War I workers. In numerous locations around the country federal housing programs planned or completed developments to house thousands of workers who were streaming into defense plants and overtaxing existing local housing stock. Federal program administrators generally tried to build substantial dwellings that were of far better quality than existing working-class housing. In Pennsylvania perhaps the most notable federal housing program besides the USHC was that undertaken by the Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC). EFC built worker housing at four shipyards in Pennsylvania: Hog Island, Chester, Essington, and Harriman in Bristol, Bucks County (listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987). In each of these locations, EFC erected houses in self-contained communities that would serve the social, moral and physical well being of workers. Like USHC projects, EFC developments were designed to eschew earlier ramshackle worker housing construction.
Adams, Nicholas, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography vol. CV III #1. "The United States Housing Corporation's Munitions Worker Suburb in Bethlehem, PA., and its Architectural Context."
American Institute of Architects Information Center, references to Milton B. Medary, 1735 New York Avenue, N.W; Washington, D.C. 2006.
City of Bethlehem - Building Department Subdivision Maps. 10 E. Church Street, Bethlehem, PA.
Cotter, Arundel, The Story of Bethlehem Steel, New York: The Moody Magazine and Book Co., 1916.
Lubove, Roy, "Hones and a Few Well Placed Fruit Trees - An Object Lesson in Federal Housing." Social Research, New York Graduate Faculty of Political and Social Science. Vol. 27, 469-90, 1960.
Messen, Robert, Steel Titan - The Life of Charles M. Schwab New York: Oxford University Press, 1975.
"Report of the United States Housing Corporation" Volume II, United States Department of Labor. Bureau of Industrial Housing and Transportation, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1919.
Roth, Leland M., Three Industrial Towns by "McKim, Mead and White," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. 38 (1979) 317-347.
Vadasz, T. The History of an Industrial Community: Bethlehem, PA 1741-1920. Ann Arbor Michigan: University Microfilms International, 1975.