Harriman Historic District

Bristol Boro, Bucks County, PA

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Residences in the Harriman section of Bristol are a mix of single family detached, semi-attached and row homes. Median lot size is less than one-tenth of an acre. Median interior living space is approximately 1,200 sq. ft. Median age of homes is circa 1918.

The Harriman Historic District [†] is a historically significant residential community closely associated with the massive mobilization of American industry that occurred during World War I. The United States Shipping Board's Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC) financed the construction of Harriman in order to provide needed housing for the thousands of workers employed at the nearby EFC shipyard. Harriman constituted the largest single housing project undertaken by the EFC in the United States.

It is emblematic of a period when the Delaware River contained the largest concentration of shipyards in the United States. World War I impacted the American economy long before the United States entered the conflict in April 1917. Shortly after the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 American foreign trade began to experience a shortage of merchant ships. The domestic merchant marine did not possess enough ships to supply the nation's foreign and domestic trade requirements and foreign ships which traditionally made up for this shortfall, became either unavailable, as they Were diverted to the needs of their own governments, or targets for preying submarines and surface ships. In September 1916 the United States government responded to the wartime shipping shortage by establishing the United States Shipping Board. A subsidiary of the Board, the Emergency Fleet Corporation (EFC) was charged with operating and maintaining a domestic merchant marine for use during wartime.

Among the EFC's principal activities in the months immediately following American entry into the war were the establishment of three new innovative "fabricating" shipyards at Newark, New Jersey, Bristol, Pennsylvania, and Hog Island, Pennsylvania. These yards received structural parts manufactured at other plants and assembled them into steel-hulled merchant ships. This radical departure from traditional shipbuilding practice, in which all components of a vessel were fabricated and assembled at one site, constituted one of the earliest efforts to apply the principles of mass production to shipbuilding. In addition to the development of the fabricating yards the EFC also promoted, and in many instances paid for, the expansion of existing shipyards on both coasts and the Great Lakes.

The Merchant Shipbuilding Corporation (MSC), a privately held corporation chartered In Delaware and organized and controlled by financier W. Averill Harriman, owned the EFC shipyard at Bristol. Harriman had purchased the plant of the bankrupt Standard Cast Iron Pipe & amp; Foundry Company in early 1917, intending, as a private venture, to construct a modern shipyard, utilizing the existing buildings. Following the United States' entry Into World War I Harriman quickly modified his plans and negotiated a contract with the EFC that called for the Fleet Corporation to construct the yard, which it would lease from Merchant Shipbuilding. In return Merchant Shipbuilding agreed to construct forty 9,000-ton steel-hulled freighters for the government for a fixed fee. Construction of the ways and fitting out pier, and conversion of the former Standard Cast Iron Pipe & amp; Foundry Company buildings, began in September 1917. The first keels were laid in February 1918 and the first launching took place in early August 1918.

The new shipyard brought 11,000 new workers and their families to Bristol, far outstripping the stock of available local housing. Similar housing shortages developed across the country in areas where the EFC constructed new shipyards or contracted with existing yards for greatly increased levels of production. As the shortage became more severe It threatened to restrict production at the yards, prompting one EFC official to propose declaring the areas around the shipyards war zones so that housing could be commandeered. Rather than take this drastic measure the EFC determined that the high cost of establishing and expanding the yards, coupled with the shortage of building materials, precluded the private sector from taking an active role in the construction of the worker housing and necessitated the government's involvement. Congress concurred, and In December 1917 appropriated $35,000,000 for the construction of housing for shipyard workers. The EFC required these houses, arranged in self-contained communities that would provide for the "social, moral and physical wellbeing of the shipbuilding employees," be built quickly without appearing ramshackle. By the Armistice In November 1918, EFC housing projects were completed or well underway at fifteen separate locations across the country. The government had spent approximately $75,000,000 constructing residences and other facilities for over 56,000 people.

Conceived and planned as a self-sufficient community, Harriman, named for the owner of the Merchant Shipbuilding Corporation, had its own sewage, water, and lighting systems, a central heating plant that supplied steam heat to 212 apartments and 66 bungalows, and its own police and fire departments. At its peak, Harriman housed approximately 3,800 workers and their families in 320 houses, 278 apartments, and 22 dormitories. The community also contained 18 stores, a school, a 40-bed hospital, the 500 room Victory Hotel, and the Merchant Restaurant, a vast establishment covering nearly an acre of ground, and capable of serving 12,000 meals per day. With the exception of the greatly altered hospital and the former Harriman Public School, none of the community's support facilities survive.

