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Decatur Homesteads Historic District

Decatur City, Adams County, IN

Decatur Homesteads

Photo: The 21 acre Central Park is encircled by Homestead Drive. Decatur Homesteads, circa 1934-1935, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2022. Photo is looking southwest from the Park at 24 and 24 Homestead Drive. Photographed by Kurt West Garner for the NRHP nomination document, own work, 2021.

Decatur Homesteads [†] was the creation of the New Deal Era Resettlement Administration in the 1930s which sought to better the lives of working-class families by providing affordable homes with added features that would make the households self-sufficient.

Decatur Homesteads architecture is minimal in importance but it plays a role in the overall plan because of the thoughtful organization of limited house types/designs with lots in the development. The architect, McNally & Quinn of Chicago, designed both houses and streets in the development, fronting a large park. The houses were designed in Dutch Colonial Revival and >minimal traditional styles with orientations on the lots to provide a pleasing streetscape around the central park. A landscape plan was provided by Purdue University. Less than three dozen of these Homestead projects were created across the country; Decatur Homesteads was second and is the only one of its kind in Indiana. The federal government planned two community farm projects in Indiana. Farm Security Administration, successor agency to the Resettlement Administration, formed Deshee Farms (Knox County) and Scenic Hill (Martin County) in the late 1930s. These were working farms, not quasi suburbs like Decatur Homesteads.

The Homesteads projects were initiated by the Division of Subsistence Homesteads of the Department of the Interior on December 20, 1933, the same date it was announced Decatur would be the recipient of one of the projects. Arthurdale (Reedsville), West Virginia was the first Homestead project with Decatur being the second. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was particularly interested in Arthurdale, which spurred additional projects under the same program concept. Construction of Decatur Homesteads was completed on May 8, 1935, and the project was transferred to the Resettlement Administration in June of that year. On November 1, 1936, the project was then transferred to the Decatur Homesteads Association, Inc., a private agency that administered the project locally. All homesteaders were part of the association which included a five-member board of directors composed of three homesteaders, one representative from the city, and one from the Resettlement Administration. Decatur was selected because of the diversity of industry, along with the need for housing. A. A. Watrous, with the Federal Department of the Interior, was placed in charge of constructing the Decatur Homesteads project.

The purpose of the federal government's Homestead projects was "to demonstrate the practical value of constructing a number of modern low priced homes for laboring men and small wage earner which would combine city conveniences with ample gardening and poultry grounds." While the program was part of overall federal relief projects of the 1930s, the Homesteads were considered long-term investments in communities and individuals, rather than an immediate means of helping depression-stricken citizens. The program also addressed social and health needs through provision of fresh air for factory workers and land ownership was "calculated to means of helping depression-stricken citizens. The program also addressed social and health needs through a provision of fresh air for factory workers and land ownership was calculated to "make him a better citizen." Mostly young, married couples between the ages of 20 and 35 years old, were selected for the program. The heads of households were largely employed in mechanical or industrial trades, with some engaged in the service industry and had an annual average income of $1,167. It was estimated each homestead would cost between $2,400 and $2,700 of the federal allocation to the Decatur project of $125,000. The total funding set aside for the program nationally was $25 million, created as a revolving fund for homesteads into which homeowners would repay the fund through mortgage payments. All homeowners in the Decatur project were to be employed and able to afford the small monthly payment (about $19), as well as taxes and utilities, at a rate not much higher than typical rent.

In 1934, a crew of 50 men began digging trenches in which to lay water mains to and through the "experimental" homestead subsistence development that had been known as the Almira Cade Farm, an 80 acre tract on the south edge of Decatur. The site was selected due to walking proximity to schools, downtown business district, churches, and recreation centers. The same crew erected light poles and strung power lines to the development, as well as prepared the grounds and roadbeds. By July of the same year, $39,104.03 had been spent in developing the project, the largest amount being for purchase of the property ($7,982). Other payments included $1200 to the architects and administrative expenses for Watrous, as well as an accountant and secretary. The city of Decatur contributed $9106 in materials for construction of water lines, which were installed through labor paid by CWA and FERA wages. As many as 150 men worked on the site at one time, but that number rarely dropped below 20.

