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Commandeered Housing in WWI Washington, DC: A Federal Landlording Nightmare

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By Matthew B. Gilmore

A startling (if cryptic) heading appears in the April 27, 1918 Washington Herald, “May oust tenants from District Homes.” Legislation then pending in Congress, known as the Swanson housing bill (sponsored by Senator Claude A. Swanson of Virginia), would give the Secretary of Labor the authority to commandeer private residences in Washington, DC for housing war workers — whether that home was currently occupied or not. Astounding if true.

Apr. 27, 1918 Washington Herald article on pending housing legislation in Congress.

The Evening Star had reported earlier in the month, on April 1st, on the Congressional debates on an amendment to provide $10 million for war worker housing in Washington. Representative Henry A. Barnhart of Indiana called for investigation of those (obdurate) homeowners accused of refusing to do their part to house war workers and ensured that commandeering language was included in the bill.

Undated image of Henry A. Barnhart. photo–Henry A. Barnhart collection, Rare Books & Manuscript Div,, Indiana State Library.

Apr. 1, 1918 Evening Star “May Commandeer Houses.”

A week later the Star was reporting an extremely ambitious combination of measures introduced by Congressman John P. Maher of New York for expanding housing by means of reverting back to the original residential use of buildings which had been subsequently converted to office use. Other provisions included $5 million to construct temporary housing and $1 million for permanent housing, a fund for those opening boarding houses, the purchase of existing residential properties, and a push on the room registration office to find space for 10,000 workers in existing properties.

The dimensions of the pending housing crisis were documented by Major Z.L. (Zenas Lemuel) Potter. At first glance Minnesotan Potter was not obviously a logical choice for the job given that he had been an advertising manager for National Cash Register Co. before the war. [1] However, he had a distinguished and extensive pre-war career in social surveys and welfare research, investigating conditions in Topeka, Kansas, Newburgh, New York, and Springfield, Illinois (to name a few). He was called to serve in the Ordnance reserve in February 1918.

Potter gathered statistics on the growing influx of workers into the District and surveyed Washington for available housing and sites with potential for the construction of housing. Among other findings stated in his report was the following:

“. . . it appears that between that date [March 1] and December 31 about 26,300 additional civilian employees with 2,600 members of their families and about 1,000 officers with 1,500 members of their families, a total of about 31,400 persons, will require housing in Washington. Of this total about 18,400 are expected before July 1 and 13,000 between July 1 and December 31. This is at the rate of about 1,065 per week until July 1 and about 495 per week thereafter. It is estimated that from 60 to 65 per cent will be women.” [2]

The projections might shift but the gravity of the situation was clear — Washington’s population in 1910 had been 330,000. Adding the population of a small city, accommodating nearly a 10% increase in population in just nine months (and with the months quickly ticking past) would be a huge logistical, legislative, and financial challenge.

The bill was sent from the House of Representative’s labor committee to its public buildings committee on February 13th. The legislative wheels ground slowly but on April 4th news reports had the bill nearing passage.

Apr. 1, 1918 Evening Star “Housing Bill lacks fund; to amend it.”

A new measure to address the housing problem nationally would be passed at a quickening pace – on March 1st the U.S. Shipping Board was authorized to spend $50 million for housing; on May 16th $60 million was authorized for worker housing and transportation; ob June 4th the funds were appropriated, and on July 8th increased to $100 million. [3] Progress on Washington housing was slower.

By April 29th the Star could describe in an editorial a legislative compromise package that included commandeering. The editorial suggested that provisions should include appropriate compensation for the commandeered property and a fair rents provision. The influx of war workers into Washington might be slowed by diverting some to other cities and making the “maximum use” of those already in the District. The editors thought the commandeering provision should be “nation-wide in application,” in all fairness.

Curiously, by June 26th, the Star was reporting that both Major Potter, who had projected the huge influx, and Edwin Hege, who headed the room registration service, “. . . feel that that housing problem is rapidly being solved.” Dormitories to house 6,000 might prove sufficient according to the paper.

Over the next few months the legislation, funding, and people came together to address the issue. Potter, perhaps frustrated by the slow pace or perceived inadequacy of new resources, bowed out and moved to create a statistical clearinghouse at the War Industries Board

United States Housing Corporation

The United States Housing Corporation (USHC) was established on July 9, 1918 as the mechanism for the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Industrial Housing and Transportation (BIHT) to spend the huge sum of $100 million appropriated by Congress for building housing and transportation for war workers across the country. [4] The USHC planned developments in over 90 communities across the United States and began work on many of them. It is here that Washington and national planning diverges.

Nationally, the USHC planned permanent housing in those communities across the country — an example being project #157 in New London Connecticut. The project was under the supervision of Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. and the 64 houses were designed by alumni of the offices of McKim, Mead, & White. [5]

In Washington no permanent housing made it off the drawing board, although dormitories, or Government Hotels, were constructed at Union Station Plaza.

