1948: BUILDING HIGHLAND ACRES BEGINS
The Bismarck Tribune reported in April 1948 that “Twelve houses are under construction in Highland Acres, the addition on the western edge of the city owned by the Bismarck Veterans Homeowners Cooperative Association.”
The paper said that the housing co-op had also contracted for construction of nine additional homes.
Looking over the building plans for the first round of construction, The Tribune reported “Eight houses are 24’ x 36’, ten are 24’ x 38’, and three are 24’ x 46’. They are shipped in panels and all accessory parts are pre-cut.”
The Tribune continued “Five of the buildings have the upper frame-work in place, four have progressed as far as the main floor on which work will be done at once.”
The Tribune hoped that 21 homes would be occupied by July 1.But the hoped-for construction scheduled proved too optimistic. Only four homes, in addition to the manager’s home and office, were completed over the summer, and The Tribune reported that, “On the 26th of October, the first four families moved into the Bismarck Highland Acres veterans housing addition, at 1118, 1119, 1120 and 1123 South Highland Acres Road. They were greeted by freshly graveled streets, which the city had agreed to do.”
But before construction began, the Association’s board drew up, and the membership approved, a set of strict protective covenants, designed to create what the members hoped would be the most family-friendly neighborhood in Bismarck. Among the restrictions placed on the development were:
- All lots will be for residential use only, except a small area at the entrance to the addition, which is designated commercial, and areas set aside for schools and parks. (Note: the commercial area was later dropped from the plan, and an exception was made for two churches in the addition.)
- Only single-family dwellings, no higher than two stories, with garages, will be permitted.
- All houses are to be for single families only—no apartments will be allowed—except that servants’ quarters will be allowed. (emphasis added)
- All “unsightly service entries, yards, and appurtenances must be adequately and tastefully screened from public view,” and dwellings “shall be of such style and proportions as are in keeping with the residential community.”
- Buildings, fences, walls, walks, drives and other structures must be approved by a committee of the association before being built.
- Hedges, trees, shrubbery and other plantings, as well as landscaping and grading, must be approved by a committee of the association.
- Houses will have 30-foot setbacks from front lot lines and street lines, 8-foot setbacks from side lot lines, and 20-foot setbacks from all easements.
- Seven-foot utility easements are required on side property lines, but they may not be used for vehicular traffic.
- Minimum size restrictions depend on the size of the lot, but none will be smaller than 600 square feet on the main floor.
- Exceptions to the covenants can be granted by the board of directors of the association for specific reasons.
- No trailer, mobile structure, basement, tent or garage may be used as a dwelling.
- Nuisances are not allowed. Examples are refuse piles, unsightly signs, unkempt yards, poultry, livestock and unusual pets, and “ugly fences, ugly landscaping and ugly exterior paint color.”
- No “noxious or offensive trade or activity” shall be carried out on any lot.
- If the covenants are in conflict with the recorded plat, the covenants rule.
At last, two full years after the first meeting was held at the Bismarck Veterans Club, the Highland Acres housing community for returning World War II veterans was becoming a reality.
The manager’s house and Association office was completed in the summer of 1948, and it served as an office, although the manager did not move in to live there. But to speed up development, the Association began a marketing program to sell the lots and get commitments for more houses to be built. In a report to Stockholders dated May 27, 1948, the Association reported it possessed “unselected lots” with a retail value of $107,900, with the average price of a lot being $400.
One of the problems was Association members who found themselves financially unable to follow through on their commitments to build a home in the development. For example, the Association received a letter from Anton Gress of Mandan, ND, that said “Well, I’m pretty long to get together the money to build but I can now see it’s impossible for me so please put my lot up for sale as soon as possible. Answer soon.”
Shortly after the office opened the following ad began running in The Bismarck Tribune:
LOTS FOR SALE
A limited number of lots are now on sale in Bismarck’s modern addition, planned for family living. Spacious lots with plenty of elbow room and expansion for a home. See the Highland Acres development off the west end of Avenue C. Inquire at the Avenue C office.
And seeking to attract attention to the development, other uses were found for the office. On October 2, 1948, The Tribune reported that the house would be used as a Sunday School location.