R. B. Hull, through Purdue University's Agriculture Department, provided "the best landscaping engineering ability" to make the project attractive.8 In both the site plan and housing, "every effort has been made to make the homesteaders realize they are not in a factory-built home section. The houses are located on sweeping streets." The central, large park at Decatur was also created to provide recreational activities, promoting better health, with baseball diamonds and tennis courts. The houses were designed with four or five rooms and once the types of houses were selected, the project was placed out for bid. A portion of each house included a basement (14' x 20') for a furnace, coal bin, and fruit cellar. The kitchen (9' x 12') had a modern arrangement with cabinetry and location for sink with hand pump, laundry, stove, and refrigerator. The living room was approximately 12' x 15' with entry. The bathroom (6' x 7') included a tub, lavatory, toilet, and medicine cabinet; a built-in linen closet was immediately outside the bath. Three bedrooms (each 9' x 12') were included in the house. Walls were covered with plywood to eliminate labor-intensive lath and plaster construction. The floors were hardwood throughout except linoleum was used in the bathroom. Every lot contained an orchard with two apple, two cherry, and one pear tree, as well as a large garden to provide a year-round supply of vegetables. One-car garages and poultry houses for each house were also designed by the architect and built as part of the project assuming bids came in for it to be economically feasible. If not, contractors were to furnish low prices for them to be built in conjunction with the house. Of the eleven firms that bid on the project, Hoggston Brothers of New York was selected as the builders.

The project was well-received by the city. It was noted that "the town has distinct pride in this community and visitors frequently are taken for a drive through this residential area. The civic pride in the project extends to the Homesteaders themselves who are taking an increasing interest in the affairs of their own community and affairs of the city." A boosters club was organized among the residents to raise funds for park equipment in the project's early years. General Electric, a large employer in the city, donated $1300 toward park improvements. It is interesting to note how the post-World War II economy affected the district. Many of the homes were paid off in the late 1940s-1950s, due to individual financing or refinancing, at which time, "remodeling began with a fervor." More garages and room additions were constructed. This was considered a successful result of the program, which sought to start families toward self-sufficiency, wealth-building, and economic stability. "Hours and hours of hard work on yards, gardens, and the houses themselves were put in before the homes even began resembling what they are today (1980)."

Conveyance of deeds, once homesteaders were permitted to pay off their mortgages in 1946, included three stipulations. One was that no business activity would be permitted on the lot, except for agricultural production as desired of the Homestead project. The second was that the real estate could only be occupied by persons of the Caucasian race and not by any person or persons of any other race. It is difficult to determine if this was part of the original stipulations, or one placed on the property by the Decatur Homestead Association at a later time. The third addressed any new residential building on the lot, which was required to be not smaller than the present house (if replaced) or not smaller than the house if a second house was added. This is what spurred early divisions of lots fronting High Street, and the resulting homes.Those newer homeowners were welcomed into the Decatur Homesteads Association.

Decatur was the only site selected in Indiana for development of the Homesteads project initiated by the Division of Subsistence Homesteads of the Department of the Interior. By March 17, 1934, 30 projects had been started in the United States. Of these, 21 were considered "workman's gardens" developments, meaning that the goal was for self-sufficiency in subsistence gardening, orchards, and raising poultry. Two of the 30 were full-time farming projects, and five were for unemployed miners. The mining communities included the creation of some form of industry, like furniture production. By the close of the program, 34 Homestead communities had been created, most bearing "Gardens" or "Homesteads" as part of their name. The most recognizable one is located in Arthurdale, West Virginia. It has the distinction of being the first Homestead community and championed by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The development featured 165 homes plus other public buildings and factories. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989. Decatur Homesteads was the second such community.

Many of the developments were absorbed by adjacent towns and cities and lost distinction of character either through a connecting road system or loss of original houses. Other extant Homestead communities that are districts listed on the National Register are as follows:

Decatur Homesteads retains its open parks and landscaping (predominantly trees specified by Purdue University Landscape Extension Office). The development has also retained its internal fronting/focus on Homestead Drive, even though some lots were split in half to create frontage homes on High Street. The development also retains its original gateways which visually help identify it as a separate neighborhood community. While homes have had alterations, the vast majority retain an identifiable, original core relating to the house types offered residents in 1934. It is interesting to note that part of what has been seen as the success of Decatur Homesteads is the investment in the original homes (only one of the 48 has been lost entirely), to allow families to grow-in-place with minor additions to their homes. The neighborhood is one of the most desirable locations in which to live in Decatur today.

