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Old-House Online » Old-House Tips, Restoration Stories, & More » Historic Places » Historic Neighborhoods » An Arts & Crafts-Era Worker’s Village in Newport News, Virginia

An Arts & Crafts-Era Worker’s Village in Newport News, Virginia

A development of World War I worker’s cottages in tidewater Virginia reveals the Arts & Crafts era’s unwavering dedication to quality dwellings. Story and photos by James C. Massey & Shirley Maxwell

    A group of row houses sports varied roof-lines, façades, and porch treatments.

    A group of row houses sports varied roof-lines, façades, and porch treatments.

    Hilton Village, a cluster of more than 300 modest Arts & Crafts-era houses located near the James River in Newport News, Virginia, is more than a quaintly appealing place to live or visit. It is also a seriously historic site.

    Built between 1918 and 1920 in response to the urgent need to bring skilled workers to Newport News’ shipyard during World War I, Hilton Village was the first—and possibly the best—federally funded housing development in American history.

    Unlike most wartime workmen’s quarters, though, Hilton Village was no shoddy, temporary tenement meant to be abandoned when the war ended. These houses, and their community, were built to last. And last they have.

    Decisively Planned

    Designs reminiscent of Old English cottages dignify many of the houses, especially in the complex rooflines and varied materials.

    Designs reminiscent of Old English cottages dignify many of the houses, especially in the complex rooflines and varied materials.

    Led by Henry Vincent Hubbard, a prominent Harvard University planner, a team of architects, landscape architects, and sanitary engineers put together a scheme for a new suburb that would continue to be attractive, permanent, and profitable even after the war ended.

    Hubbard’s “village” was laid out to suggest a neighborly little English country town, in keeping with the “New Town” or “Garden City” concept espoused by British planners Ebenezer Howard and Raymond Unwin in the late 19th century. As a fully planned community in a previously undeveloped place, it provided enough commercial activity along bordering Warwick Boulevard to satisfy residents’ daily needs, while electric trolley service connected them to the wider world of downtown Newport News, about three miles away at the time. Neighborhood schools, churches, and parks kept wives and children happy at home, while the trolley sped the men to their shipyard jobs and brought them home again in time for dinner at the end of the day—an idyllic suburban life.

    Friendly old trees shade the houses, which are arrayed along a grid of straight but narrow streets meant, even back then, to discourage automobile traffic. An engaging optical illusion is achieved by occasional widening, the green street-front verges in the middle of the block to form semicircles on both sides of the street. On Main Street, a somewhat broader thoroughfare that runs from Warwick Boulevard to River Avenue, a number of houses retain their original detached garages at the back of the lots—too small for today’s cars, but offering valuable storage space.

    One of the village's most attractive designs is this single house with a distinctive heavy-timber-framed entrance porch.

    One of the village's most attractive designs is this single house with a distinctive heavy-timber-framed entrance porch.

    These days, the English village concept is most apparent in the mixed commercial and residential blocks of Warwick Boulevard, the broad, divided street at the leading, western edge of Hilton Village, where the trolley once ran. The trolley tracks are long gone, and the median has recently been landscaped and beautified in hopes of restoring the vitality of the commercial area. Shops, restaurants, and even an old movie theater (now converted to a playhouse) are still here, making this an excellent starting point for a Hilton Village walkabout. The extensive size of the suburb may suggest driving at least part of the way, however.

    Choice Offerings

    The buildings themselves presented a wide range of housing opportunities. Most were one-and-a-half- or two-story detached or semi-attached single-family dwellings. A few apartments built above the shops on Warwick Boulevard accommodated bachelors and childless couples.

    Extremely steep, three-story roofs are a distinctive Arts & Crafts feature of a number of Hilton Village houses.

    Extremely steep, three-story roofs are a distinctive Arts & Crafts feature of a number of Hilton Village houses.

    The houses also were carefully thought out before building began. Hubbard’s team interviewed the housewives who would move into the development, and their wish list determined many of the homes’ signature features. Since these were solidly middle-class families headed by skilled mechanics, they asked for quite a lot: hardwood floors, modern kitchens with coal ranges, built-in storage in the bedrooms and dining room, Murphy beds, and efficient heating systems that included both floor heaters and fireplaces. The women also requested big back yards with room for gardening, and safe, quiet streets and sidewalks for their children. Needless to say, these amenities didn’t come cheap—the average house cost $3,200.

    As for architecture, picturesque simplicity in the Arts & Crafts manner was the overriding quality that distinguished Hilton Village. Old English (Tudor) features such as half timber frame (simulated by dark-stained wood “timbers” laid diagonally and horizontally over white stucco walls) were prominent on small “Cotswold” cottages. Simplified Georgian and Dutch Colonial styling lent an air of Early American dignity to many of the homes.

    The arched board door sheltered by a small gabled hood is part of the English-cottage image of the Village.

    The arched board door sheltered by a small gabled hood is part of the English-cottage image of the Village.

    To avoid monotony, these three basic styles were decked out in 14 variations, randomly distributed throughout the district. Almost every street contains a combination of detached houses, double houses, and multi-family houses.