Composited 1922 aerial view of Washington with the superimposed stars indicating temporary buildings (or site thereof in the case of recently demolished buildings A and B). South of Union Station, at right, are the war housing “Government hotels.” North of B Street at the far left are the civilian agency tempos. image–compiled by author with base image from Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

Commandeering Process

In his testimony to Congress in 1919, Edwin Hege made the commandeering process sound fairly routine and anodyne:

“. . . [T]he houses were first commandeered by the real estate and commandeering division of the Housing Corporation; that they functioned through there. Then if the houses needed repairs of any kind preliminary to use, the houses went to the construction division for repairs. Then if a house was to be a so-called operated house, where the Government paid the expenses and received the income, and furnished what was necessary, that was gotten through the operating division. Those things having been attended to, then reverted to what was known as the Washington Committee on Commandeered Houses, which then turned it over to me with instructions as to its disposal. [6]

It was an extremely hostile hearing, so Hege would not have volunteered any of the challenges the USHC had faced and overcome. The committee was formed in August of 1918 and comprised Dr. James Ford (Housing Bureau), William E. Shannon (USHC Real Estate and Commandeering Division), and Allan Robinson (USHC Operating Division). Hege was head of the Rooms Registration Program, soon absorbed into the USHC.

Early undated image of William E. Shannon, real estate developer. Park View D.C. blog, Aug 25, 2015.

Nothing like this had been done before, so a flurry of memos (carefully preserved at the National Archives) document the discussions. [7]

The BIHT and USHC made a logical turn to a prominent real estate man — William E. Shannon (of Middaugh & Shannon) — to oversee the real estate and commandeering program. Middaugh & Shannon were pioneers in the development of the Bloomingdale neighborhood and later, portions of Park View. Additionally, from the early 1900s to 1922 they developed property in Woodley Park — ultimately building over 900 dwellings in Washington. [8]

The process was detailed (or cumbersome, depending on one’s perspective). Houses were first identified (Potter had done his survey in the Spring). The title company was contacted for ownership information and title. Identified owners were mailed letters indicating he government’s intention to commandeer. Next the house was appraised—both to get a complete description but to also assess suitability for commandeering and use to board war workers—and determine rental value.

Owners could (and did) appeal to not have their property commandeered.

Aug. 29, 1918 memorandum (excerpt) from “Report of meeting of Washington Committee on Equipment of Houses.” Example of progress (and lack thereof) in commandeering. National Archives RG3.

Some very pragmatic rules of thumb were developed by Shannon at the outset: no dilapidated houses; avoidance of high-priced houses (unless very big); avoidance of houses under construction. [9] Expensive houses could lead to difficult liabilities as would the large depreciation on newly constructed homes.

Another seven houses were suggested on August 29th. And a correspondence passed amongst committee members urging extreme caution in placing tenants in commandeered housing this soon. By September 3rd another 11 houses had been identified. That same day responsibility for managing the commandeered properties was shifted so that the interdepartmental Washington Committee on Equipment of Houses was looped out and the Operating Division of the Bureau of Industrial Housing and Transportation of the Department of Labor would retain control and management of the houses.

Compensation to owners was decided that same day: a fair value would be determined by a professional appraiser and that would be the basis of the offer Shannon, manager of the real estate division, would make to the owner. If owners refused they would be given 75% of that amount and directed to the courts to resolve the difference.

More houses were suggested. Randall Hagner (a leading realtor) sent a list to Shannon on September 5th which included some in Georgetown — 3015 Q and 3100 R Streets; the Hollerith House in the 2800 block of Q and another one on the southwest corner with 28th Street; and the house at 35th and Prospect Streets. (Probably all of those were too expensive or prominent for Shannon’s taste.) It also seemed that Senator Frank B. Brandegee of Connecticut was looking to rent his 25-room house at 1700 I Street, NW and might be persuaded to participate.

By September 7th a new variation on the plan was adopted: some houses wouldn’t be commandeered if their owners agreed to run them as boarding houses themselves, thereby accomplishing the housing goal but leaving the BIHT out of the administration (and free from legal liabilities). And on September 9th another 10 houses were identified.

Some federal agencies held residential property in Washington. For example, the Department of the Interior had a cluster of houses on New Jersey Avenue and C Streets NW and another two in Foggy Bottom, all of which were turned over for war worker occupancy. At this same time, as the commandeering office was looking for its own accommodation space at 1414 H Street, NW was vacated timely by the War Department which moved to its new temporary offices on the Mall.

Map by the author showing commandeered houses overlaid on a 1916 Washington DC streetcar map. Original map courtesy Library of Congress.

