Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Visiting Phillipsburg's concrete houses

You might recall that earlier this year, we blindly stumbled around Phillipsburg in the futile effort to find an enclave of concrete houses built for Ingersoll-Rand by Charles Ingersoll and constructed with Edison Portland Cement. Never let it be said that I don't eventually find what I'm looking for, even if it takes a compass, pickaxe and night-vision goggles.

All of these houses are constructed of Edison Portland
cement. The light blue house just behind the pole
is probably closest to the original look of these homes.
Okay, so I got lucky. Not long after that initial visit, I found a chat board discussing the P'burg houses and left a message asking if anyone could provide an address. About 10 days ago, someone responded, telling me that she'd found the enclave near Gino's Market on Congress Avenue. Taking a look at a satellite photo of the neighborhood and comparing it against a street map I'd found in an old book about the houses, I determined that the Gino's neighborhood and the Ingersoll enclave were one and the same. Thus, after our Water Gap excursion on Sunday, Ivan and I found ourselves driving back roads to get to Phillipsburg's Valley View section.

Honestly, I wasn't expecting much. Last year I'd attended a Park Service presentation on Edison's concrete houses, and the P'burg houses were represented by a dingy photo of a depressing house that appeared to be wrapped in tar paper. What we found when we got there was pretty cheerful by comparison. The Valley View folks have commemorated the Edison connection in a nearby park, and the area is pretty nicely landscaped, overall. While the houses are fitted cheek-on-jowl in 0.1 acre lots, they've been customized by their owners over the years, sporting a variety of colors, brickfaces and even vinyl siding. I have to admit I liked the original stucco the best, but I totally understand the desire to individualize what used to be totally uniform buildings lining both sides of three or four streets. Along the way we saw a larger though still compact commercial building that, no doubt, was originally built to be a community center.

We were fortunate to be invited into one of the houses to take a look around, and true to the billing, these are sturdy structures. They're also very small. As soon as you walk into the door, you're basically in the living room, with a staircase to one side and a shallow sitting room to the other. Immediately behind the living room is a shallow kitchen, and to the other side is an elevated porch that leads to the backyard.

Ducking as not to hit our heads on the ceiling, we climbed the stairs to the second floor to find two small bedrooms just large enough to accommodate a queen-size bed. There's also a shallow front room that maybe could accommodate a small home office. In brief, you'd definitely have to take careful measurements of any furniture you'd buy for the second floor. That, or plan on getting it flat shipped from Ikea, build it in the room you'd use it in, and be prepared to break it apart when you move.

When Edison first envisioned the concrete house, he saw it as a replacement for slum dwellings, an inexpensive alternative that the average worker could buy for just $1,200 (as any real estate agent would tell you, comparing your house with a slum isn't likely to attract many buyers). Ingersoll-Rand saw them as efficiently-constructed housing for laborers working at its nearby factory. Nowadays, I'd venture that they're considered starter housing for young marrieds or singles who want to build equity or would rather have detached housing than a condo. Even as an Edison geek, I'd shy away from the opportunity, though. Just too claustrophobic.


Want to learn more about Edison's many experiments? Check our our stories on his developments in iron ore production, the first town to be fully electrified, his Menlo Park electric railroad, and his West Orange invention factory. You can also learn why his 29 room mansion was a real steal.

6 comments:

  1. So what's the square footage? Claustrophobia is a rather subjective thing.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, Ray. The total square footage for these three-bedroom houses is about 1000 square feet. I spoke to a real estate agent about room size, and she said she didn't know, but the houses are "comfortably cozy."

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  2. I must say I was pleased to see this piece on the Valley View homes in Phillipsburg. As an owner of one of these tiny but awesome homes it is always good to see an interest in the heritage and history behind them.

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    1. Thanks, Diana. We're big fans of Edison's creativity and really enjoyed visiting the Valley View community. I'm really glad you found us and hope you continue to read Hidden New Jersey.

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  3. I was happy to find your piece -- I've worried that memory about Valley View would fade. I've often wondered whether the enlightened social policy manifested by Ingersoll-Rand in making well-maintained low-rent housing to their workers is remembered. I grew up there, from first grade at nearby Brensinger school in 1940, through graduation from Phillipsburg High. Most of my playmates, like me, were first-generation and benefited from the diversity of cultural backgrounds. The continuous backyards, uninterrupted by fences, gave us free range. We could explore the ruins of the Morris Canal in the valley below, annoy the workers from Reedy's farm in the adjoining fields, skate on the creek in winter, and, in summers of the early 40's, beg for ice chips from the driver of the horse-drawn wagon that supplied homes with iceboxes. Delivery vans from great Italian bakeries and a dairy made daily rounds. Regular bus service to the central square in Easton circled Valley View. What a great place to grow up! I feel I owe a debt to Edison and Ingersoll for their development of Valley View

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    1. Sounds like a great childhood, Leslie! We're glad you found us.

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