    It takes a bit of looking to realize that the greatest distinctions are found in the roof shapes. Except for the Old English houses, which often have projecting entries, the footprints are standard rectangles or near-squares. The roofs, however, may have front or side gables, jerkin-headed (clipped) gables, or gambrel or hip shapes of steep or shallow pitch. Some of the most fetching designs showcase Gothic-infused Old English details such as projecting entries with improbably steep one-sided catslide roofs. Abetted by differences in the basic plans and materials, these varied rooflines—and the canny placement of buildings on their narrow lots—produce the illusion of exceptional variety.

    Though it was the first of a hundred or so federally funded housing developments, Hilton Village today is a stellar example of private ownership—a little gem in a large and rapidly growing urban setting.

    Published in: Old-House Journal February/March 2011


    Nancy Sault Smith January 22, 2011 at 10:33 pm

    Having grown up in Hilton, I found your article to be most interesting. In viewing the pictures of homes I tried to locate them and I think that I got most of the streets right. I don’t know if you are aware that there was an Inn located one block off of Warwick Road on Main St. It was the Colony Inn and it took up about a whole block. I remember that it was white with dark brown wooden trim. I don’t know when it was built, but it seemed like a rather large place to me as a child.
    I am 68 now and I do have very fond memories of growing up in the Village. To me, we had everything–stores, movies, Hilton School ,churches and the river. We had access to everything and it was within walking distance. What a wonderful place to have lived!!

    Virginia Boyd Coletti February 14, 2011 at 3:46 am

    I love Hilton Village! I lived at 304 Palen Ave. from 1934 to 1948 and enjoyed Hilton School. I had piano lessons with Mrs. Elton Sault who lived on Hopkins St. She had a daughter who must have been Nancy! I have been Organist at Mission Santa Clara (at the Univ. of Santa Clara in California) for 35 years thanks to Mrs. Sault’s training. I would love to hear from Nancy if you can give her my e-mail address. The article was great. Recognized all the houses. Virginia Boyd Coletti
    It was a perfect place to grow up

    Kevin G. Schifino March 23, 2012 at 7:39 pm

    I just recently found this article on the internet. I used to subscribe to Old House Journal. It’s a wonderful magazine and I may just renew my subscription soon. This was a very interesting article about this wonderful residential development called Hilton Village in Newport News, VA. Glad to see the it’s still a thriving community to this day after almost 100 years. This town should have a centennial celebration in 2018!

    I have an extensive collection of antique books on domestic architecture and remembered, after reading this article, that I have a book from 1918 that was issued by the United States Department of Labor and it’s a report of the United States Housing Corporation –Houses, Site Planning, Utilites. The book is an exhaustive volume on war time housing developments that were designed, planned and built all over the country. Hilton Village in Newport News is in this book! It describes the development and a master plan of the development accompanies the text. Unfortunately, there aren’t any plans or elevations of the houses built there, as there are for many of the other developments in this book, but neat to have an historical record of this community preserved in this book nonetheless. Thanks Old House Journal for this article.

    Shari Davenport May 6, 2013 at 4:07 am

    I grew up in Newport News/Hampton Virginia for the first 20 years of my life, much of it spent very near Hilton Village. My step-father worked in Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock, as a piping designer on Nuclear Submarines, as well as his father, who spent all his working life in the “Sailmakers Shop” which, while not actually making sails, was the department that used to make them and transferred its skills into producing the upholstery and other fabric needs of all the ships they built; numerous uncles, one who was an official photographer for the Shipyard for years, and passed away while on the job; cousins, brothers, brothers-in-law, friends and so on. The Shipyard (“NNS and DDCo” as it was known to the locals) still provides enormous amounts of employment for the area, all the way down to North Carolina residents, who ride chartered buses to and from work daily, starting hours ahead of their shifts; and it has for a couple hundred years (or so it seems!) Having been raised near the Village, but unfortunately not in it, I remember countless drives down Warwick Blvd through it to and from the Shipyard taking my stepdad to work and/or picking him up from it, admiring the houses and the unique architecture that just seemed pocketed right there, like something caught in a time capsule. I do recall having taken art lessons in a small studio facing on Warwick Blvd in the Village for a time, but not having inherited the talent from my mother and her side of the family, those didn’t last too long! It seems my talents lay elsewhere actually!
    I have just started perusing this site on the Internet, and found this article when I clicked on a link promising information on Historic Neighborhoods, and I was extremely pleased to see a piece of home right here! I have lived in Indiana since 1978, after marrying a man in the Air Force, stationed right up the road at Langley, and after he got out, we moved to his neck of the woods. I miss home a lot, and go back at every opportunity. Hilton Village has always been one of my favorite spots to go back to every time I get the chance, and I enjoy that touch of home very much.

    Steve August 29, 2015 at 10:26 pm

    There is also the Village Theater which as the article points out is now an actual theater. My friend and I went all the time during high school and college during the late 80s and early 90s. At the time it was $1 admission and there was an old lady at the window with rows of pennies that would slide one to you. On Thursday movies were 75 cents! Lines would stretch all the way to the parking lot.
    Monty’s Penguine and The Blue Star Dinner were our resturants of choice. If you planned to have desert at Monty’s you better call abead and reserve a piece of pie or you were out of luck. The Blue Star had specials that included salad and rice pudding for about $3.50. The Daily Press had an article recently (2015) stating the diner had been bought and will be demolished if it’s not fixed.
    The houses in Hilton are hit or miss. Most are nicely maintained then there’ll be one that is a mess. However there are houses in all price ranges and the river is only a walk away.

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