On September 18th all the responsible bureaucrats across agencies conferred again. The police had surveyed vacant properties and found 316 (and 190 not fit for occupancy). New Yorker Otto Eidlitz, president of the USHC, pushed for the taking of houses of prominent residents, including the Townshend House (now the Cosmos Club). Others urged caution. Just two weeks prior they had asked President Wilson for a public letter of support, but he had refused. [10]

Houses chosen for commandeering were known as “operated houses,” to distinguish them from boarding houses run by their owners at the behest of USHC. Inevitably, the issue of how to fill these houses arose; here the Washington Committee on Equipment of Houses came back into the picture to manage placement. By September 12th the group made the decision to start placing residents immediately. Then, on September 25th the interagency Washington Committee on Equipment of Houses was abolished. A new canvass of housing was begun by uniformed soldiers to identify vacant properties and vacant rooms.

Mapping today the commandeered houses shows that adjacency to streetcar lines must have been considered, if not expressed in writing. With nary an exception, operated houses were no more than two blocks from a streetcar line.

Ultimately, 141 houses were considered and 96 of those released back out from the program on condition that the owner would voluntarily house war workers (as per a signed agreement). Fewer houses commandeered meant fewer properties to track and manage. Of the houses operated by the USHC, slightly over one-third still exist — mainly those in Northwest north of M Street and west of 16th Street.

Managing the Stock

Edwin Hege, head of the room registration service, was given responsibility for the properties once commandeered; his colleagues deemed him “town manager” for Washington, DC.

Excerpt from Conference on Commandeered Houses in Washington, pg. 2, Sep. 16, 2018. National Archives RG3.

Hege’s work as landlord pro-tem over all these properties was a huge task, with all the problems of home ownership multiplied. For example, one property, 1536 16th Street, NW, needed a new range and new shades, gas burners, and repairs to the furnace and floors to make it ready. Surely Hege received those notes from Shannon releasing houses from commandeering with great relief.

Buying furniture and maintaining the inventory would dog the program well past its conclusion. Acquisition of individual properties continued to take significant effort and negotiation. 925 Massachusetts Avenue, NW, for example, grew complicated when a Percy Metzger attempted to buy out other heirs to the property and set up a boarding house himself. The housing officials deemed it merely a money-making scheme on his part and denied his request. 1801 Massachusetts Avenue NW (the Wadsworth House, now the Sulgrave Club) was considered but left in the hands of the owner, Mary Wadsworth, who promised to complete repairs and rent out rooms.

Example of property management correspondence; Shannon to Hege, Sep. 27, 1918. National Archives RG3.

The new bureaucracy was catching up with itself and Shannon developed a survey form for potential properties to collect all the pertinent data for decision-making.

Memo detailing required data for house commandeering, Oct., 9, 1918. National Archives RG3.

The question of use of properties outside the District of Columbia itself, such as Georgetown Prep School, Chevy Chase Sanitarium, and Cabin John Hotel, was delegated by the committee to Hege for consideration. Evidently, Hege was not moving fast enough (small surprise considering the scope and detail of the work) and Henry Brigham was put in charge of the acquisition and preparation of commandeered houses, with four assistants, on October 22nd. Two days later, over 50 houses considered for commandeering were released.

Memo from Shannon to the USHC counsel listing 50-plus houses released from commandeering, Oct. 14, 1918. National Archives RG3

House management rules were finally promulgated; management guidelines were given to the matrons, supplemented with an 18-page meal planning guide.

Endings and investigations

But suddenly — the Armistice was declared. And with that, a sudden deflation of all the pressure on the housing programs. An unsigned typewritten summary in the USHC’s records at the National Archives puts it thus:

“The houses, with exception, are giving comfort to the occupants and the rooms in them are still in demand. . . . The commandeering of these homes has, in three months’ time, resulted directly in housing thirteen hundred war workers and indirectly making better housing conditions in Washington generally. It has stopped before the full results expected have been reached, but even so we feel that the results have well justified the actions” [11]

Closeout of this unique aspect of the USHC program was bound to be slow. On June 13, 1919, 13 commandeered houses were still in government hands. The winding down of the much larger national efforts of the USHC took precedence; nearly 100 housing developments had been planned, begun, or neared completion at the time of the Armistice.

Congress kept its eye on the USHC, beginning investigations in December 1918. Most of the investigative energy was spent on the larger efforts of the USHC, but the commandeering did not escape notice.

By mid-1919 the Senate enacted the following resolution (66th Cong., 1st sess., S. Res. 210, Oct. 11, 1919):

“Resolved, That the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, or any subcommittee thereof, be directed to inquire into the costs, construction, operation, maintenance, and future disposition of the public buildings of the Government of every nature, kind, and location and the program and contracts of the various departments of the Government with reference to future costs, construction, operation, maintenance, and location, and report to the Senate thereon, together with their recommendation of any steps which they may deem advisable to take with a view to remedying conditions.”

