Sunday, March 01, 2015

Warner Gardens History

One of the most unique places in Waterbury is Warner Gardens. Located at the top of Long Hill, the decaying complex of buildings seems more like something you’d find in the deep South than in Connecticut. Its history begins with a wartime housing shortage, includes a period of pride and achievement during the Civil Rights era, and is now approaching a transformative ending.

Warner Gardens. Photo by Gretchen Van Tassel, June 1945.
Collection of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library
[Note: updated on March 8, 2015 to include Sanborn map showing all the original buildings.]

WWII Housing Shortage

Although the United States did not enter World War II until December 1941, the nation’s manufacturers were increasingly enlisted into munitions production as the war overseas heated up. By 1940, military manufacturing contracts, increasing the demand for workers, had led to a housing shortage in factory towns including Waterbury. Connecticut established a defense housing committee to help address the statewide housing shortage for factory workers (“New Defense Housing Body Is Announced,” Hartford Courant, 18 Sep 1940).

President Roosevelt signed the National Defense Housing Act, also known as the Lanham Act, in October 1940, authorizing the use of federal grants and loans for public works such as housing for defense workers (and day care centers for the children of defense workers). The construction of “defense housing” had become a national priority.

In February 1941, Roosevelt approved the construction of 300 housing units for defense workers in Waterbury, as well as 300 units in New Britain and 600 units in Bridgeport (“U.S. Defense Housing Plan In Conn. Hit,” Hartford Courant, 5 Feb 1941). The proposed houses would be owned by the U.S. government and rented to defense workers for $25 to $35 a month. Local officials in Waterbury and New Britain initially protested the plan, preferring to develop their own housing projects. They soon relented and agreed to the Federal housing projects, although some tensions continued in Waterbury during the construction project.

The Federal Works Administration sent representatives to Connecticut cities in May 1941 to scout locations for defense worker housing (“FWA Agent Coming to Select Site,” Hartford Courant, 7 May 1941). In Waterbury, two sites were selected for a total of 300 housing units: one just off Long Hill Road, the other off Hamilton Avenue. The Public Buildings Administration put the 300 unit defense housing project out to bid in May, with the John H. Eisele Company of New York City being selected as the lowest bidder at $955,000; Waterbury-based Tremaglio Brothers bid $1,590,000 for the project, making them one of the highest bidders for the project (“N.Y. Firm Bids Low On Waterbury Housing,” Hartford Courant, 30 May 1941).

The Waterbury project was the first defense project to be awarded on a competitive basis; the contract with the government required that the project be completed within 130 days from the start of construction (“Army’s Contracts in Day,” New York Times, 11 June 1941). The Federal Works Administration appointed David T. McGrath of Flushing, NY as the manager of the Waterbury housing project on July 26 (“Housing Manager Named for Waterbury Project,” Hartford Courant, 27 Jul 1941).

This was a difficult period for Waterbury’s municipal government. Former Mayor T. Frank Hayes had been convicted in 1939 of defrauding the city, stealing millions through no-bid city contracts handed out to cronies, and crippling the city with exorbitant mill rates to pay for his fraud. Although it’s not surprising that the federal government preferred to oversee the housing project themselves, it appears that at least some Waterbury officials resented the Fed’s control. On September 4, 1941, Waterbury’s City Plumbing Inspector, James R. Walker, obtained warrants for the arrest of nine plumbers brought in to work on the Long Hill project after refusing to issue permits for them to connect sewer pipes from the housing project to the city sewer line (“9 Plumbers Arrested No Licenses Charged,” Hartford Courant, 5 Sep 1941). Two months earlier, Walker had attempted to press charges against another contractor working on the housing project, claiming he was violating city and state plumbing codes.

The Long Hill defense workers housing project, completed sometime near the end of 1941, consisted of barracks-style buildings clustered along Warner Street, Garden Circle, and Warner Place. It was dubbed “Warner Gardens,” a bucolic sounding name derived from the names of the streets on which it was built. At the time, with no surrounding trees, Warner Gardens boasted impressive views overlooking the city. Each building contained multiple apartments, ranging from one to four bedrooms. Fixtures included coal-burning stoves with 20-gallon hot water tank attachments, coal-fired space heaters, flush toilets, and metal showers.

Warner Gardens. Photo by Gretchen Van Tassel, June 1945.
Collection of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

Soon after the first defense workers moved in to their apartments at Warner Gardens, they found themselves needing help from their Congressman to address the inflated rents they were being charged. Although originally advertised as costing no more than $35 per month, rents at Warner Gardens were as high as $58 per month, with an additional flat fee of $8 for water, gas, and electricity. Of the 122 households at Warner Gardens, 33 signed a petition in February 1942 claiming that their rents were too high. The rents were eventually adjusted: by 1945, they ranged between $29.50 and $38.

