Hilton Village Historic District
The Hilton Village Historic District was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. 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 Hilton Village Historic District is situated near the east bank of the James River and approximately two miles north of the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company shipyard. The village encompasses an area of approximately 65 acres and contains approximately 300 edifices, most of which were constructed under the auspices of the federal government in 1918 and 1919. Designed to resemble the villages of Tudor England, Hilton has mostly Jacobethan style structures, but numerous examples of the Dutch and Georgian Colonial modes are present as well.
The Hilton Village planning team selected this particular site, originally known as the Darlington Tract, because of its accessibility to the shipyard via a planned extension to the Newport News streetcar line and the levelness of terrain which made clearing and site preparation relatively simple. In designing the village layout the planning team utilized a modified gridiron pattern with streets running perpendicular and avenues parallel to the James River. The streets purposely were made narrow in the hope of discouraging automobile traffic and ranged in width from 20 to 50 feet. Building lots ranged in width from 25 to 40 feet, and their depth was between 118 and 130 feet so that the tenants could have gardens. Less than half of the 200 acres available was utilized for the project. Most of the area south of River Road to the James River was set aside for future construction of large homes, and most of the acreage west of Post Street was earmarked for a Hilton Village extension, which was planned but never constructed.
The decision to model Hilton after an early English village undoubtedly reflected the influence of the British "new towns" movement on the project planners. Utilizing basically the Jacobethan, Dutch Colonial, and Georgian Colonial styles, the architects devised fourteen different variations on these themes and designed edifices ranging in height from one-and-a-half to two-and-a-half stories and a width from two to twelve bays. By placing houses of different styles and sizes throughout the village instead of grouping them, they managed to avoid the "tract house" look. Despite the fact that all the houses were of wood frame construction, they were given further individuality by alternately sheathing them either in stucco, shingles, or clapboards. Windows were either six-over-six wood sash or six-paned casement variety and were set in rectangular surrounds. To a large degree the steeply-pitched and angular roofs, including gambrel, hipped, clipped gambrel, gable and clipped gable types, were responsible for giving the village its unique character.
The planners devoted a great deal of attention to the interiors of the homes as well, and they were given features that were somewhat unusual for that era. In addition to excellent hardwood floors, each residence had built-in, double Murphy beds and wardrobe dressers in the bedrooms and cabinets in the dining room. For cooking each had a coal range and for heating purposes all had fireplaces and floor heaters.
Approximately two-thirds of the residences are single family structures, and the remainder are largely duplexes with a scattering of multiple occupancy townhomes. The townhouses have a strongly Jacobethan flavor and are located on Warwick Boulevard. Singles and duplexes are scattered throughout the village and differ little architecturally.
Hilton Village managed to retain much of its original character and a large portion of its architectural integrity. Since 1972 Hilton Village has been subject to a historic zoning ordinance.
The genesis of Hilton Village grew out of the problems encountered by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company following American entry into World War I in 1917. Because if the urgent need for ships to send aid to the Allies, especially in the face of a highly successful German submarine campaign, shipbuilding became one of the most vital aspects of the war effort. To meet this crisis, the Newport News shipyard rapidly expanded its facilities and doubled its workforce from approximately 7,000 to 14,000. The sudden influx of people produced major problems because the city did not have sufficient housing for them. As a result, living conditions declined, housing costs increased sharply, shipyard morale declined, and many workers, particularly the more skilled ones with families, quit their jobs and moved elsewhere.
By late 1917 the instability of the shipyard's labor force had begun to seriously effect the facility's productive capacity. German submarines sank 7 million tons of shipping that year, while the United States and Great Britain combined built only 3.4 million tons. In October 1917, the Newport News Shipping and Dry Dock Company decided to embark on a large scale housing construction program in the belief that the government would make loans available to finance it.
To develop a unified plan the shipyard hired noted landscape architect Henry V. Hubbard as town planner, Joseph D. Leland II as architect, and Francis H. Bulot as sanitary engineer. The team's approach was, according to Chambers " a distinctive innovation ... This was a practice subsequently emulated by the Government and one which was later hailed as an outstanding contribution to the new city-planning movement." The company purchased an option on a heavily wooded 200 acre tract, whose only structure was an old homestead called "Hilton," located two miles north of the shipyard. By December of 1917, Hubbard, Leland, and Bulot, had begun preparing preliminary drawings and development plans.
In January 1918, Homer L. Ferguson, president of the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, appeared before the U.S. Shipping Board to complain about the housing situation and its impact on shipyard production. His testimony spurred an investigation on the part of the board, and its investigators concurred in Ferguson's gloomy assessment of the situation. A few days later, Ferguson reappeared before the board to present the shipyard's plan to provide housing for five hundred highly skilled workers and their families. Under the terms of the proposal, the company would purchase the land and supervise its development if the government agreed to pay the costs of development and construction. On January 11, 1918, the board approved the project which eventually became Hilton Village, appropriated $1.2 million to finance it, and placed its construction in the hands of the Emergency Fleet Corporation.
With the finances settled, planning entered its final phase. Although Leland soon left to take a government job, he was replaced by a capable architect, Francis Y. Joannes, who along with Leland and Bulot had completed their plan for the village by the Spring of 1918. They thoroughly analyzed shipyard payroll to determine what employees could afford to spend for housing and came up with a range of $25-35 monthly. They then interviewed workers wives to learn their preferences as to house size and type, and eventually they developed 14 variations. Finally they conducted a cost analysis incorporating this data and covering every aspect of construction and determined that each house would cost approximately $3,200. Henry V. Hubbard revealed the thinking of the planning team in an article in the July 1918 issue of the Journal of the American Institute of Architects where he declared that:
Temporary housing, after the war, is little better than scrap; indeed it may even be much worse and not being destroyed degenerates into the worse type of slum, a destroyer of local land values, a menace to the tenant and a reproach upon the country ... For the married man with a family, efficient living conditions comprise all those things which we recognize as necessary to a complete town; proper houses, rightly situated and arranged; roads, water, sewerage, fire protection, stores, markets, churches, schools, theatres, club-houses, parks, playgrounds, playfields, and so on. Any government industrial housing development which does not find all these things already provided, must provide, and if necessary, pay for them itself.
Clearing of the Hilton Village site started on April 18, 1918, and a few weeks later actual construction of the homes began. By the early fall, a number of houses were ready for occupancy, and when the streetcar line extension was completed from the shipyard to the village in September, workers and their families began moving in. By October 1, 1918, thirty-one families had become residents of the project, and this number increased daily until the armistice on November 11. Unlike some government housing projects, construction work on Hilton Village continued, and by the end of 1919, the project was virtually complete.
In 1921 the government declared Hilton Village surplus property, and the U.S. Shipping Board put it up for sale. Henry E. Huntington, chairman of the board of the shipyard, proved to be the highest bidder for the property. After purchasing the village, he established the Newport News Land Corporation to operate it as an adjunct to the shipyard. One year later, an effort was made to sell the village houses, but sales proved slow for many years because of the prices asked as well as the sharp decline in shipyard employment.