Building Permits as a Measuring Rod of Suburban Growth
A by-product of research done on the development of Lenox a few years ago was a dataset of building permits issued in Worcester for construction of single and two-family houses. The time period was 1900 to 1935, and permit counts were only for single and two-family houses, excluding three deckers and other larger residential buildings because Lenox was designed to be exclusively single and two-family residences. The idea was to compare permit trends in Lenox with those of the city, thus the limits on permits counted.
Note: Building permits first came into use in Worcester in 1889, established by a City Ordinance, but data were not collected in the Lenox research for the 1890s. It might have been desirable to have and to provide here a greater array of permit data, and for a longer period of time, in order to show more facets of the city’s physical growth during this time period, but that’s another story and one which would require a somewhat tedious data collection process.
The chart below offers a graphic view of two waves of suburbanization of the city in the early 20th century. All data were taken from the annual reports of the Superintendant of Public Buildings, contained in the City Documents collection of the Worcester Public Library.
During the early 1900s, permits for single- and two-family houses hovered in the low 100s before beginning to rise in 1908. After peaking at a little over 400 per year, 1912-1914, they began tapering off in 1915 and in 1918 fell sharply. The sudden decline might have been a side effect of the World War, or of the influenza pandemic of 1918, or of the rapid inflation between 1915 and 1920, when the consumer price index doubled. Or it could have been simply a by-product of the cyclical pattern common to real estate markets – a cooling off period after a strong run.
Another surge in permits, larger than the first, began in 1919 and peaked in 1924-25. The numbers of permits during that seven-year run was nearly double that of the comparable seven years of the previous decade: 4,214 compared with 2,343 during 1909-15. Permit counts then started falling, steadily but not drastically, and ahead of the stock market crash of late 1929. They continued falling until 1933 as the Great Depression cut sharply into new residential construction, along with most other sectors of the local economy. The Depression-era counts were comparable to those of the early 1900s and 1918. The mild resurgence of 1934-35 may have been in response to the F.H.A., a New Deal agency designed to stimulate housing construction.
To visualize the pattern of suburban development of the city during this era, a map showing subdivisions with dates of site plan acceptances would be helpful, but it would be a difficult map to make in the absence of the sophisticated mapping and coding capabilities of a GIS lab. For small sections of the city, a good manual method is to examine and compare atlases for the years 1896, 1911, and 1922. They, along with atlases of 1870 and 1886 are available online and can be downloaded from the State Library. (Click here for the links.)
The majority of these permits were for new construction on west of Park Avenue or in parts of the Burncoat-Greendale area, although the point can not be supported by the data provided here. Most of the outward movement of builders and buyers during that period was into some of the agricultural areas surrounding the core of the city, places which are now among Worcester’s middle and outer ring neighborhoods.
Subdivision rules, as expressed in deed covenants and later the new zoning ordinance of 1924, often excluded three-deckers and larger multi-family buildings, but usually allowed two-family houses, some of which would be “in-law apartments,” enabling families to have an apartment for extended family members or others at their discretion. Much preferred was the side-by-side type in which both “units” occupied space on the ground floor, with upstairs and basement divisions optional. The apartment-over, or two-decker, format was not as welcome and was sometimes excluded by deed restrictions. This distinction in two-family houses would find a place in the definitions of what was allowed in residential zones of the new Zoning Ordinance of 1924.
Developments of the kinds which dominated the 1910s and 1920s were known as “streetcar suburbs” - subdivisions that were reliant upon the streetcar system to enable satisfactory transportation to and from the relatively remote locations. By the mid-1910s, and especially during the 1920s, the rapid increase in automobiles made surburban development easier, and heightened the desire of the rising middle class to move farther out from the center. That may have contributed to increased suburbanization of the 1920s, as measured by building permits issued.