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Post-War Suburban Expansion 1945-1959
By David Kammer
In an article that received national attention, the popular journalist and war correspondent, Ernie Pyle, explained to his readers why he and his wife had chosen to “make our base in Albuquerque” (Pyle 1942:16). A few years earlier, the Pyles, living “like trees in the sky, without roots,” had built one of the first Ranch Style houses to appear in the East Mesa suburbs. Located at the southern edge of the Burton Park Addition on Girard Drive, which Pyle described as “over and above the city,” the house had a “front yard that stretches as far as you can see” with “Mt. Taylor framed in our front window.” In addition to celebrating the meadowlarks and rabbits that appeared in his yard in the early morning, Pyle valued the clean environment where “you aren’t constantly covered by soot and smoke” and the fact that he wasn’t “hemmed in by buildings and trees and traffic and people.”
Though Pyle would die, victim of a sniper’s bullet on Ie Shima in 1945, his praise for Albuquerque’s eastern suburbs was soon shared by countless others. Five years of war had created a large class of people who, like Pyle, were “without roots” and were free to relocate to regions of the country that offered promising jobs, a favorable climate, and unexplored opportunities never before available to great numbers of Americans. Seeking to attract such people, the Albuquerque Civic Council continued to boost the city, urging would-be residents to “Make your home in Albuquerque — A Wonderful Place to Live.” During the war thousands of soldiers going through temporary training schools at Kirtland Air Field, discovered the city’s climate and pleasing southwestern ambience. In the aftermath of the war, as the Cold War and the expanded role of government brought new employees to the area’s national weapons laboratories and other regional administrative offices, thousands of others also chose to make the city their home. In two decades, the city’s population jumped from 35,449 in 1940 to 96,815 in 1950 to 201,189 in 1960. Included in the 1950s population count were over 8,000 government workers (Wood 1980:90).
The city’s response to this rapid growth was similar to what it had done during the 1920s when suburban development first began to push up onto the East Mesa. It sought to expand its boundaries to bring the peripheral suburbs into the city’s boundaries, thereby hoping to inflate its image as an emerging metropolitan area. After failing to get a favorable court ruling as to how to annex outlying areas, city leaders once again prevailed upon the state legislature to pass a law creating a new procedure for annexation. In 1947, the legislature acted, providing a law that created a seven-person arbitration board to decide upon proposed annexations. Within two years, the new law had been applied to Old Albuquerque. There many of the residents, as opposed to annexation as much in 1949 as they had been in the late 1920s, watched helplessly as the largely Hispano community along with other North End subdivisions were annexed to the city (Wood 1980:111). During 1949, many of the other peripheral Hispano suburbs such as Barelas and San Jose, some predating New Albuquerque, were also annexed. On the East Mesa, where developers had purchased quarter and half-sections of land in anticipation of the population growth, a simple request from the property owners of these vacant lands permitted annexation. The city that had seemed so large when its annexations of the late 1920s and 30s had pushed its size to 11 square miles by 1940 encompassed 48 square miles by 1950 and 61 square miles by 1960.
Other indicators of the city’s rapid growth appear in the extension of various city services and permits. Electric connection jumped from 17,037 in 1940, to 44,983 in 1950, to 75,487 in 1960. Water hookups expanded from 9,055 to 25,066 to 53,037, and gas connections multiplied from 10,083 to 39,509 to 68,448 over the same two decades. Building permits, valued at $2.35 million in 1940, ballooned to $33.2 million in 1950 and to $43.4 million by 1960 (Rabinowitz 1981:3).
The 1950 Census, which for the first time included Albuquerque in the category of metropolitan areas exceeding 100,000 in population, also attested to this rapid growth. It indicated that almost 12,000 houses had been constructed during the 1940s with the vast majority of the new construction devoted to houses ranging in value from $7,500 to $14,999. Indicative of the long-term success of FHA financing as a means for encouraging home ownership as well as home financing available to former G.I.s, the percentage of residents owning the detached home in which they resided had jumped from 49 to 72 percent in a single decade (17th Census of the United States Vol. II, Pt.2:13-1-13-12). This boom in the construction of single-family residences would continue into the 1950s. Reaching its zenith in the late 1950s, it would then begin to fade as Albuquerque’s transformation into a true metropolitan area brought with it much greater residential diversity including larger apartment complexes and, eventually, townhouses and condominiums.
Despite the growth that these statistics implied, not all city leaders were confident that it was beneficial. Ironically, Clyde Tingley, who had returned from his four-year tenure as governor in 1938 and shortly thereafter resumed his position as city commissioner and ex-officio mayor, was among those who were most troubled. Retaining a tight control on city government during the war years in which city elections were suspended, by 1947 Tingley found himself in a minority on the commission, bypassed by advocates of reform and a rational, systematic extension of city services. Reduced to an often lone voice opposing such measures as the creation of a city planning department in 1949, Tingley also announced his opposition to the rapid annexations the city was undertaking. Unless developers were required to assume at least a portion of the cost of extending city services, he argued, the city would be faced with a debt of more than $12 million (Wood 1981:104). While the city’s budget had increased from $1.2 million in 1945 to $4.3 million in 1951, the outlay to extend services to subdivisions far out on the East Mesa struck Tingley as foolish.
