Prowers County Welfare Housing

Location: Lamar
County: Prowers County
Date Constructed: 1938-1941
Built by: WPA


The Prowers Housing Welfare Housing is a complex of five buildings located on the northern edge of Lamar. The complex is located near the railroad tracks in an area that primarily light industrial. The Fairmont Cemetery, with stone walls constructed under a WPA project, is located northeast of the housing complex, on the opposite side on Maple Street.

The complex consists of four 128’ x 28’ buildings and one 52’ x 25’ building. The buildings are arranged in an “H” pattern, with the smaller building in the middle. All buildings the buildings are constructed of sandstone. The single-story buildings are topped by side gable roofs with exposed rafter tails and covered with wood shingles.

Gravel drives run along the east, west, and south sides of complex. Deciduous and cedar trees were originally symmetrically planted around the complex, but some have died. A square stone incinerator is located at the southeast corner of the complex.

The masonry construction is regularly coursed quarry-faced ashlar sandstone. The stones are uniform in height but vary somewhat in length. All buildings feature stepped parapets on the ends. The window and door openings are deeply recessed, and the windows have dressed stone sills.  Some original fenestrations remain:  windows were originally 6/6 double-hung, and the doors appear to have been three paneled wood with an upper sash.  Other doors and windows have been either replaced or covered with plywood. Unit #1, unit #2, and unit #3 all have eight windows and eight doors on the east and west sides and two windows on the north and south sides. Unit #4 has the same arrangement on the north, west, and east sides but has a concrete loading dock with two wide doorways on the south side.

Contributing Resources

Unit #1: Construction of Unit #1 began in October 1938 and was completed in April 1939.  It is located at the southwest corner of the complex. The building has sixteen rooms and no interior hallway. All rooms have exterior doorways. The rooms also have connecting doors between the east and west side rooms. This meant these could function as either one-room or two-room apartments (photo 29).

Unit #2: Construction of Unit #2 began in April 1939 and was completed in June 1940. The building originally contained sixteen, one-room apartments with a central hallway running down the center. Each apartment had its own exterior entrance (photo 28). Ten of the original apartments are intact. Three of the apartments have been converted to a toilet/shower room, a laundry room, and a kitchen. The interior walls from the remaining three rooms have been removed to form a single living room.

Unit #3: Construction of Unit #3 began in March 1940 and was completed in December 1940. It functioned as a commodities warehouse and included two offices, three drygoods rooms, a grocery room, a household goods room, and two insulated rooms for perishables. There was also a receiving and shipping room with a loading dock. Exactly how these rooms were originally laid out is not known. Unit #3 currently has twelve rooms. Some modifications were made to this building when a preschool was located here, including the installation of two toilets and a kitchen. There is a dress-faced stone plaque carved with “WPA,” located on the east side of the building (photo 17).

Unit #4: Construction of Unit #4 began in December 1940 and was completed in December 1941. Unit #4 has sixteen rooms, each with an exterior entrance. There is no interior hallway. Interior doorways connect the rooms on the east and west sides. There are also interior doorways between six of the rooms on the west side and two of the rooms on the east side, creating two-room apartments.

Unit #5: Construction of Unit #5 began in December 1939 and was completed in March 1940. The building has three doors and two windows on the north and south elevation, as well as an additional garage-type door on the south.The building is divided into four rooms: a women’s toilet and shower room (photo 30), a laundry room, a garage, and a men’s toilet and shower room. The walls of the garage are constructed of irregular stones laid in uneven rows, completely different than the other stonework seen in the complex (photo 31). A dress-faced stone plaque with “WPA 3742” surrounded by a rectangular area of smaller quarry-faced stones is located on the north side (photo 8). According to WPA files, WPA project #3742 was the project number for unit #2, so it is unclear why it is inscribed on unit #5. The building has three doors and two windows on the north and south elevation, as well as an additional garage-type door on the south.

Trash incinerator: The trash incinerator is not mentioned in any of the project files so its construction date is not known. However, the stonework matches that used for the housing complex and this clearly appears to have been constructed at the same time.


The Prowers County Welfare Housing, constructed between 1938 and 1941 under the Works Progress Administration (WPA), is being nominated under the New Deal Resources on Colorado’s Eastern Plains Multiple Property Documentation Form (MPDF). The Prowers County Welfare Housing meets the registration requirements of one property type delineated in the MPDF—Social Welfare Buildings (subtype: Welfare Housing and Offices).