“To accommodate children living in west Bismarck, Zion Lutheran Church will open a branch Sunday School at the office of Highland Acres at the west end of Avenue C. Beginning Classes will be held Sunday (October 3) at 10 a.m. Parents who are interested are invited to send their children. A recent canvas of the area showed a need for a Sunday School in that sector.”
Church records do not tell us how long the house was used for that purpose, but it certainly was a good tactic by the Association to draw attention to their new development.
The Tribune remained steadfast in its efforts to assist the development. Shortly after editor Simons’ death, The Tribune hired a veteran journalist, John O. Hjelle, as its new editor. Hjelle had been working in Washington D.C. as an aide to Senator Milton R. Young, and had been instrumental in setting up meetings for the Homeowners Association’s board with the Federal Housing Agency, which led to the Agency’s granting of loan guarantees for mortgages by Association members. So Hjelle brought a solid knowledge of the Highland Acres project with him to the editor’s job, and made sure The Tribune’s coverage did not wane as the project progressed.
A story in the paper in June reported that Bismarck was facing a school shortage, in common with the rest of the nation. The school board did a survey, and one of the conclusions they reached, as reported in The Tribune, was “Should the Veterans addition, Highland Acres, on the western edge of the city, develop as is now planned, a site for a new school should be obtained there. At first, a primary school would be sufficient. The site, however, should be large enough that a wing for the intermediate grades could be added if necessary.”
The school became a reality in 1958. According to the Bismarck Public School District’s website, “Highland Acres Elementary was built on land donated to the district by Veterans of World War II in 1958. It was expanded in 1963. The school name reflects its geographical location.”
Today Highland Acres School serves students in kindergarten through grade 5.
DRESSING UP THE NEIGHBORHOOD
As homes began to sprout on the prairie, alongside newly-graveled streets, in preparation for winter’s snows, the Association activated its Community Facilities Committee, under the leadership of Mrs. Kenneth Piper. The committee decided it wanted to take steps do the things “necessary to make this area an ideal neighborhood,” with adequate nursery schools, parks, playgrounds, and nearby commercial establishments to serve the addition, which was a long way (for the times) from downtown commercial areas, schools and parks.
Seeking advice, they sent letters to pretty much anyone they could think of that had experience in developing new communities. The list included:
- Parents Magazine
- The National Association for Nursery Education
- The Child Welfare League of America
- The National Education Association
- The University of Iowa Institute of Child Welfare
- The American Public Welfare Association
- The American Medical Association
- The University of Minnesota Institute of Child Welfare
- The Tennessee Valley Authority
- The U.S. Department of Labor Children’s Bureau
- The Child Study Association
- The Association for Childhood Education
The responses they received have long since been lost, but today’s Highland Acres meets all of those goals except the commercial establishments, remaining 100 per cent single family homes, with no apartment buildings or duplexes, along with parks, playgrounds, a school, and two churches.
By late 1948, the Association had built, and had lined up buyers for, its 21 Farwest-designed homes. The Tribune reported on December 14 that “Some of the 21 home builders have made additional savings through personal labor contributed to their particular houses. The co-op decided that, if any home builder was qualified to do acceptable jobs about the project, he would be credited with the actual cost of these various operations as dictated by work on houses completed by co-op paid labor. As a result, most of the homebuilders waterproofed their own basements. Quite a few did their own primer coat painting, a number installed their own insulation, a few did their own plasterboard or sheetrock work.”
By this time, the development was receiving some national attention, which should have helped to spur sales. The winter-spring edition of Small Home Magazine, which came out in late 1948, had a six-page “picture story” about the development. The magazine called the project “the first successful large-scale cooperative homebuilding venture, and certainly one of the most ambitious to date.”
Lauding the late Ken Simons and the veterans organizations’ efforts to address the housing shortage here, the magazine wrote, “Probably no section of the country needs new homes as much as the Dakotas. Several years of lush wheat and flax harvests and promised completion of the huge Garrison dam which will bring flood control, water for irrigation and industry, and cheap electric power to the whole area have created a large population influx. Bismarck expects to double its population by 1962.”
The magazine story went on “Several factors, based on sound planning and broad vision, are responsible for completion of the first 21 homes at Bismarck and development of a project that will ultimately include 312 single family dwellings, a school and shopping center.”