It would be better, Tingley urged, to prohibit “checkerboard development” and adopt, instead, a policy of infill. It was not until 1953, two years before Tingley finally chose not to run for re-election that the commission, after rejecting earlier proposals following vigorous lobbying against the measures by developers, finally voted to assess developers partial water hookup and road-paving fees. In doing so, the city managed to reduce at least a portion of the costs of extending city services. From 1954 through 1958, these costs were substantial as the city dug 190 miles of water lines and paved 157 miles of new roads (Wood 1980:151). In the longer run, however, many of these costs were mitigated. Unlike many cities already hemmed in by other municipalities and therefore unable to grow and expand their tax bases, through this dynamic process of annexation and suburb creation, Albuquerque continued to expand its tax base. It doing so it managed to increase its revenues, which paid for at least a portion of these extended city services.
At the same time, the reform ticket that now controlled the city commission undertook a number of steps to keep the scope of city ordinances and policies in pace with the unprecedented rate of suburban growth. An Advisory Planning Board created in 1949 was soon given jurisdictional power and initiated a review plan including scrutiny of drainage systems for subdivisions greater than five acres. In 1953, the commission passed the first set of zoning ordinances, designating land use as to rural, residential, commercial, and manufacturing. By the end of the decade, subsequent zoning ordinances would begin to regulate the location of single and multiple dwellings within residential areas. In 1950, a much-publicized report by the Automotive Safety Foundation made recommendations to alleviate the city’s traffic problems afflicting both the downtown core and flow from the East Mesa suburbs into the downtown. Valued as innovative at the time, the report favored the convenience of residents in the more eastern post-war suburbs by designating one-way traffic flow through the earlier suburbs. This decision to transform Lead and Coal Streets from residential to arterial thoroughfares has left a legacy that adversely affects tranquility and pedestrian safety in those older suburbs to this day.
Driven by this rapid suburban expansion, the city also expanded its services. From 1954 through 1958, four fire stations, two libraries and a community center were constructed. Numerous schools were also added with most of the neighborhood elementary schools located on parcels within subdivisions. Even as residential architectural styles in these new subdivisions would begin to shift from regional to national tastes, Louis Hesselden, architect for Albuquerque Public Schools, favored regional styles with many of the schools in the new suburbs employing Territorial Revival details.
This post-war suburban growth marked another phase in the evolution of Albuquerque’s pattern of suburban development. As had been the case in the shift from the streetcar suburbs to the early automobile-oriented suburbs, some elements of the pattern continued unchanged. Many new subdivisions, especially those with more modestly priced houses, continued to use a grid pattern of streets. The empty lots in additions such as Monte Vista and College View that had been extensively developed prior to and during the first years of the war, continued to be developed, increasingly with duplexes and some triplexes so that by 1947 few undeveloped lots remained in the two subdivisions. Much of the construction was still carried out by small residential builders who continued to use the regionally-inspired styles that had been predominate before the war. While examples of these modestly decorated boxes continued in many subdivisions with smaller houses, more ranch houses also began to appear. In fact, many of the post-war houses built in the then-popular Territorial Revival Style assumed the basic plan associated with the Ranch Style house. Located on wider and, often, shallower lots these house offered a widened façade in which a two-car garage on one side was more or less balanced by the private spaces on the other with an often recessed porch, or portale, framing the centrally located “public” spaces of the house in the middle.
Because of the growing popularity of the Ranch Style, first included in New Mexico Magazine’s “New Mexico Homes” section in 1951, many newly platted subdivisions, especially those seeking more well-heeled residents began to shift to wider, shallower lots to accommodate the now-preferred wider house plans. Five-room houses that cost about $3,500 in 1940 and were located on 50 x 125 lots were selling for $8,000 in 1947. Increasing in popularity by 1950, however, were Ranch Style houses on 70 x 120 lots. With three bedrooms, some of these houses sold for up to $9,800 (Rabinowitz 1981:14).
Even as these patterns continued, the demand for more housing was contributing to a rapid alteration in how subdivisions were developed. Although some builders such as Leon Watson, who developed the Watson Addition using the Spanish-Pueblo Revival Style west of downtown and the Los Altos Addition, a suburb west of the Rio Grande, continued the scale of development that had marked pre-war construction, the tendency was large-scale production of housing. The three developers who first took advantage of this broadening of subdivision size and mass production of housing were Dale Bellamah, Edward H. Snow, and Sam Hoffman. With the first two operating companies bearing their names and Hoffman and his son operating the F & S (father and son) Company, the three revolutionized the scale of suburban development in New Mexico.
