Researcher's Guide

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Researchers Guide for Developing a Context for Evaluating Post World War II Suburbs
for National Register Eligibility

About the Guide

The goal is to summarize the historical development and potential significance of the Post World War II subdivision, 1945-1965. In order to evaluate a resource's significance as an example of such a housing development, it is necessary to place it in its local and regional context. Suburban development, from the railroad suburbs that emerged in the nineteenth century around Philadelphia, to the streetcar and early automobile suburbs of the early twentieth century, to the Post World War II and early freeway suburbs that sprang up quickly and with force in the mid twentieth century, has had a great impact on both Pennsylvania's history and landscape.

There are general character defining features of a postwar housing development, particularly ones that followed Federal Housing Administration (FHA) minimum property requirements or the Urban Land Institute's Community Builder's Handbook. For example, the curvilinear subdivision design was standard, and there was a "protection of values through appropriate deed restrictions (including setbacks, lot sizes, and minimum costs of construction)." In general, postwar subdivisions tended to be outside of the urban city center and located near interstates and highways. Most often, the builders offered a limited number of house plans and architectural styles. New shopping centers, parks, schools, churches and other community facilities were often located in or immediately adjacent to the housing development. Often housing developments consist of one or more "phases" developed within a close time period, with dwellings that either continue the setting and architectural styles or develop into later house plans and practices of that later period.

Since postwar subdivisions are a ubiquitous type, not all examples will automatically be significant. This document has been created to provide guidance in determining significance of the common postwar subdivision using various trends and criterion shown to be widespread in Pennsylvania. This does not mean that all postwar subdivisions were "cookie cutter" or consisted of mass-produced housing or "tract homes." Modern architects and landscape architects created aesthetically united subdivisions, used progressive materials and designs, and worked in harmony with their surroundings. Therefore, it is possible that some subdivisions may not fit under the trends or criterion discussed here.

Please be aware that Public Housing is NOT covered under this Researcher's Guide. The PHMC has on file copies of the draft Public Housing in the United States, 1933-1949, Historic Context and the draft Public Housing in Philadephia MPS for those interested in pursing this avenue of research.

It is the PA SHPO's position that rigorous evaluation of a property's significance and integrity must be employed to reduce a vast group of similar resources to a meaningful list. Instead of applying typicality of the resource as an indicator of significance, evaluation under the National Register criterion should identify additional important qualities as outlined in this document, and by selecting the outstanding examples, a list of truly important postwar suburbs can be assembled from a large number of similar resources.

In order to identify meaningful patterns which can be used for a basis of evaluation, it will be necessary to evaluate the subdivision in a broader context than the immediate neighborhood or even municipality in which it is constructed. For Pennsylvania, Post World War II housing developments date from 1945 to 1965. Please note that if the majority of homes in a given subdivision are less than 50 years of age, a case for exceptional importance (Criterion Consideration G) will be required.

The U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, National Register Bulletin Historic Residential Suburbs: Guidelines for Evaluation and Documentation provides a history of suburban neighborhoods in the United States . This bulletin was produced in conjunction with a national multiple property listing entitled Historic Residential Suburbs in the United States, 1830-1960 (PDF). For additional information on preparing a Historic Context for Individual Properties and Historic Districts, please see BHP's Historic Context Guidelines (PDF).


Correction regarding Criterion B in Researcher's Guide: "Because it is important to be able to evaluate the accomplishments of an individual objectively, with the benefit of historical perspective, the function of the Register would be substantially changed if the National Register were to become a means of honoring living figures. Therefore, properties associated with living persons generally are not considered eligible for inclusion in the National Register. If a person ceased making contributions in a field of achievement for a sufficient length of time to allow a scholarly and objective assessment of his or her role within that field, the NR will consider listing a property that represents the person's assessed significance. The NR criteria define a sufficient passage of time as fifty years unless the individual's accomplishments can be documented as having been exceptionally significant" (NR Bulletin Guidelines for Evaluating and Nominating Properties Associated with Significant Persons, 12).

Miss Spectacular 1957
Miss Spectacular, 1957
Photo Courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg; Record Group 12; Records of the Department of Highways; Bureau of Public Information; Photographic Unit's Governor's File; (Series 12.13); [negatives 1548-1549].