Several barracks-style housing projects for defense workers were built in Waterbury during the war. The project off Hamilton Avenue on Rawley and Goss Streets, built at the same time as Warner Gardens, was named Hamilton Heights; it was converted to low-income housing by the city after the war and is now a condo complex. The Porter Homes Project was built between Meriden Road and Wolcott Street; also used for low-income housing after the war, it was demolished in 1956 and was replaced with an Army Reserve Center in 1958.

Kitchen alcove of apartment in Warner Gardens. Photo by Gretchen Van Tassel, June 1945.
Collection of UC Berkeley, Bancroft Library

Post-War Housing

The end of the war brought a sharp decline in employment for Waterbury residents. By 1949, unemployment in Waterbury was at 12% (“Lanham Act Housing Will Be Inspected,” Hartford Courant, 9 Dec 1949). Meanwhile, the return of war veterans contributed to a housing shortage; in 1946, the number of people waiting for public housing surged from 700 to 2,100 (City of Waterbury, Annual Report, 1946). The two factors combined to create a need for moderate and low income housing. Warner Gardens, Hamilton Heights, and Porter Homes were leased by the City to meet its housing needs. Additional housing projects were planned and constructed during the years following World War II.

The houses at Warner Gardens were vacated in 1954 as the Federal government prepared to demolish the aging “temporary” housing units. The Waterbury Housing Authority was placed in charge of accepting bids for the project, posting the request for bids on the sale and removal of the buildings in May 1955. Nearly two-thirds of the buildings were eventually torn down, including 9 apartment buildings on Judson Circle, a street which no longer exists, and 12 apartment buildings north of Warner Place.

Following the devastating flood of August 1955, Warner Gardens received a reprieve: the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency directed the Public Housing Administration and the Waterbury Housing Authority to refurbish the apartments, installing new stoves, refrigerators, and toilets, in order to provide housing for the approximately 200 families left homeless by the flood (“Waterbury Homeless Get Housing Lift,” Hartford Courant, 28 Aug 1955 and “Offer special disaster loans to help rebuild flooded areas,” American Builder, 1 Oct 1955).

Insurance map showing the original buildings,
including ones torn down during the 1950s.

Sanborn Atlas, Volume I, page 64

Warner Gardens Cooperative Formed

By the end of 1956, the Federal Public Housing Administration was ready to finish demolishing Warner Gardens, but there were opponents to the demolition plans. Group Homes, Inc., a private organization based in New York City, was interested in converting both Warner Gardens and Hamilton Heights into cooperative housing. On December 6, 1956, a representative from Group Homes presented their plan at the Pearl Street Neighborhood House. The audience included residents of Warner Gardens and Hamilton Heights, who had been invited to the meeting by Group Homes, as well as Mayor Edward D. Bergin, Corp. Counsel Carmen Cipriano, and Officer Joseph Guilfoile, head of the city’s vice squad (“Cooperative Plan Draws Icy Response,” Waterbury Republican, 7 Dec 1956).

The federal authorities had encouraged the tenants of both projects to form cooperatives and purchase the properties, giving them a deadline of December 14, 1956 to incorporate the co-ops. Mayor Bergin opposed this plan, concerned about the poor construction of the buildings, which had never been intended for long-term use. Bergin called both housing projects “one of the greatest fire hazards in the city,” noting that they failed to meet even minimum building codes. The city’s Building Inspector, John T. Hartley, expressed concerns as well, since some of the apartments had only one exit, the crawl spaces did not have ventilation or light and moisture protection, stairs were not fireproofed, water pipes were corroded, and fire bricks in furnaces were coming loose. The city urged that the buildings be completely renovated, with new electrical wiring and other code upgrades, as part of any plan to turn them into a co-op (“Bergin Gives Warning On Two Projects,” Waterbury Republican, 8 Dec 1956).

Photo of meeting with Group Homes, Inc. on December 13, 1956.
Bronson Library microfilm, Waterbury Republican, 14 Dec 1956.

Waterbury’s residents chose to move forward without Group Homes, Inc., wary of giving their money to middlemen from out of town. At another meeting held at the Pearl Street Neighborhood House on December 13, representatives from Warner Gardens and Hamilton Heights voted against working with Group Homes. The federal deadline to form a cooperative was extended to the end of the month.