Beginning with the construction of just three houses in 1947, Bellamah expanded, platting and fully developing entire subdivisions over the next seven years. In 1954, he undertook his most ambitious project, the Princess Jeanne Park, a $15 million project that included 1,600 houses located on 327 acres of land. Offering homebuyers a choice of two styles, “Pueblo” and “Colorock” and three sizes for each style, Bellamah achieved a scale of development never before known in Albuquerque, but one whose scale was determined by the great demand for housing. Rising as quickly but catering to a lower income market, Snow undertook his Snow Heights Addition in 1953 on a quarter section of East Mesa land purchased from W.R. Lovelace. Based in Phoenix, Hoffman undertook the 800-house Hoffmantown Addition in 1950.
Unlike previous residential developers, all three of these developers sought to make their subdivisions even more attractive to potential homebuyers by developing shopping centers adjacent to or near the residential subdivisions. In 1949, Bellamah opened the ten-store Bel-Air Shopping Center, and in 1951, Hoffman opened Hoffmantown, a complex marked by a curving 450 ft. linear building fronted by a sizeable parking lot. Following the passage of the city’s first zoning ordinance in 1953, the siting and development of shopping centers fell under a permit process that these early developers found limiting (Wood 1980:178). Although the practice of lining arterials with commercial strips would continue to characterize suburban growth in the new suburbs of the East Mesa, zoning prepared the way for even larger shopping complexes. By 1960 zoning reviews, leases and land sales had been completed and the way prepared for construction of enclosed shopping malls at Winrock and Coronado Centers.
Not only did these developers expand the scale of suburban housing development, they also sought to address the various niches within the suburban market. Earlier developers such as William Leverett in the Monte Vista Addition and William Keleher and A.J. Hebenstreit in the Huning Castle Addition had developed a single suburban addition with restrictions aimed at attracting wealthier homebuyers. In contrast, these large-scale post-war developers simultaneously promoted several subdivisions, each aimed at a particular segment of homebuyers. At the same time that Bellamah, for example, was aiming his Princess Jeanne Addition at middle-class buyers, he was developing two upper-income subdivisions, Bellehaven and Dietz Farm in the North Valley. Both of the enclaves included architectural control boards empowered to oversee future additions and, in the case of the latter, impose building restrictions (Wood 1980:180). While suburban by definition, these country homes often set on an acre or more of lands and generally embracing enlarged versions of the Ranch, and Spanish-Pueblo and Territorial Styles, greatly expanded the meaning of the term as it had previously applied to Albuquerque’s residential history. Using such tactics to expand their volume of construction, Hoffman and Bellamah’s corporations were, by the mid-1950s, the fourth and sixth largest home construction companies respectively in the world.
While it is often difficult to gain perspective on events in the recent past, the patterns indicative of Albuquerque’s suburban growth during the first half of the century altered noticeably at the end of the 1950s. Previously they had been marked by a process of subdivision plats and annexations, not always in that order, in which the growth was more or less contiguous. Like arcs, increasingly removed from the center point, the houses of these earlier streetcar and automobile suburbs revealed their age through their use of styles popular during their periods of principal construction. During the fifteen years following World War II, this pattern continued as larger annexations and the extension of city services partially offset the increased tendency toward checkerboard growth. Even in instances such as Watson’s Los Altos Addition located outside of the city limits and west of the Rio Grande at the northeast corner of Bridge Street and Old Coors Boulevard, the pattern of gradual movement away from the developed core continued.
In 1960, however, the pattern was completely ruptured when a national developer, the Horizon Land Corporation, announced plans to purchase and develop the Black Ranch west of the Rio Grande and to rename it Paradise Hills. Two years later the American Realty and Petroleum Company undertook a similar project, announcing that it had purchased the Koontz Ranch, also on the west side, and that it intended to develop the community of Rio Rancho. Located well outside of the city’s boundaries and never intended for subsequent annexation, these distant suburbs marked a change in how Albuquerque would grow. While the city would continue in the decades to come to push its eastern boundaries toward national forest lands at the foothills of the Sandia Mountains, the progression of suburban arcs no longer predominated.
By the mid-1950s, the consequences of checkerboard development had already begun to be felt as the Albuquerque Bus Company cut seven East Mesa routes due to a decline in riders that began in 1952. Without a sufficient density of population, public transportation proved inefficient, and East Mesa residents became even more inclined to use their cars. Only with the infill that Clyde Tingley had urged would the fabric of the new suburbs be tightened. One form of infill began to appear with the construction of the Continental Arms Apartment complex near the Veterans Administration Hospital in 1962. With the construction of the high-rise Park Plaza Apartments near downtown and the Landmark Apartments near the Coronado Shopping Center the following year, the emphasis on suburban residences as the city’s primary housing form began to decline. Single unit construction, which had accounted for 84 percent of total units built under residential permits in 1961, fell to 63 percent in 1962 and to 39 percent by 1972 (Wood 1980:250). Characterized by plans for enormous subdivisions well beyond the city boundaries and a growing trend toward large apartments located along arterial roads, by the early 1960s the patterns of suburban growth that had marked Albuquerque’s growth for a half-century had changed beyond recognition.
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Essay taken from "20th Century Suburban Growth of Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1904-1959", National Register of Historic Places, August 2000.