East Benton County Historical Society

Richland, Washington Government Letter-Houses

The letter-houses were designed by Albin Pherson, an architect from Spokane hired by the US Government. In less than 90 days, he planned the entire community of Richland. Construction of the streets began on March 20, 1943 with the first house being completed (a B-house) on April 28, 1943.

The letter-houses were built with lumber from the old 1929 Tillamook burn about 50 miles west of Portland. Architecturally, many of the houses were based on the Ranch form that was pioneered by the great American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright. Other designs include modern minimalist ideals fostered in the 1930's and pyramidal (four square) and colonial box-house forms.

All of the letter houses originally came with double-hung windows. Two over two divided panes were common as well as whole panes of glass (1/1). The exterior walls were covered by wood shingles on all the letter-houses except the U and V (precuts) which used asbestos shingles. Simple wood porches were common, but almost no original examples exist today. The earliest houses tended to use coal heat that was later supplanted by oil heat. Although it is common to see a chimney on the roof of a letter-house, none of the letter houses actually came with a fireplace. The sole purpose of the chimney is to vent combustion gasses from oil or coal heat.

The letter houses' interiors used sheetrock instead of the older lath and plaster method that was common until the late 1930's. The interiors of all the letter-houses had wood floors. The duplexes and the U and V houses (precuts) used softwood fir floors and the single-family homes used hardwood oak. The kitchens and bathrooms had real linoleum flooring (pressed cork processed with linseed oil). Interior decorative features include cornice details along with molding strips along the outside corners of walls. The interior doors on the older homes had two (or more) flat panels of solid wood surrounded by a border of thicker, molded solid wood (hollow core doors were a few decades away). Later doors typically had a single panel of wood inside of the thicker surround. Doorknobs were fairly close to today's standard but were slightly smaller. Brass was a common finish with plated chrome used inside of bathrooms.

Bathrooms typically came with a medicine chest and an open sink mounted to the wall. Bathtubs used were porcelain/cast iron surrounded on three sides by a wall (often when owners remodel their letter house, they find a bottle hidden underneath the bathtub by a stealthy construction worker). Kitchen sinks were cast iron and included an integrated dish holder/drain surface. Water was supplied by galvanized steel pipes (both supply lines and waste water). Cast iron was typically used only for toilet wastes.

None of the electrical outlets in the letter houses are grounded--nor are most of the electrical boxes themselves. Electrical connections were made with solder and the wire itself was copper. Electrical service was typically 60-amp.

Minimal levels of insulation were installed in the letter-houses. Early houses used a thin padded black-paper material in the walls, while later examples used fiberglass (R-7) insulation.

Many modifications to the letter houses have taken place in the past 50 years. The most common is the installation of metal or vinyl siding over the original shingles (asbestos shingles were usually removed before applying the new siding). Carpeting was often installed over the wood floors. Other modifications include the installation of "picture windows", heating plant updates, and the ubiquitous kitchen and bath remodels.


Click on the thumbnail image for a house plan. Square footage doesn't include basements.

A 1943-1945 | 408 built | 3br, 1 bath duplex
1087 sq feet (each) | Neocolonial (loosely)
The A-house is a two story duplex with basement. Typical examples have wood clapboard siding horizontally on the top floor and shingles on the bottom floor. Interior floors are softwood fir with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom.

 

B 1943-1945 | 520 built | 2br, 1 bath duplex
880 sq feet (each) | Ranch
The B-house is a 1 story duplex with basement. Interior floors are softwood fir with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom.

 

C 1950-1951 | 85 built | 2br, 1 bath duplex
864 sq feet (each) | Ranch
The C-house is a 1 story duplex with basement similar to a B house. Interior floors are softwood fir with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom.

 

D 1943-1945 | 8 built | 4 br, 2 baths
1300 sq feet | Minimal traditional
The D-house is one and a half stories with a basement. Interior floors are hardwood oak with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom.

 

E 1943-1945 | 84 built | 3 br, 1 bath
1028 sq feet | Ranch
The E-house is one story tall with basement. Interior floors are hardwood with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom.

 

F 1943-1945 | 250 built | 3 br, 1 bath
1198 sq feet | Neocolonial
The F-house is two stories with basement. Typical examples have wood clapboard siding horizontally on the top floor and shingles on the bottom. Interior floors are hardwood oak with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom. The F house is unique in that it is probably the most highly decorated letter house with its classical segmental pediment over the front door. In addition, the F house shares many similarities to the "four-square" houses common in urban areas in the first decades of the 1900's.

 

G 1943-1945 | 8 built | 4 br, 2 baths
1300 sq feet | Minimal traditional
The G-house is two stories with a basement. Interior floors are hardwood oak with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom.

 

H 1943-1945 | 250 built | 3 br, 1 bath
930 sq feet | minimal traditional
The H-house is one story tall with basement. Note the rearward extension at the back of the house. Interior floors are hardwood oak with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom.

 

K 1950-1951 | 60 built | 4 br, 1 bath
1300 sq feet | Ranch
The K-house is one story tall with basement. Interior floors are hardwood oak with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom.

 

L 1943-1945 | 44 built | 4 br, 2 bath
1536 sq feet | Neocolonial (loosely)
The L-house is two stories tall with basement. Interior floors are hardwood oak with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom.

 

M 1943-1945 | 25 built | 2 br, 1 bath
1074 sq feet | minimal traditional
The M-house is one story tall with basement. Interior floors are hardwood oak with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom.

 

Q 1948-1949 | 143 built | 3 br, 1 bath
1237 sq feet | Ranch
The Q-house is one story tall with basement. Interior floors are hardwood oak with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom.

 

R 1948-1949 | 146 built | 3 br, 1 bath
1313 sq feet | Ranch
The R-house is one story tall with basement. Interior floors are hardwood oak with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom.

 

S 1948-1949 | 19 built | 4 br, 2 bath
1793 sq feet | minimal traditional
The S-house is two stories tall with basement. Interior floors are hardwood oak with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom.

 

T 1948 | 5 built | 2 br, 1 bath duplex
672 sq feet (each) | Ranch
The T-house is one story duplex without a basement. Interior floors are softwood fir with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom.

 

U 1947 | 110 built | 2 br, 1 bath
864 sq feet | Pyramidal (with hipped roof)
The U-house is one story tall--no basement. Interior floors are softwood fir with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom. This is also known as a "precut" as all the lumber arrived "precut" on the building site. The U and V houses are the only letter houses to have asbestos shingled walls. Unlike the picture on the house plan, very few, if any of the U houses had a gabled roof. Instead, they have hipped roofs (similar to the picture of the V house).

 

V 1947 | 340 built | 3 br, 1 bath
1152 sq feet | Pyramidal (with hipped roof) or box house
The V-house is one story tall--no basement. Interior floors are softwood fir with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom. This is also known as a "precut" as all the lumber arrived "precut" on the building site. The U and V houses are the only letter houses to have asbestos shingled walls. The V house used a hipped roof (as pictured) or a gabled roof.

 

Y 1948-1949 | 950 built | 3 br, 1 bath
1175 sq feet | Ranch
The Y-house is one story tall with basement. Interior floors are hardwood oak with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom.

 

Z 1948-1949 | 50 built | 4 br, 1 bath
1100 sq feet | Ranch
The Z-house is one story tall without a basement. Interior floors are hardwood oak with linoleum in the kitchen and bathroom.

Compiled by Jeremy Wells. Sources include the "Home Blown: The History of the Homes in Richland" pamphlet published by the city of Richland and interviews with letter-house homeowners.

Do you have anything to add or correct? Please e-mail the EBCHS at ebchs@gte.net


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