The Prowers County Welfare Housing meets Criterion A in the area of Social History for its association with President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislative agenda to rescue the United States from the Great Depression. This agenda included the creation of an unprecedented number of policies, programs, and agencies to provide relief, employment, conserve natural resources, and assist in construction of public works—all with the greater goal of stimulating the devastated economy. Constructed by the WPA, the Prowers County Welfare Housing presents an important record of the federal relief programs administered in Colorado’s eastern plains during the Great Depression. Though the dire economic conditions of the Depression affected all of Colorado, drought and dust storms hit the agricultural-based economy of the Eastern Plains especially hard. The construction of the housing complex provided much-needed employment in Prowers County over several years. The housing complex also represents a remarkable effort by Prowers County to provide public housing for its needy. It is the only complex of the kind constructed in eastern Colorado. New Deal public housing projects were primarily limited to urban areas.

The Prowers County Welfare Housing meets Criterion C in the area of Architecture as an excellent example of the WPA Rustic Style. Rustic characteristics featured in the buildings include the use of native stone, traditional construction methods, evident hand craftsmanship, and simple, functional design. The rustic design originated with the National Park Service emphasized the use of native materials and adaptation of indigenous or frontier methods of construction. This design philosophy was an ideal fit with the WPA. The goal of these programs was employment, so the majority of costs were to be spent on labor. Native materials were used because they were usually the least expensive. Traditional construction methods were used to save the expensive of power tools and large machinery and because they provided more employment. Both rustic architecture and federal relief buildings were meant to be simple and functional.

The period of significance extends from 1938 to 1941. This is the period during which the buildings were being constructed. The period of significance is not extended longer since it is unknown how long the housing was occupied.

Historical Background

Prowers County conceived the welfare housing project as a complex of buildings, but constructed it under four separate WPA projects.  The multiple WPA projects allowed the county to construct a more extensive and expensive project than would generally have been allowed under a single project application. The WPA typically limited single projects to $25,000; the total for the housing complex was over $50,000. Construction began on the first unit in 1938, and was completed in late 1941. Originally intended to be four buildings, Prowers County added a fifth building during construction. Once constructed, the institution would be supported by county taxes.  Prior to the WPA project, the county had been paying rent for between 30-45 unemployable cases at a cost of approximately $300-$400 per month for generally “unsatisfactory” housing.  It was felt that new construction would make better housing facilities available for the unemployables and at the same time afford a savings to the county in rental costs.  When completed, the housing would be allocated to unemployed families and individuals unable to afford their own housing. Prowers County was making significant efforts in public welfare during the 1930s. In addition to the construction of welfare housing, the count also sponsored the construction of a tuberculosis sanitarium. The sanitarium was designed to accommodate forty patients. It included four private rooms, five wards, four baths, kitchen, dining room, examination room, and nursing office.

Prowers County submitted the first project application (WPA No. 3725/ 465-84-2-178) on December 27, 1937 for unit #1.  The application proposed the “construction of a stone building of 16 rooms, single story, 28’ x 112’ in plan, being unit No. 1 of 4 units comprising a comprehensive Prowers County Housing project.” There would be “three building units of this design containing living rooms and a fourth containing laundry, bath, and toilet facilities.” According to the county, the project would save money as well as providing “better accommodations and better care” to the county poor. The housing complex would “form part of a tax-supported county institution to house the indigent and destitute of the county without charge. The strictly utilitarian character of the building and the fact that the walls are to be of rock secured almost without cost serve to substantially lower the material cost.” Prowers County commissioners also believed that the substantial stone construction would reduce upkeep costs. Stone was obtained from a quarry 13 miles south of Lamar on Clay Creek. In addition to sponsors contribution, the county would also purchase a city block, value $500 to $1000, and convert it into “an attractive and useful area.”

The county submitted the application for unit #2 (465-84-2-314;  WPA no. 3742) May 5, 1938 several months before construction of the unit #1 had started. WPA workers began construction of unit #1 on October 19, 1938. In November 1938, WPA supervisor Frank B. Page reported that there were 40 men at work on the housing complex. Some placed water line for the complex, while the majority were at work at the quarry. Sandstone for the building was quarried 15 miles south of Lamar: “The rock is in horizontal strata about 18 to 20 inches thick and is then split vertically in any desired thickness and is of such a texture that the vertical cleavage is almost perfectly straight and smooth.” By February 1939, construction of the walls was underway. A WPA inspector reported that: “Masonry work is very good. Plastering fair. Trim is good.” On February 2, 1939, the local paper reported that the construction of the first unit was about halfway complete. At this time, 32 men were working double shifts on the project. WPA workers completed unit #1 on April 18, 1939 and work on unit #2 began immediately. B.W. Bundy predicted that the complex would be complete in 1940, with construction moving more quickly as WPA workers applied the experience gained in the construction of the first unit.

