Victory Villa marking 50 years of stability

March 31, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

In 1942, in the early days of World War II, the United States geared up to strike back at the Axis powers and "victory" was the national watchword.

In Middle River, construction crews hammered and sawed feverishly, throwing up hundreds of four-room, one-floor houses as "temporary housing" for the thousands of workers pouring in from all over the country to build bombers at the Glenn L. Martin Co. plant, the forerunner of Martin Marietta Corp.

The federal government built the largest development. It had 1,200 houses and was named Victory Villa to commemorate the patriotic fervor that was sweeping the nation. The streets were named for aircraft components -- among them, Left Rudder Court, Right Rudder Court, Fuselage, Compass and Yawmeter roads, Altimeter Court, Stabilizer Drive and Torque Way.

Two open areas -- where schools stand now -- were cultivated for Victory Gardens, which were overseen by a community garden club.

Victory Villa was the second such development in the area. The first, Aero Acres, a 300-home development that adjoins it, was built by Martin in 1941.

Until World War II, Middle River was a distant suburb of farms and summer waterfront homes. But the war, and the 5,000 units of wartime housing put up by the late Glenn L. Martin and the government, changed it completely.

When the war ended in 1945, and the Martin work force was reduced by more than 40,000 locally, expectations were low for the future of the little "temporary" houses. The walls of most of the houses were made of compressed-board panels called Cemestos. A coal- and wood-burning stove stood in every kitchen to fuel the hot-air heating system.

But Victory Villa hung on as the "affordable housing" of its day. Many of the out-of-staters who came to Maryland during the war to build bombers returned home. Others, however, remained in their adopted state; some continued to work at Martin and others found jobs elsewhere in the area.

They continued to rent their houses; monthly payments rose from $15 to $35. In 1956, the Federal Housing Authority put the houses up for sale. Residents recall it was like Opening Day at the ballpark as people queued for hours for a chance to own a home.

Prices ranged from about $3,400 to $6,000. Those already living in Victory Villa had the first chance to buy the properties; veterans came next; and then the public.

With a generation of new homeowners in place, Victory Villa began its transformation from "temporary" wartime housing to the pleasant, working-class community that it remains today. And now, few of the houses resemble those of the World War II vintage.

Many homes have been restyled into ranchers, split-levels, Cape Cods or other more unique designs. Nearly every house has been improved. Siding, shingles, Formstone or brick grace the exteriors.

At least 80 percent of the homes have had major additions including second floors, extra wings, relocated windows and doors, porches, decks and full basements, says Duward E. Hart, 65, who has been president of the Victory Villa Improvement Association for 20 years. His own home, on Stabilizer Drive, has changed dramatically. "I moved this house back 16 feet when I had the basement dug and added a whole front part of the house," he says.

Victory Villa has always been a stable, working-class neighborhood and it remains that way today, though much of its population is aging. This year marks the community's golden anniversary.

Among those residents who remember the earliest days are Paul S. Bauer, 81, an auto mechanic originally from the Allentown, Pa., area, and William F. McBeth, 84, who left the Nebraska Dust Bowl to work at Martin. Both men -- first as renters, then as owners -- live in houses they watched being built.

In the beginning, houses were going up at a rapid rate and people were moving in as fast as they could, even though grading and interior finishing weren't complete, Mr. Bauer recalls. "They gave me shellac to do the floors before we moved in," he says. "I had to get a bag of coal [to produce enough] heat so the shellac would dry. The man at the coal yard wouldn't let me buy or borrow a coal bag, so I had to carry it in a paper bag."

Pointing into the modern kitchen in his transformed house, Mr. Bauer notes the comparison: "The hot-air coal furnace stood right there, where the refrigerator is now."

The Bauers' house sits on a large corner lot on Compass Road. "We've added a basement, 8 feet on the bedroom, front and back porches, all new windows and a big bay window in front," Mr. Bauer says. "We paid $5,600 for the house, but we've put a lot of money into it. This house is nothing like it was."

Depending on the improvements, houses in the area now command prices between $75,000 and $95,000, says Mr. McBeth, who also lives on Compass Road. He recalls that during the Dust Bowl drought many Nebraska families like his were forced off their land, because "we couldn't grow anything for years."

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