Here’s an important excerpt from the story:
“The veterans’ planning committee wisely bought up low-cost pasture land at the edge of town, brilliantly planned it as a beautiful safe residential community and offered building sites for sale at less than half the cost of smaller building lots in Bismarck.
“To realize maximum savings, the architectural committee selected standardized building plans which could be most economically built by specially trained labor. To avoid monotony of appearance the committee chose designs so flexible that nearly all the homes on Bismarck’s new Highland Acres development appear to be individually planned.”
Strict zoning is one of the notable features of the development, the article said.
“Although the restrictions are comprehensive, none of them invade individual privacy, but are aimed at preventing the deterioration of all property through the neglect, indifference, carelessness or greed of any individual owner. The aim of all this, obviously, is to avoid the hodge-podge of shacks, cellars apartments and tents that can mar community appearance and lower property values where there are no zoning controls.
Shortly before Christmas 1948, as the addition’s first residents were completing moves into their homes, they received letters from the Bank of North Dakota firming up the Bank’s commitment. One such letter, to Roy Shimer, who was living in his home at 906 Crescent Lane, informed him that the FHA had agreed to insure his $9,200 loan from the Bank of North Dakota, and that his annual charge for the insurance would be $45.48. The bank also confirmed that interest on the 25-year, $9,200 loan would be 3.75 percent, and his monthly mortgage payments would be $47.38.
Imagine that. The Shimers had their own home, on Crescent Lane, one of the prettiest streets in Bismarck (go there today and take a look), thanks to a cooperative formed by veterans, who built the house and then sold it to them, with a loan from the Bank of North Dakota, guaranteed by the United States government, on which the monthly payment was less than $50. The dream had come true.
According to some research done by the State Historical Society of North Dakota, and a search of records at Bismarck’s City Hall, the 21 homes contracted for and built by the Association were all located on either South Highland Acres Road or Crescent Lane. They were at 1100, 1118, 1119, 1120, 1123, 1131, 1134, 1139, 1144, 1145, and 1211 South Highland Acres Road, and 822, 902, 903, 906, 907, 910, 911, 915, and 919 Crescent Lane, and a house at the corner of Midway Drive and South Highland Acres Road whose address was 729 Midway Drive. All thoe original homes remain in place today, although there is currently no house with the address 919 Crescent Lane, but city records show the house at 917 Crescent Lane was completed in 1949, so it is likely that house number was changed from 919 to 917 at some time. Three additional houses at 1127, 1130 and 1134 South Highland Acres road were also completed in early 1949.
A drive down South Highland Acres Road and Crescent Lane today will reveal the similarities in construction, but enough difference in design, to insure that the neighborhood did not look like strings of row houses that you might find in other places which responded to the post-war housing crisis.
Lillian and I live on Arthur Drive, and the houses behind ours, whose lots back up against ours, are 915 and 917 Crescent Lane. Between our lots is a utility easement where MDU runs its power lines. As is the case in most of Highland Acres, the power lines run down the center of the blocks, behind the houses, instead of along the streets, and are pretty much hidden by trees, making the area seem less cluttered. The dream of the Veterans was to put sidewalks down the middle of the block, between the houses, serving the homes on each side, but it likely proved too costly. Today, there are curbside sidewalks on some blocks, but most do not have them. The lawns, trees, flowers, and shrubs, and some pretty nice landscaping, are what the founders of Highland Acres envisioned in those original restrictive covenants, which still remain in place.
But even though their dream of hidden sidewalks for residents to enjoy with privacy and efficiency did not come to fruition, they did the next best thing. Instead of sidewalks, they put the power lines back there. Take a drive, or a walk, through Highland Acres, and as you go down the long, long streets, look up, and ahead, and what you won’t see are power lines running along the streets. The streets are wide enough for parking on both sides—necessary because most homes have single-car garages—and there’s a sense of openness, and a lack of roadside and overhead clutter. Instead of power lines running from the street to the front of homes in Highland Acres, the power lines run from utility easement through back yards to the homes.
You won’t find that in the rest of the city. The minute you drive east on Avenue C and exit Highland Acres—there are only a couple ways in and out—your view is cluttered with long lines of power poles and overhead power lines alongside the street, and that’s the case in much of the rest of the city as well. But not in Highland Acres. The founders did their job well.