A Massachusetts-based general contracting firm, the Fred T. Ley Company, Inc., apparently developed the overall town plan and designed the individual buildings. The annual reports of the United States Shipping Board contain no indication that an architect was associated with the design of Harriman, as they do for virtually all other EFC housing projects. The reason for this omission may be that the general contractor assumed responsibility for this work at Harriman. Construction began about March 1918, and some buildings were ready for occupancy by late July. Local newspapers reported, however, that workers Initially refused to live in the new buildings because of high rents. Rents for 1918 are unknown, but in 1921 they amounted to as much as $40 per month.

The carefully planned community, with its wide tree-lined streets, generous building lots, and enclosure of a standard grid pattern within an oval, attests to the EFC's efforts to build model communities, not merely barracks and quarters for workers. This attention to workers' needs and desires is also evident in the design of the individual buildings. Several standard designs are used throughout the community, a practice that simplified and facilitated construction, but the overall appearance of the streetscapes is not one of unwavering uniformity. Buildings that contain multiple units are articulated in such a way that the individual units stand out as separate components of the overall composition. These building and design practices reveal a clear effort to provide families and workers with a sense that they lived in an individual apartment or house, not simply at a specific street number. The EFC's philosophy of what constituted appropriate worker housing, and Its efforts to implement this philosophy by constructing buildings that visually expressed individual units, stands in sharp contrast to the absolute uniformity found in the six rows of worker housing constructed on the Harriman site by the Standard Cast Iron Pipe & amp; Foundry Company about ten years prior to the onset of the EFC project. These rows, purchased by the EFC and incorporated into the Harriman community, reflect an attitude towards workers and workers' needs antithetical to that adopted by the EFC. The starkly uniform, unadorned buildings attest to a desire to provide workers with little more than shelter. As a result, the juxtaposition of these bleak rows with the EFC housing Is striking.

Merchant Shipbuilding continued to operate the Bristol shipyard under contract to the EFC after the Armistice, and Harriman continued to serve as the residential community for the shipyard's workers. The need for new ships declined dramatically in the years after 1918, and in February 1921 the EFC and Merchant Shipbuilding closed the Bristol shipyard. The Federal government ceased to have an interest in the ownership of Harriman following the closure of the yard, and in December 1921 the entire community was offered for sale at public auction. Individual properties with the community were purchased by both residents and investors. The Borough of Bristol purchased and assumed responsibility for the operation of the various community services and annexed Harriman into the borough as a new ward. The Federal government realized approximately $870,000 from the sale, a fraction of the nearly $5.6 million spent designing and constructing the community. Following the sale of Harriman many of the largest buildings in the community were demolished. By 1927 the Victory Hotel, the Merchant Restaurant, and several of the large boarding houses had been destroyed. These newly cleared sites were subdivided into lots and filled with new houses. Other new buildings were constructed on previously vacant lots located in the western portion of the oval. The shipyard was closed and the various buildings reused for other industrial purposes. The EFC bunt worker housing at three other shipyards in Pennsylvania — Hog Island, Chester, and Essington. At each of these locations the EFC built more than one housing project, unlike the single project that constituted Harriman. The four separate projects at Hog Island housed more workers than Harriman, but Harriman constituted the largest single EFC housing project in Pennsylvania. U.S. Shipping Board records further Indicate that Harriman constituted the largest single housing project undertaken by the EFC in the United States.

The Harriman Historic District's close associations with the massive mobilization of American industry that occurred during World War I, its status as the largest single housing project constructed by the United States Shipping Board's Emergency Fleet Corporation, and its relative integrity all contribute to the historical significance of this government — financed, planned residential community. The carefully planned and designed community is also significant as an example of enlightened attitudes towards workers and worker housing. This aspect of the district's significance is enhanced by the presence within the district of six rows of earlier worker housing constructed by a private firm.

Adapted from: Patrick W. O'Bannon, Principal Historian, John Milner Associates, Inc., Harriman Historic District, nomination document, 1986, National Register of Historic Places, Washington, D.C.

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
Benson Place • Cleveland Street • Coolidge Place • East Circle • Farragut Avenue • Garfield Street • Harrison Street • Hayes Street • Jackson Street • Madison Street • McKinley Street • Monroe Street • Roosevelt Street • Trenton Avenue • West Circle • Wilson Avenue

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