Christeele Acres Historic District
The Christeele Acres Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1999. Portions of the content on this web page were adapted from a copy of the original nomination document. [†] Adaptation copyright © 2013, The Gombach Group.
The Christeele Acres Historic District is historically significant for its direct connection to the United States' involvement in World War II and for its place in the history of domestic architecture and suburban development in the last half of the twentieth century. World War II-era defense housing was the prototype for decades of post-war subdivision development. The 1943 subdivision was built at a turning point for Orem as it made the transformation from agrarian village to industrial city. The subdivision revolution that began in Orem during the war years eventually transformed the city into the suburban residential and retail center of Utah County. The Christeele Acres subdivision retains a high degree of historic integrity and most adult members of the Orem community recognize its name.
Erval and Christa Christensen purchased the property for the Christeele Acres Subdivision on May 8,1942, from Katie Steele. The site was known as the Brig Steele farm. Brigham Bailey Steele (1867-1939) and Catherine "Katie" Laird Steele (1875-1965) had been farming the land since the 1910s. Shirlee Christensen recalls "My first view of the Steele property and the folks' description of their plans for it were not terribly impressive. The ground was very rocky and most of it was a peach orchard with lots of dead branches, probably because irrigation had been stopped."36 Christa Christensen coined the name "Christeele Acres," a fusion of the Christensen and Steele family names, with a possible secondary allusion to herself and the Geneva Steel Plant. Lincoln Avenue (now 450 East) and Scera Avenue (now 400 East), two names of significance to Orem and the Christensen family, were chosen for the two long streets. On September 30, 1942, the Orem Planning and Zoning Commission approved the first plat of the Christeele Acres. However, the federal government determined that the lots (and the houses planned for them) were too large! A new plat map was drawn with one lot added on each side of 400 East and 450 South. The Utah County Planning Commission approved this map on March 5,1943. [Christeele Acres was most likely the first subdivision plated in Orem. Because of delays in amending the plat map, it was probably not the first to be completed and inhabited. Geneva Heights, plated in November 1942, may have been the first completed project.]
The Christensens financed the subdivision through the Farmers and Merchants Bank, in Provo. According to the title abstracts, most of the lots were sold during the summer of 1943, before construction was completed. All of mortgages were held by the Farmers and Merchants Bank, with the Christensen's having high-financial stakes in the subdivision until the 1950s. (The family held on to Christa's duplex until 1999). A restrictive deed agreement for Christeele Acres was filed in May of 1942. Restrictions were placed on setbacks (25 feet), materials (conforming to existing structures), stories (one), outbuildings (none, including trailers) and garages (one or two-cars 60 feet from the front of the property). No dwellings could be erected which cost less than $3,500 with a ground floor of not less than 720 square feet. The inhabitants were also prohibited from carrying out a "noxious or offensive trade," or from being a nuisance to their neighbors.
The Christeele Acres deed agreement included the common practice of excluding individuals of any race other than the white race from owning, using, or occupying any building. Domestic servants of a different race were the exceptions. The idea of considering ethnicity and race in real-estate appraisals is an old one, but unfortunately government entities such as the HOLC and FHA did nothing to prevent the practice, and in some cases, such as the infamous "red-lining" of neighborhoods, endorsed policies that encouraged segregation and discrimination. Christeele Acres was one of several Utah County defense-housing subdivisions with racial restrictions, but it appears the practice was optional and not mandated by the federal government. The Mountain View subdivision in Orem, platted on February 26,1943, had deed restrictions similar to Christeele Acres, but without any reference to racial exclusiveness.