A sister program to the Homestead development was cooperative farms created by the same federal Resettlement office. Of these, Indiana received two under the same name "Wabash Farms." These were to address losses farmers had due to soil erosion and general lack of productivity, mostly in Martin and Brown Counties. The creation of subsistence and cooperative farms allowed displaced farmers to resettle into new homes that were part of the development. These were individually-owned and agricultural resources were shared including barns, structures, equipment, and farmland itself. These programs had a later start, 1938, but had a similar style of development with serpentine streets and Minimal Traditional houses.

One of the Wabash Farms developments, the subsistence farm, was located just east of Loogootee on Highway 50 and was known as "Scenic Hill." It had fifteen houses and a large barn. The other development, a large 2770 acre cooperative farm, was south of Vincennes near U.S. 41. Named Deshee Farms, it had housing for 20 families and a large L-shaped barn. These locations were far less successful than Decatur Homesteads, partly due to political sentiment of the period. Scenic Hill was nicknamed "Hitlerville" and Deshee Farms, "Little Russia." Deshee Farms sold in 1944 at public auction to the Schenk Family, who continue farming at the site today. In both developments, a handful of original houses remain as do the barns used in joint agricultural production. Both of these farms, as well as the Decatur project, are featured in Farm Security photographs taken in Indiana during the 1930s. The photographs show the projects upon completion, as well as family and social life in the communities. The photographs are recorded in contrast to photos of poor housing conditions from which families moved into the new homesteads.

The architects for Decatur Homesteads turned to architecture reflective of what had evolved in traditional and interurban neighborhoods and the burgeoning, early suburbs in pre-Depression America. The architecture had a traditional style, but in a compact form stemming from the need for prefabrication and affordability. The houses of Decatur Homesteads were designed in the most basic Colonial Revival style, or "minimal traditional" with the most obvious feature being gambrel roofs on the many Dutch Colonial examples in the development. The Colonial Revival style gained popularity after the nation's centennial in 1876, and while it competed with Craftsman and Bungalow architecture in the first decades of the 20th century, its popularity remained strong even in post-World War II America. It likely was selected because it best reflected American ideals for home and neighborhood.

Residents could select from one of eight house types the architects offered at Decatur. Two of these featured side-gabled gambrel roofs with narrow front dormers (one or two depending on the type). Type C was a wider home with two dormers while type D was much narrower with a single dormer. There were several variations of the type A house, which was reminiscent of gabled-ell or upright-and-wing farmhouses. Type B and E were similar side-gabled houses without dormers. These were built as tri-level houses which is most noticeable in the right window on the front fa├žade which is placed at midlevel versus the first story. Type E's mid-level window was a dormer, but none of these were selected to be built at Decatur. All houses featured wood siding, 6/6 windows with shutters, slender Doric porch posts, and articulated brick chimneys. The type A houses also featured fan shaped attic vents in their gables and entry surrounds of fluted pilasters with broken pediments. These simple features are all basic, prominent features of Colonial Revival architecture.

The architects, McNally & Quinn of Chicago, were also charged with the responsibility of creating the development plat. While most working-class housing developments created in the early decades of the 20th century were compact, for efficiency and economy of land use, Decatur Homesteads was vastly different. The development followed a different trend for residential neighborhoods, one with larger lot sizes and parks incorporated into the design. The architects would have been familiar with this trend in Chicago suburbs and Northwest Indiana where wealthy residents built their homes with ample lawns and the communities had large parks for recreation. The intent behind large lots in Decatur Homesteads was different, however. The intent was for large lots for self-sufficiency of its residents. The lots were intended to support a large garden, orchard, and chicken coop in the back half of the deep lots. The purpose of the parks, though, combined passive and active recreation compared to the exclusive residential developments in larger cities where parks were often more passive. The Decatur Homestead parks were ringed or filled with a variety of shade trees and dotted with streetlights on the periphery. The main, central park is 21 acres in size and features athletic fields and playground for neighborhood residents. The winding, main drive, particularly at its internal crisscrossing intersections results in a more organic approach to street planning versus typical grid development. This bold approach is further enhanced with the wide,

Adapted from: Kurt West Garner, Adams County Historical Society. Decatur Homesteads, nomination document, 2021, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Street Names
High Street • Homestead Drive