Once again, Prowers County submitted application for new additional buildings before completing (or even starting) the buildings already awarded. Prowers County submitted project applications for units # 3 and unit #4 in early 1939. Units # 3 and #4 would eventually be constructed as part of a single project. However, surviving records are unclear and it is not evident if these were separate projects turned into one or a single project that expanded to include an additional building. Unit #3 was originally intended to be another dormitory but was changed to a commodities building. The decision construct two building under the third project was made by June 20, 1939, when Prowers County submitted an application for the construction of a fifth unit (WPA No. 4328; official project # 65-1-84-3). Unit #5 would be a 40’ x 28’ laundry and shower building.

Construction of unit #5 began on December 4, 1939. At this point work on unit #2 was still underway and work on unit #3 and unit #4 and not yet begun. At the end of February 1940, the WPA district manager reported that unit #2 and unit #5 were nearly complete. The county requested permission to start work on units #3 and #4, but received a reply from the national WPA office at the end of February stating that “Due to the confusion and lack of coordination that has existed on the three previous projects at this same location, it is the opinion of this office that units 1,2,and 5 must be completely finished before permission will be granted by this office to initiate work on additional units at this location.”

Unit # 5 was completed in March 1940. However, completion of unit #2 was delayed. The district manager reported that there was an excess of WPA labor in Prowers County when unit #1 was constructed so the construction force was overloaded. As a result, the county used funds awarded for unit #2 to help complete unit #1. In April 1940, the county had to apply for an additional $935 from the WPA to complete unit #2. Weather conditions were also cited as slowing completion of unit #2. WPA workers finally completed unit #2 in June 1940.

Despite the WPA’s initial statement that work could not begin on the last two units until the first three were completed, it allowed construction of unit #3 to begin in March 1940, after unit #5 was completed. Unit #3 was completed in December 1940 and the commodities department immediately moved in. The building contained two offices, three drygoods rooms, a grocery room, a household goods room, and two insulated rooms for perishables. There was also a receiving and shipping room with a loading dock. The commodities department employed five people for record keeping and delivering goods. Distributed goods included food supplied by the Federal Surplus Commodities division, which diverted surplus agricultural products from the open market to families in need, and clothing produced by WPA sewing projects. The material for the sewing projects was provided jointly by the WPA and county governments. Sewing projects operated in most counties in eastern Colorado and the counties exchanged garments produced in order to have a variety of types available in each commodities warehouse. The department delivered commodities throughout the county by truck.

Work began on unit #4 in December 1940 as soon as unit #3 was completed. In April 1941, a project inspector reported that the sponsor was “well pleased with quality, type, and economic value of project.” Another report stated, “the quality of work on unit #4 is very good and shows a marked improvement over the other units.” The masonry blocks used in the construction of unit #4 are narrower than those used in the other building and more finished.Construction on unit #4 was suspended from July 1941 until November 1941. Construction was finally completed in December 1941.

The total cost for the welfare housing complex was $58,789. The WPA contributed $47,478 while Prowers County spent $11,311. Unit #1 cost $11219, unit #2 cost $14,732, units # 3 and #4 cost $26,863, and #5 cost $5975. WPA laborers were paid based on their skill level. Unskilled laborers were paid $.46/hour. Assistants to the carpenters, stone masons, and stone cutters were paid $.52/hour as were the truck drivers.  Masons, carpenters, stone cutters, and plasterers were paid $.63/hour. The stone masonry work (including quarrying, hauling, and cutting the stone) was a substantial part of the cost.

The first residents moved into the housing complex in September 1939, while most of the complex was still under construction. The county set up temporary toilet facilities for the residents to use until unit #5 was completed. The Lamar paper reported: “With the filling of the attractive structure. . . the country will begin ‘cashing in’ on savings in rental payments.” Occupation of the first unit would save the county about $100 per month. In addition to the savings, the residents would “be living in quarters of a far better quality than those to which they are accustomed.” However, not some of those currently whose rent was currently being paid by the county did not want to move. The county informed those receiving rent assistance that the county would cease to pay in September when the new housing became available. But instead of moving, some found other ways to pay their rent. The unit #2 was ready for occupancy in January 1940.

Despite earlier descriptions of the housing as being available for families, it was decided that the units were too small for families with children. Instead, the residents were primarily elderly people without pension checks. Couples would live in the two-room apartments while single individuals would occupy the one-room apartments. Exact dates for the operation of the housing complex have not been located. It seems to have only been in operation into the 1940s. It eventually was converted to the Department of Social Services. In 1994, the county leased the buildings to Neoplan, a local company that placed a day care in unit #3 and converted unit #2 to temporary housing for workers. The complex is currently vacant.

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