Groneman and Company Contractors was chosen to build both the infrastructure and the homes in Christeele Acres. Based in Provo, the Groneman Company was founded by Peter Groneman (1867-1949), a native of Provo around the turn of the century. Two of Peter's sons, Lyndon Le Roy (1902-1980) and La Var P. (1897- 1969), joined as partners in the 1920s. Peter's grandson, Jack L. Groneman, who worked on the Christeele Acres subdivision as a young man, described the company as a "commercial-industrial" general contracting firm. He did remember the firm doing a second subdivision (near 300 West and 400 North in Orem) after Christeele Acres. Jack Groneman did not remember having any problems finding laborers to work on the project, but does recall that there were some delays due to supply problems. Mr. Groneman retired in 1982 and the firm was dissolved. Of the six new subdivisions in Orem, Christeele Acres, perhaps, had the best location. Spencer School and the Lincoln Junior-Senior High, the SCERA recreational complex, and the 800 South Stop on the interurban railroad (the "Orem line") were all within walking distance. The Geneva Steel Plant was a ten-minute drive away. Rowena Nielson, a long-time resident of the subdivision, has stated her favorite part of the neighborhood is the view of Mount Timpanogos from her bedroom window every morning. Christeele Acres apparently needed little advertising. The only mention of the subdivision in local newspapers was an advertisement placed by the Utah County Central Labor Union that listed several housing projects. Marilyn Christensen Clark remembers a large sign on the site near the duplexes, but with the construction going on so close to State Street, Marilyn is convinced everyone in town knew about the development from the very beginning.
Erval and Christa Christensen spent many months pouring over floor plans and material samples. Christa picked out the bricks, exterior and interior paint colors, and commented on design. Erval had many long meetings with housing officials and William Byrd, the president of the Farmers and Merchants Bank. According to Bernice Cox, an original resident and chronicler of Christeele Acres, the two-bedroom homes sold for $4,950. The three-bedroom homes, reserved for Geneva Steel management-level employees, were priced at $6,000. Interest rates were between 4.5 and 5 percent. Other sources reported slightly lower prices of $3,500 to $4,500. The price of a home in Christeele Acres was higher than the $3,750 maximum set by the federal government. However, the developers must have had some latitude, because the price of defense houses throughout Utah County was similar.
Ironically, wartime restrictions may have been partially responsible for the high-quality and durable appearance of the Christeele Acres houses. Because softwood lumber was in demand for such war items as battleship decking, brick masonry was encouraged for defense houses. Brick was already popular and readily available in Utah. In, contrast, while most early twentieth Utah houses had fir floors, conservation programs recommended the use of oak flooring. The use of wallboard, preferably honwood pulp boards, was also encouraged. The Christeele Acres houses feature interior walls of what Jack Groneman calls "rock lathe," a type of sheetrock with holes and covered with plaster. The roofs were sheathed with asphalt shingles.
Construction on the homes in Christeele Acres began in the middle of 1943 and lasting to the beginning of 1944. Marilyn Christensen remembers her parents worrying that some of the cement work might freeze. The subdivision was both suburban and rural. The neighborhood had sidewalks, gutter, and driveway, but the roads weren't paved until a few years later. In the front, the houses had small tidy lawns and flowerbeds; in the back was room for a large "victory" garden and several fruit trees. The irrigation ditch at the rear of the property could flood the entire lot with just about nine minutes worth of water. Septic tanks were provided for the homes until the Orem City Sewer System was established in 1945. Mail was originally delivered to rural route boxes located on State Street; however within a few years, the subdivision had city addresses and regular mail service.
Of course, electricity was available to every home, but the water had to be heated on a small stove according to Ava Stewart. Defense housing occupants were among the lucky few individuals who got a new electric stove and refrigerator. A coal furnace in the basement heated the houses with a coal chute near the basement steps. Because the average square footage of the homes was around 720 square feet, "space-hogging" stairs were moved to the exterior of the house. This proved to be an inconvenience to the residents who had to exit the house in winter in order to stoke the furnace. The majority of homeowners remedied this situation by building a lean-to or addition over the basement stair, or by adding a second stair inside the house. When natural gas lines reached the subdivision in the 1950s, many property owners took advantage of the technology to update their heaters and stoves, and to install more efficient water-heaters.
Christeele Acres could be classified among the early automobile suburbs. Even though gas was rationed and American citizens were discouraged from using their automobiles during the war years, more than one-half of early residents had automobiles. According to one source, although buses were available to Geneva Steel workers and the "Orem line" was nearby, 63% of employees used private automobiles, 29.7% walked or used more than one method of transportation. Garages were optional for home buyers and an estimated 40% of property owners had garages built by the Gronemans soon after the completion of the subdivision.
