Making Modern Homes: A History of Langston Terrace Dwellings, A New Deal Housing Program in Washington, D.C.

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2007-05-30

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Langston Terrace Dwellings is a complex of 274 units of apartments and row houses in Washington D.C. that opened in 1938 under the auspices of the New Deal's Public Works Administration. Designed by Hilyard Robinson, this modern housing program was built principally by African American professionals for African American families. This study recasts our understanding of modern housing locating it in the broader historical context of modern architecture, urban planning and African American life. Design professionals and residents contributed to the program's early success as an aesthetically pleasing, socially significant community.

This work chronicles how African American residents forged a life for themselves and their children in architect-designed modernist apartments and row houses. I begin with an analysis of the application process in which hopeful residents petitioned the federal government; I conclude with a consideration of the pioneering residents' place-making efforts. In Chapters One and Two, I introduce key figures: first, I highlight the ordinary Washingtonians who applied to move into Langston, and then I profile the architect principally responsible for the formal design program. The hopeful residents relied on individual strategies and extensive social networks to secure a spot in government housing; the architect Robinson also developed and honed individual strategies and extensive social networks to advance his architectural practice and to obtain a government contract. I explore the European interwar housing estates he visited in Chapter Three and offer a formal analysis of Langston in Chapter Four. In Chapter Five, I return to the ways in which the first cohort of residents worked to make homes and form community.

I marshaled evidence from 2,263 letters applications; city directories; census manuscripts; government project files; private correspondence between architects, reformers and government officials; architectural plans; Sanborn maps; popular and architectural periodicals; and photographs. Additionally, I traced the project's precedents by conducting fieldwork in Europe and the United States. My assessment of the legacy of this project emerged from partnerships with current residents and neighbors. As such, this research relied on a number of interdisciplinary research strategies including graphic documentation, archival research, and community-based collaboration and investigation.

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