Low Cost Housing History – Washington Terrace Community

The Washington Terrace Apartment Complex built by Jacob Schmidlapp’s Model Homes Company west of Gilbert and south of Blair was built on vacant land that was until that time a usually dry creek, without much in the way of city services. Model Homes sought to provide the community with park and playground space in the development. Schmidlapp aimed at the sort of amenities provided elsewhere by city parks: “We have playgrounds for children, covered sand pits, also a shelter house, and every possible precaution have been taken as to sanitary conditions. This extends down to the children’s drinking fountain.” Schmidlapp’s playground, in short, sought to offer his tenants the same sort of amenities the Cincinnati Park Board provided in its new neighborhood parks in the same era. (It is not clear that Washington Terrace provided any supervision, the way the city parks did.)
The development also included garden space, tended by the tenants. In addition to a large central garden, his publicity photos included small front yard gardens, some contained within simple brick circles, often shown with smiling children on the front porches behind them.
Schmidlapp also included an “assembly room large enough to accommodate 250 people, the only respectable room for such purposes, outside of church, offered to colored people in our city.” (Here he overlooked the second Douglass School building constructed in 1910, which did have a comparably sized auditorium, used around the same time for community activities as well as school functions.) Amenities included a billiards room, and Schmidlapp encouraged the tenants to join separate men’s and women’s clubs organized in the common areas. True to the notion that Washington Terrace would constitute a self-contained community, it also included and rented a grocery store, a drug store, a shoe shop and a barber shop.
Another truly novel innovation Schmidlapp introduced was a cooperative grocery store for the Washington Terrace residents. W. E. B. DuBois believed the grocery to be “the only one of its kind to be found in a Negro community in this country.” Schmidlapp could keep costs low by accepting a low return on his investment: the store rent began at $26/month; its sales were about $2500 / month. On the other hand, he observed that with the small cooperative store “we necessarily cannot buy as cheap as the chain stores, who now so largely control the grocery business.” Nonetheless, the co-op eked out a sufficient surplus to pay its members a 3% return on their purchases with some regularity. Schmidlapp briefly hired an African American manager for the store, although the individual had the wrong skill set for the job and had to be replaced. In interesting correspondence with W. E. B. DuBois, he asserted that he believed the right African American could succeed in the job. In response to DuBois’ inquiries, he invited the NAACP to send a man with merchandising experience to study the store.