By the beginning of 1944, Christeele Acres was a neighborhood brimming with families. If, as the early twentieth-century real estate industry believed, a homogenous group of people make a good neighborhood, than Christeele Acres was a phenomenal success. The families who moved into the subdivision had much in common. They were mostly young couples with children. Though defense housing was designed to accommodate interstate-migration, the majority of Christeele Acres appear to have come from Orem and many rural communities within Utah. As a result, the families were predominantly members of the LDS Church. Though they had similar backgrounds, their occupations varied. The 1944 Polk directory for the city of Orem lists the occupations of many Christeele Acres residents. Twenty-five percent of heads of household were specifically listed as working at Geneva Steel, with another six percent employed by Columbia Steel. Eight percent had occupations probably associated with the steel plant or the railroad (e.g. managers, engineers, etc.). There were five men in the armed forces, including one resident's son. The remaining 18% had occupations not apparently associated with a defense industry: four salesmen, four teachers (including two who taught at Lincoln High with Erval Christensen), a plumber, a druggist, a printer, the owner of a produce company, and the supervisor of the city road department. The directory also listed three employed wives: a teacher, a stenographer, and a clerk. Unknown occupations and non-listed residents account for 37%.
On the surface it appears, contrary to federal mandate, that the homes were not all occupied by defense workers. There was a provision which required that the homes must be reserved for war workers for 60 days [and] could not be turned over to anyone else unless the war workers failed to appear. However the war-time employment situation in Utah County was complex. Many of the residents of Orem worked at the steel plant part-time during the war, in addition to their regular jobs and farm chores. During both the construction and the wartime operation of the steel plant there was plenty of work for teachers during the summer and farmers during the winter. Afternoon and night shifts at the plant gave ample opportunity for any able-bodied man or woman to contribute to the war effort.
The Geneva Steel Plant had been in operation for a little over a year when production was shut-down in the summer of 1945. With the end of the war in sight, Geneva Steel and the city of Orem faced an uncertain future. Many workers left the area during several months of bidding by seven steel companies vying to purchase the steel plant and convert it to peacetime use. The United States Steel Corporation bid was finally accepted on May 23,1946, and the plant was back in production by the end of 1946. In the two years after the war, 38% of homes in Christeele Acres changed ownership. Between 1946 and 1950, 37% changed ownership again or for the first time. These changes were a source of concern for the Christensen family. According government regulations, only half of privately financed defense housing could be sold outright. The other half had to be rented or sold under lease-option agreements. This was apparently the case with Christeele Acres. Erval and Christa Christensen held many of the mortgages (on agreement) at Farmers and Merchants Bank until the 1950s. After the war, the occupancy restrictions on privately financed war housing were lifted and sellers were asked to give preference to veterans. 53 Fortunately for the Christensens, the veterans came home to find jobs, raise families, and with the G.I. Bill and Veterans Administration (VA) home loans available, the houses in Christeele Acres did not remain vacant for long.
Orem and Christeele Acres in the Post-War Years
The families who moved into Christeele Acres after the war were similar to those who 3:00 a.m. cake and pie get-togethers after all the neighbors got up to take their turn with the irrigation water. These families, many with five, six or even seven, children, finished the basements and built additions to fit them in. Even the Squire family, who could afford to have a bigger house built in the mid-1950s, moved only a half a block to the adjoining subdivision to the east.
Within a few years, Christeele Acres became nearly indistinguishable from the plethora of post-war houses in post-war subdivisions. The "cape cod cottage" look, with its boxey shape, multi-pane windows, and muted Colonial Revival details, was copied by thousands of post-war developers, the most famous of which was New York's Levittown begun in 1947. The FHA's principles of small houses eventually evolved into the ubiquitous picture window ranch houses that now surround Christeele Acres on three sides. Orem has continued to grow. By the time Geneva Steel fell on hard times in the 1980s, Orem was thriving as a commercial center. Recently Utah County has experienced a second population spurt fueled by the growth of computer-related industries in the area. Today, though Christeele Acres is just one of many Orem subdivisions, and despite a 21% rental and a 4% vacancy rate, the neighborhood still has a strong sense of community.
† Korral Brochinshy, City of Orem Historic Preservation Commission, Christeele Acres Historic District, Orem, Utah County, Utah, nomination document, 1999, National Park Service, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.