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    Local News
    Friday, January 27, 2023

    History Revisited: The History of Groton’s Fort Hill Housing Project (Part 1)

    This drawing, which appeared in the December 1944 newsletter published by the Tenant Council for Fort Hill Homes, shows the layout of the streets and cul-de-sacs where the government's housing project units were built in Poquonnock Bridge during World War II. (Courtesy of the Groton Public Library)

    From 1945 to 1957, during my early growing-up years, my family lived in a small house in a federal housing project called Fort Hill Homes, located in the Poquonnock Bridge district of Groton. Often referred to by those who grew up there as “The Project,” “Fort Hill” or just plain “Poquonnock,” it was a geographical common denominator for “memories of growing up” conversations for many who lived there.

    In 1942, just after the beginning of World War II, the number of employees at the Electric Boat Company increased, as did the number of servicemen assigned to Groton’s Navy Submarine Base and the Coast Guard’s Training Station at Avery Point. As a result, an immediate need developed for additional government housing in Groton.

    Federal housing units previously built at the Branford Court, Bill Avenue Project (once located where Pfizer’s Global Research and Development facilities are today) and the Navy Heights housing projects were completely filled, and additional housing was desperately needed to accommodate this new influx of defense workers, servicemen and their families.

    The Federal Public Housing Authority, after looking at several sites throughout Groton large enough to accommodate the proposed 1,100-plus modular housing units, selected the 400-acre Gardner farmland property, adjacent to the Groton Town Hall in Poquonnock Bridge, for the “CONN 6018” Federal Housing Fort Hill Homes Project. At the time, the land selected for the project was being leased and used by the Ackley Brothers Potato Company to raise a large portion of its potato crop. The fact that the property was being used as farmland lessened the need for site preparation costs.

    The Shennecossett Golf Course property had also been considered for the project; however, public protests by local residents and workers at the Electric Boat Company persuaded the government to exclude purchasing this property for their housing plan.

    The houses built in Fort Hill Homes were comprised of a combination of single- and two- family prefabricated wooden structures, each containing one, two or three bedrooms. When the project was first constructed, it was anticipated that these temporary houses would only be in use or needed for no more than ten years.

    The houses would certainly be considered substandard and non-compliant by today’s building codes and regulations. They were described as being a “framed Cape Cod type” design. Built on large wood cedar support posts, rather than cement slabs or cinder block foundations, the houses were provided with 30 ampere electrical service, and had minimal insulation and galvanized plumbing. The majority of the houses were heated by coal furnaces, and the remaining with kerosene or oil-fired space heaters. Asbestos skirting was installed around the base of the house to reduce the cold.

    One major challenge for the project’s architect and planners was not only laying out and constructing the high density number of units within the confines of the 400 acres, but also ensuring that the finished project was conducive to being a “user friendly” neighborhood setting.

    The ultimate layout design consisted of housing units being built along one circular/curved street (Midway Oval), one dissection street (Central Avenue), and 26 separate cul-de-sacs running off of these main streets. Incidentally, the cul-de-sacs were name alphabetically from the letters “A” to “Z.” Three of the cul-de-sacs and a new connecting street (Fitch Avenue) were built off of Depot Road, an existing street running from Route 12 to the old Midway train facility.

    Construction on the Fort Hill Housing Project units began in late July 1942. Three companies were engaged in assembling prefabricated sections of the housing units, while a fourth worked on building roads and walkways, as well as installing utilities and sewage systems. Two of the companies contracted to build the homes also built on-site construction sheds and saw mills, where much of the prefabricated sections used to assemble the housing units were built. The fourth company had also been contracted to build a “community center” for use by the residents of the housing development. (The community center will be the subject of an upcoming article.)

    By mid-September 1942 approximately one-third of the housing project had been completed. Unexpected delays in the delivery of electrical wiring and the excavation work for installing water mains caused major disruptions in completion schedules.

    On Jan. 27, 1943, it was announced that 150 units were available for rental, and by mid-February families began moving into these newly completed houses. Monthly rental costs — which included gas for cooking and automatic hot water heating, electricity (except for refrigeration) and water — were $29.25 for a one-bedroom single unit, $32.50 for a two-bedroom single unit, and $36.25 for a three-bedroom single unit. Duplex units were about $1 dollar less for each of the same bedroom size units.

    By the end of August 1943, over half of the Fort Hill Homes had been rented. The surplus of housing units remained unoccupied and stored in a large vacant area of the project available for overflow rental purposes should they be needed. In August 1955, 300 of the still unoccupied Fort Hill Homes housing units were donated, without cost, to several towns in Connecticut who had experienced severe flooding damages resulting from two back-to-back hurricanes that struck New England.

    In the late 1950s, the federal government wanted to cease ownership of Fort Hill Homes. It was first offered to the Town of Groton; however, it declined. The government then created a subdivision plan to divide and identify separate units and associated land to sell individually. Once the subdivision was established, it was necessary for the Town of Groton to assume the responsibility of maintaining the streets in the project.

    Many individuals took advantage of purchasing the homes and surrounding property they had lived in. Several other housing units were purchased and then moved from the project to various locations in southeastern Connecticut and Rhode Island.

    Ultimately, private developers purchased the remaining housing units and property. Most of the original housing units have been renovated and brought up to current building codes. Many newer homes have been built on vacant properties owned by developers that were originally party of the project. In either case, the Fort Hill Home area of the Poquonnock Bridge district of Groton remains an important and integral part of Groton.

    Former Groton Town Manager Mark Oefinger contributed to this article.

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