Over 20 witnesses were called, ranging from some of the women who managed requisitioned housing and boarding houses, architect Waddy Wood, and USHC official Shannon, Hege, The chief contention was whether Shannon had a conflict of interest and – improperly — exempted his properties from commandeering. Committee Counsel George B. Logan (of the St. Louis, Missouri law firm of Cobbs & Logan) seemed to have had the most contentious relationship, exasperating the USHC president and staff with record requests. A Mr. McAllister was a particular pain, as the hearing transcript makes clear:

“[Sunderland] . . . Mr. McAllister came to my office, I think, for about 10 days continuously, sometimes staying close to 6 o’clock, and it was a fencing all the time. There were a great many questions asked, a great many leading questions asked.

“Mr. Logan. He is an expert at that. . . . [12]

Logan seemed obsessed with finding waste, fraud, abuse, or cronyism. The USHC was a big target, having been appropriated $100 million for war housing. Besides imposing the annoying Mr. McAllister on USHC staff, he may have gone so far as to use a private detective to investigate staff members — a rumor he did not deny. The investigations seem to have turned up nothing, despite the expenditure of at least $10,000 on the services of Logan, McAllister, and five other investigative assistants. [13] It is with some irony that one can find a plethora of documentation for the USHC preserved at the National Archives due to this investigation.

The experiment with commandeering private homes for war workers trailed off as the occupants were transferred to other lodgings, such as the government dormitories at Union Station Plaza, or the houses transferred to new owners. It seems that it was just as much trouble winding up all of the commandeered houses as it was to acquire them! The end of the war did not see an exodus of all the men and women needing rooms. Occupants would need to find different accommodation due to leases terminated, matrons dismissed, and properties returned to owners.

A bill was introduced by Senator Bert Fernald, the chairman of the Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds which oversaw and investigated USHC, to abolish the USHC but it did not pass. USHC responsibilities were shifted several times, and in 1942, to the Federal Home Loan Bank Administration executive order. The tricky and intricate business of disposing of real estate dragged on for years. The USHC was only finally dissolved in 1952, and by then the commandeering experiment would have been long forgotten.


Thanks to Ben Peck for his indefatigable research assistance.


[1] Potter, Zenas L. “United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918,” database with images, FamilySearch ( : 14 May 2014), Ohio > Montgomery County; K-Z > image 2660 of 6097; citing NARA microfilm publication M1509 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).

[2] United States Department of Labor. Bureau of Industrial Housing and Transportation. War Emergency Construction (Housing War Workers). Report of The United States Housing Corporation. Volume I-Organization. Policies. Transactions. Washington, Government Printing Office, 1920, p. 297.

[3] Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. “Lessons from housing developments of the United States Housing Corporation.” Monthly Labor Review 8 (May 1919):30.

[4] Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. “Lessons from housing developments of the United States Housing Corporation.” Monthly Labor Review 8 (May 1919):30.

[5] United States Housing Corporation Historic District, New London City, New London County, New London, CT, 06320.

[6] United States Housing Corporation; hearings Before a Subcommittee of The Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, United States Senate. Parts 1, 2, 3. Washington, Government Printing Office, 1919, p. 98.

[7] The (hostile) Congressional hearings into the workings of the USHC doubtless directly contribute to the fullness of the records preserved.

[8] Charles Whitney Gilmore Residence, 451 Park Road, NW Application for Historic Landmark Designation. May 2015. [Note: Despite (or perhaps due to) his real estate development background he had a particular scorn for the USHC’s urban planners—chief of whom was Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. He thought them jumped-up landscape gardeners.]

[9] August 29, 1918 “Report of meeting of Washington Committee on Equipment of Houses.” National Archives Records of the U.S. Housing Corporation [USHC]

[10] Conference on Commandeered Houses in Washington, September 18, 1918, p. 4. National Archives Records of the U.S. Housing Corporation [USHC]. Wilson would also refuse to engage with District officials on the Spanish Influenza epidemic in September-December 1918.

[11] Conclusion of Housing Commandeering Housing in Washington for Housing War Workers, December 14, 1918 National Archives Records of the U.S. Housing Corporation [USHC]

[12] United States Housing Corporation; hearings Before a Subcommittee of The Committee on Public Buildings and Grounds, United States Senate. Parts 1, 2, 3. Washington, Government Printing Office, 1919, p. 269.

[13] Report of The Secretary of The Senate; Submitting a Full and Complete Statement of the Receipts and Expenditures of the Senate from July 1, 1919, to June 30, 1920. Washington, 1920.

References and Resources

See resource list published on author’s Washington DC History blog.

Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

© 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved.