Posts Tagged ‘San Francisco Bay Area’

Henry J. Kaiser’s assembly-line building fills need for postwar homes

posted on October 21, 2013
Henry J. Kaiser greets the George family at the Kaiser Community Homes all-aluminum house on Osborne Street in Panorama City. Bancroft Library photo

Henry J. Kaiser greets the George family at the Kaiser Community Homes all-aluminum house on Osborne Street in Panorama City.
Bancroft Library photo

by Ginny McPartland, Heritage writer

Secret to mass production: Build ‘chassis’ for houses just as Detroit does for automobiles

A post-World War II opportunity to build thousands of small, affordable homes for returning servicemen and their families excited Henry J. Kaiser. Mass producing homes to meet an urgent demand fit right into Kaiser’s vision of the “fifth freedom” he referred to in wartime speeches.

President Roosevelt had enumerated for the American people the “Four Freedoms” at stake in the war: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from fear and freedom from want. To this list, Kaiser added “freedom of abundance.”

“Everyone who is willing to work and save has the right to be decently and comfortably housed,” Kaiser told the Conference of the National Committee on Housing in Chicago in 1944.

Kaiser had been involved in many housing projects during the war that required fast construction. Under Kaiser’s sponsorship and with federal financial aid, noted San Francisco Bay Area builder David Bohannon had built the 700-home community of Rollingwood for shipyard workers in Richmond, Calif., in just 693 hours.

Kaiser revolutionized ship construction by turning it into an assembly line and prefabrication industry. Workers trained in new techniques set production records in Kaiser’s wartime shipyards on the San Francisco Bay and the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest.

By the time the war was over, Henry Kaiser was more than ready to start building homes as fast as possible. Financing was available through the GI Bill and the Federal Housing Authority, so people were ripe for homeownership.

New neighborhoods to rise in short order

Kaiser joined forces with builder Fritz Burns and devised a plan to develop two- and three-bedroom, roughly 1,000-square foot homes that were attractive, affordable and distinct from one another.  Preassembly of various home components made it possible to build about 40 homes a day, each constructed with about 40 manufactured panels.

Architects' rendering of Kaiser Housing development in 1948. Bancroft Library photo

Architects’ rendering of Kaiser Housing development in 1948. Bancroft Library photo

Kaiser Community Homes built a factory In Westchester in Southern California and began to manufacture and preassemble puzzle-like pieces to be trucked to the home sites. Within the factory, there were assembly lines for production of interior, exterior, floor and ceiling panels. In other areas, workers built kitchen cabinets, bathrooms, and assembled plumbing parts.

“Science Illustrated” magazine carried a description of the Kaiser house-building concept:

“As you look at a block of Kaiser Homes you can’t find two that look alike, and yet each house is the same in interior construction. This is the secret of Kaiser’s mass production plan; he builds ‘chassis’ for houses, as Detroit builds chassis for automobiles.

“The chassis consists of a rectangular core of five and a half rooms. This he turns out in a sprawling 15-acre factory. Garages, roofs, porches are also mass-produced, but they are put on the chassis in a variety of ways.

“One house may have the garage attached at the right front corner. One may have it at the left rear corner. Or a third may have it completely detached,” the February 1947 article reads.

Innovative construction methods tested

Related to his homebuilding enterprise, Kaiser considered retooling the Richmond shipyards as a manufacturing site for developing a preassembled “mechanical core or heart” for his homes, which would have included the kitchen, bath and utility rooms.

The Kaiser design planned for a monolithic unit: floor and wall panels, cabinets, countertops, lavatory, and prewired and plumbed equipment.

Developer Fritz Burns and Henry J. Kaiser set up a model home on Wiltshire Boulevard in Los Angeles to show their postwar home plans to the public.

Developer Fritz Burns and Henry J. Kaiser set up a model home on Wiltshire Boulevard in Los Angeles to show their postwar home plans to the public.

The Kaisercraft Coordinated Kitchen was to feature a stove, sink, cabinets, refrigerator, dishwasher and garbage disposal. Plans for the core unit were eventually scrapped due to the expense that would be added to the price of the homes, which were intended to be low cost.

Henry J. Kaiser probably made his biggest splash as a homebuilder in 1948 when he awarded his prototype “all-aluminum home,” the only one of its kind, to the winning contestant on the “People Are Funny” radio game show hosted by Art Linkletter.

The winner, Vivienne George, moved her family from a ramshackle house in Lebanon, Ore., to Panorama City, where they became the first residents of the Kaiser Community Homes, dubbed by Los Angeles regional planners as a “model suburb.” Vivienne was married to Ward George, a disabled WWII veteran, and the couple had two children.

A Kaiser Homes press release described the George family’s prize: “A beautifully furnished home with range, refrigerator, Kaiser hydraulic dishwasher and disposal unit and a two-car garage. In the garage stands a 1948 Kaiser sedan.” Previously, a model for potential buyers to tour, the all-aluminum home was moved from the corner of Chase and Van Nuys streets to Osborne Street for the Georges.

The 65-year-old Kaiser Homes “model community” in Panorama City still stands amid other development in the vicinity today. The area has fallen on hard times in recent years and a community effort is under way to reinvigorate the neighborhood and surrounding postwar subdivisions and businesses.

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Disabled KP financial analyst changed course of public transportation

posted on October 24, 2012

By Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

Harold Willson, KP employee from 1957 to 1977, getting off a wheelchair-accessible BART train. Willson convinced officials to alter the system design to accommodate disabled passengers. Photo from Accent on Living magazine.

Next month, Kaiser Permanente leaders and staff will gather for the 35th year to celebrate the diversity of its work force, its selected vendors and its membership. “Diversity Excellence: A 21st Century Game Changer” will be in Long Beach on November 1 and 2.

KP’s embracing of diversity goes back to its beginnings in the World War II shipyards, and its ranks have included many disabled individuals who made significant contributions despite their handicaps. Harold T. Willson, a wheelchair-bound KP financial analyst, was one such person.

Willson, disabled in a 1948 mining accident, successfully lobbied leaders of the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) to make the high-speed train system accessible to the disabled.

BART, celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, was under construction in the early 1960s when Willson learned that the plans did not call for disabled access. He raised his objections and insisted on alterations.

Willson’s quiet persistence made BART leaders stop and listen. This relentlessness was characteristic of Willson’s approach to life. His story is one of triumph over tragedy.

Slate slide crushed young miner

Willson was 21 years old when his entire life changed. The son of a mining engineer, he turned to mine work for income, as many young men do in West Virginia. His father had died two years earlier, and he was supporting the family and saving for college.

BART public phones were mounted lower to be convenient for passengers in wheelchairs. Photo from Accent on Living magazine.

He describes his last day of going down 500 feet to work at the mine owned by the New River Coal Company in Summerlee:

“On Friday, the 13th day of February, 1948, I went to work the ‘hoot owl’ shift, and early the next morning just after my lunchtime, at 3:30 a.m., I was caught in a slate fall. I was badly crushed, ribs and back were broken with severe spinal damage.”

Willson was fortunate to be a member of Local 6048 of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). Soon after his accident he was sent to the Kabat-Kaiser Institute in Oakland, California, for rehabilitation (the facility was later located in Vallejo).

Kaiser rehabilitation center opened to miners

Just a few months earlier, legendary UMWA leader John L. Lewis and the UMWA Welfare and Retirement Fund had partnered with Henry J. Kaiser and the Kabat-Kaiser Institute to provide top-quality medical care and rehabilitation for injured miners.

United Mine Workers of America patients arriving by Pullman train for Kaiser physical therapy, 1948. Kaiser Permanente Heritage Archives photo

Vocational institutions in the rural mining communities in the East were badly underfunded, and the California facilities offered a perfect venue for the union’s commitment to social welfare.

Willson was among the first group of miners to take the long trip west in three railroad cars, eventually followed by hundreds more. In an early instance of KP’s community benefit practices, the Permanente Health Plan continued to provide care even when the miners’ fund ran out of money.i

At Kabat-Kaiser Willson participated in physical therapy, played wheelchair basketball, and fell in love with his nurse and future wife. He got a job at the Bank of America, earned a bachelor of science in business administration, and then took a position as a senior financial analyst with the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan, retiring in 1977.

Willson put his persuasive powers to work

While employed by KP, Willson was a powerful advocate for urban design and construction that would accommodate disabled people. As volunteer consultant to BART, he put in long hours over a 10-year period to ensure its accessibility for the disabled and elderly. He insisted that adequate transportation was often the deciding factor for disabled independence.

Special ticket gates were designed to allow wheelchairs to pass through. Photo from Accent on Living magazine.

A feature article on his work in the 1973 issue of Accent on Living described it this way: “The original concept [of BART] in 1962 did not include the provisions for people with severely restricted mobility.

“At that time, Willson initiated a campaign to secure the present facilities, starting with endorsements from the elderly, the handicapped and the general public. The project was not “sold” with fanfare and publicity but by person- to-person contact.”

A.E. Wolf, General Superintendent of Transportation for BART, was won over by Willson’s approach. He noted: “His suggestion was novel for rapid transit, no one had tried it; it posed all kinds of problems; cost was significant. Our staff, including myself, was hardly enthusiastic.

“But, he did not threaten, nor picket, nor sulk, nor lose patience. Instead he was professional, pleasant, firm and persistent. As a result, he won support of each of our board members while maintaining a friendly relationship with our staff. This helped his cause immensely.”

KP backed Willson’s advocacy

In keeping with its policy to support efforts to improve opportunities for the disabled, as well as other minority groups, Kaiser Permanente gave Willson the freedom to pursue his accessibility campaign.

“It is appropriate here to commend Kaiser [Permanente leaders] . . . because of their interest, encouragement and public service philosophy,” Wolf also noted. “The willingness to arrange time for an employee to participate in this community project was necessary for its success.” ii

Willson agreed: “. . . Since our Medical Care Program is one of the largest providers of health services . . . we should assume the leadership role in promoting and participating in activities and programs that will create a barrier-free environment for the handicapped and elderly.”

Willson’s specific recommendations included large elevators at every stop, accessible restrooms, wide parking spaces, narrow gaps between trains and platforms, and loudspeaker announcements.

His broader vision was perhaps best articulated in a statement he made before the American Public Transportation Association in 1976: “We must exert every effort to . . . create a barrier-free transportation environment for those that are handicapped and for the non-handicapped destined to become disabled such as yourselves.”

 

i The charitable nature of this relationship is described in A Model for National Health Care by Rickey Hendricks: “When the union fund suffered a financial setback in late 1949, the Permanente Hospital Foundation continued to transport and care for miners at Permanente expense. Kabat-Kaiser continued through 1952 to run on a deficit of almost $100,000.”

ii Comments by A.E.Wolf, General Superintendent of Transportation, Bay Area Rapid Transit District, to Workshop number 3, Transportation Environment, 1972 National Easter Seal Convention, Chicago, Illinois, November 9, 1972.

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Laid-off shipyard workers dilemma: Should I stay or should I go?

posted on December 22, 2010

By Laura Thomas    

(Second of two articles)     

Lon Van Brunt Kaiser Richmond Shipyard worker 1945 from "Fore 'N Aft" newsletter

As the holiday season of 1945 approached, Kaiser shipyard workers faced an uncertain future on the West Coast. Interviews with workers in the “Fore ‘n’ Aft,” the Richmond shipyard newsletter, reflected some anxiety: “What do I think about the end of the war?” said laborer Lon Van Brunt. “Let’s study about that: I look for it to be hard times.”  

The local press reports, often tinged with sentimental hope, insisted that the Dust Bowl migrants were tossing mattresses back on their cars, packing up pots and pans and leaving wartime housing in droves.  

“Many couldn’t wait to get ‘back home’ after the war, but they found they didn’t like it back there anymore,” said native Richmond resident Marguerite Clausen in 1985 in an interview conducted with Judith Dunning for the Bancroft Library’s Regional Oral History Office. “They turned around and came back again. And they brought all their families with them.” *

Bernice Rarick, Portland shipyard worker, 1945, from "Bosn's Whistle" newsletter

Bernice Rarick, a Portland worker reflected that ambivalence when she told the “Bosn’s Whistle,” the northwest Kaiser shipyard newsletter, she was going right back to her ranch in Idaho yet wondered, “It doesn’t seem possible that everyone can go back to normal living again.”    

Transplants try to find their place    

The women were the first to go despite the fact that some 70 percent in a December 1944 Yard Two survey said they wanted to work. Black migrant workers also struggled to find new employment with the unemployment rate for black men in 1948 about 15 percent, three times the state average.    

“News came over that the contracts were cancelled, and that was it,” recalled Margaret Cathey who came from Iowa and worked as a welder. “You didn’t get two weeks notice or anything like that, no. You were just finished.” She was lucky because she found a job with the telephone company, anxious to hire women operators.    

A welder at the Kaiser shipyards, Willie Stokes earned $10 a day but, after the war, was only able to find unskilled labor at $6 and was unemployed by 1947. “One day you are an essential worker in a vital industry and the next you were a surplus unskilled laborer essential to no one,” he said in an article, “Willie Stokes at the Golden Gate,” by Cy W. Record published in “The Crisis Magazine,” June 1949.    

It took a while for many ex-shipyard workers to find their footing. In an article in “Salute Magazine” in June 1946, writer William Hogan called Richmond, “hangover town” because so many were still living there or had returned in hopes of finding work.    

Mostly from rural areas with ways that seemed backward, these workers and their families had been lifted out of poverty working for Henry Kaiser and were destined to prove themselves, especially to long-time Richmond residents.    

The Richmond Field Hospital continued to serve Permanente patients after the shipyards closed in 1946.

“I said, ‘Well, here these people are. They’re not going to leave here. This is Mecca,’ ” recalled Clifford Metz, a former Richmond school official who had insisted the notion that the migrants would go back was an illusion.    

“I think we went down maybe ten or fifteen thousand people in a short time. Most of them, well, they had learned that they liked it here. Some of them, with the money they had, they could invest. They were not unintelligent people.”    

Selena Foster, who came from Fort Worth, Texas, in early 1944, and her husband, Marvin, were among those with that precise idea.  “My husband said to me, ‘We have no home to go back to.’ We had a little money and we found property was fairly reasonable if you could find something to buy,” she said in 1992.    

The Fosters did make a trip back to East Texas in a shiny new car that made quite an impression on their family, but they returned to Richmond and within months had bought a home on Hoffman Boulevard and 29th Street, one of the first African-American families to do so after the war.    

The uncertainty of that holiday period 65 years ago was soon eased by a postwar economic boom in both the Bay Area and the Northwest. The upturn raised the fortunes of many who arrived back then with little but hope. Over the decades they have become woven inextricably into the cultural fabric of both regions.    

*Marguerite Clausen, “A World War II Journey: From Clarkesdale, Mississippi, to Richmond, California, 1942,” an oral history conducted in 1985 by Judith K. Dunning, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 1992.

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