On December 29, residents of Warner Gardens voted to form the Warner Gardens Cooperative Housing Apartments, Inc. and purchase the property from the government. Thomas Petteway, a Commissioner with the Board of Public Welfare, was elected Chairman of the Purchase Committee and President of the co-op; Campbell Singleton was Vice-President; Mary Singleton, Secretary; Francis Giesen, Assistant Secretary; and Mary Binker, Treasurer. The new co-op’s attorney, H. John Weisman, travelled to New York City on December 31 to sign the necessary paperwork with the U.S. Public Housing Authority (“Group Votes to Purchase U.S. Project,” Waterbury Republican, 30 Dec 1956).

Approximately 75 tenants were ready to buy into the co-op, with a maximum of 122 members eligible. Membership was set at $200 on a subscription basis. The Public Housing Authority sold the Warner Gardens property to the new co-op for $270,000 spread out over a 15 year period. The cooperative's members were African Americans, many of whom had grown up in the South, never expecting to have the opportunity to become homeowners.


Warner Gardens in the 21st Century

Fifty years later, the Warner Gardens co-op was the state’s only black-owned housing cooperative, but it was also facing a severe financial crisis. In 2009, the 200 or so residents of Warner Gardens included 15 original members of the co-op, and 30 members who had inherited lifetime leases; other residents included Section 8 renters who appreciated being able to live in a larger apartment at the decaying, low-rent Warner Gardens than at better maintained and higher priced locations (Penelope Overton, “Despite black-owned housing co-op’s $1.6M debt…,” Republican-American, 13 Dec 2009).

House on Garden Circle, July 2014.

House on Garden Circle, July 2014.

Residents were elderly, living on meager Social Security incomes, or younger and struggling to get by on welfare. Half of the apartments were abandoned and blighted. A massive water leak and an inaccurate property assessment slammed the co-op with bills it couldn’t afford to pay. Warner Gardens filed for bankruptcy in 2007; after several years of negotiating their debt with the city, the remaining cooperative members finally voted to sell the property to a developer in 2011 (Penelope Overton, “Co-op looking to close up,” Republican-American, 1 Jan 2012).

Omni Development Corporation, an affordable housing developer based in Rhode Island, agreed to take on the Warner Gardens project. The company’s president, Joseph A. Caffey, was quoted as saying that the terrible living conditions at Warner Gardens brought him to tears, that he had “never seen people living in such bad conditions.” (Penelope Overton, “Replanting Warner Gardens,” Republican-American, 11 May 2013)

House on Garden Circle, July 2014.

The agreement with Omni included helping residents move into new apartments and assisting them with the increase in their rent during the demolition and reconstruction period. Rents at the rebuilt Warner Gardens are expected to be significantly higher than before demolition, but Omni has pledged to base rents on tenant income, hoping that residents will be able to return to Warner Gardens when it is rebuilt.

House on Garden Circle, July 2014.

In 2013, the state began to get involved in turning things around at Warner Gardens. State Rep. Larry Butler has been a vocal advocate of the project, working with the cooperative to move things forward. In May 2013, Governor Malloy announced that Connecticut would invest $250,000 in the form of a predevelopment loan to Omni Development Corp. (later increased to $294,000). They also received $5.2 million in state housing capital funds in July 2014, and a $700,000 Webster Bank loan. The Connecticut Housing Finance Authority awarded $1.4 million in tax credits for the project in April 2014.

Governor Malloy announcing funding for the redevelopment project, May 13, 2013.

From left to right: Commissioner of Housing Evonne Klein, President Omni Corporation Joseph Caffey,
Chair Warner Garden Co-op Allan Sinclair, Rep. Larry Butler, Governor Dannel Malloy,
Waterbury Mayor Neil O’Leary, Rep. Victor Cuevas, Chairman of Omni Corporation Laurence Flynn.
Photo from Rep. Butler's website.

Omni plans to replace all 122 housing units in several phases over three years. The first phase will include 58 apartments. Although the first phase was scheduled to begin in September 2014, nothing has yet been done at the complex.

Foot path leading from Garden Circle to Warner Street, July 2014.

When Warner Gardens is finally rebuilt, it will no longer be a cooperative. The temporary housing built during World War II will have been used for half a century longer than anyone expected, but its time has come to an end.


Anonymous said...

Just to clarify, all the residents were not African American. My family lived there from about 1956 to the early 2000's. There were other white families living there at that time. The Binkers, the Quirkes, the Andersons, the Larsons, and my family, the Hosiers. that's all I can remember. It was a nice place to raise your kids in the early days. but things
changed as we got older and families moved out.

Roark said...

I'm a grandson of the Quirke family that lived at 35 Garden Circle and I remember some of the Hosier family. My grandmother Sadie, grandfather Jim, my mother Vera and her brothers Jimmy and Johnny all spoke very highly of the Hosiers. And I was just at the New Warner Gardens on 11/5/16 and it is amazing the transformation that has happened. I'm enjoying this blog - thank you for sharing...JT