Models of ingenuity Victory Villa: The four-room houses were built as temporary shelter for wartime workers, but they've lasted 50 years, thanks to their owners' creative efforts.

November 26, 1995|By Liz Atwood | Liz Atwood,SUN STAFF

Victory Villa was once a monument to American wartime frugality. Today, it is a testament to human ingenuity.

The four-room cracker boxes all looked alike in 1942 when they were built by the hundreds by the federal government as temporary housing for workers who streamed into Middle River to build bombers at the Glenn L. Martin Co.

Amenities were few. A coal-fired furnace sat exposed in the kitchen, the walls were slabs of a compound called Cemestos, lights were turned on by chain chords and the tiny bedroom closets lacked doors. Pre-cut pieces of the houses would be hauled in on a truck at 7 a.m. and a family would be living inside by 9 p.m., residents say.

Today, the homes are still scattered along streets with names such as Stabilizer Drive, Compression Court and Torque Way in the eastern Baltimore County community, but hardly any looks as they did 50 years ago.

The beige and gray walls have vanished behind brick, aluminum and vinyl siding. Residents have dug basements, built second ++ floors, added garages and porches, and moved the entrances.

Houses that took less than a day to build have taken a lifetime to remodel.

Paul Bauer added a basement garage. Jean and Richard Kruse built on a living room and bedroom. Duward Hart slid his house back 16 feet and built an addition to the front. Bill and Maxine Young knocked down walls and added rooms to accommodate their eight children.

And Charles and Catherine Lawrence have remodeled their house so many times they can't remember all the changes. "Everyone said the house should have zippers," Mr. Lawrence says.

At first the Victory Villa houses contained only two bedrooms, a bathroom, a kitchen, and a living room with a dining nook. Although modest, they were quickly snatched up by the Martin workers, recalls Mr. Bauer, who traveled from Pennsylvania to take a job at the Martin plant in 1942.

Mr. Bauer had a wife, a son and another child on the way when he walked into the Victory Villa rental office. He scanned a list of available houses and chose one across Compass Road.

The family walked up the street to take a look at it and by the time they returned, the house already had been leased to another family.

So, standing in the rental office at the corner of Compass and Fuselage Avenue, he looked out of the window at the house next door. "I said, 'I'll take that one,' " Mr. Bauer recalls.

The little cottage wasn't much to look at. The front yard was churned-up dirt. The wall joists were exposed on the inside. The wood floors were unvarnished.

But Mr. Bauer says the house was fairly comfortable. "It was a nice little house. It was warm." In 1956, the federal government offered the 1,240 homes in Victory Villa for sale, giving residents first dibs on buying.

The Bauers bought their house for $5,000 and set about remodeling. They added eight feet to the side of the house, built porches on the front and back, replaced the coal furnace with gas heat, put drywall over the joists, cut new windows and dug a basement.

Neighbors helped out

"A lot of it I did myself," Mr. Bauer says. But neighbors always were available to lend a hand on big projects.

Mr. Hart and a neighbor helped each other dig basements. Mr. Young helped several families build new walls, and one of his neighbors poured cement for the foundation of an addition the Youngs built.

"If there was a concrete truck here, you'd better be prepared. Every man, woman and child would have a shovel," says Bernice Newman, who has lived in Victory Villa with her husband, Paul, for 31 years.

The previous owners of their house on Nacelle Road had dug a basement, built a new kitchen and added a bedroom. Throughout the years, the Newmans made their own changes, tearing down walls and ceilings.

"We gutted it and started it from scratch," Mrs. Newman said.

'Why move now?'

From time to time, the Newmans considered moving, but found no place they liked better. "Why move now? The house is paid for, and we're traveling," Mrs. Newman says.

For a long while, the Kruses wondered if they hadn't made a mistake buying their house on Stabilizer Drive. The house was so drafty that the young couple could see their curtains move. The bathroom had no place to store towels. And the cottage's four rooms simply weren't large enough to raise two children.

"It was horrible," Mrs. Kruse said. "Our friends said, 'What have you done?' "

The Kruses spent eight years remodeling, adding a front addition, putting up new walls, replacing windows, laying new carpet and building brick porches.

'A great neighborhood'

Now they plan to move to West Virginia, but Mrs. Kruse says she wishes they weren't going. "It's a great neighborhood," she says. "I'd love to take my house and neighbors with us."

The Lawrences, who live on Nacelle next-door to the Newmans, thought about moving to Harford County a couple of years ago, but the house they considered wouldn't hold their furniture. Like many Victory Villa residents, they have labored too long on their house to want to move now.

Soon after they bought the house in 1964, Mr. Lawrence, a carpenter, added an extra bedroom. One year, three days before Christmas, he tore out a wall separating a bedroom and the living room.

"It was a messy time," Mrs. Lawrence recalls.

In 1978, Mr. Lawrence raised the roof and built two bedrooms and a half-bath upstairs, as well as a new kitchen with a loft ceiling and skylight. Two years ago, he tore out all the walls again and replaced paneling with sheet rock.

What's next?

"No more changes," Mrs. Lawrence says emphatically.

Mr. Lawrence takes a drag on his cigarette and muses, "I don't know."

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