The J.E. Dunn Book

On the day of the Pearl Harbor attack, December 7, 1941, a photograph was taken on a bluff overlooking the Fairfax industrial district of Kansas City, Kansas. It’s a stark scene of dirt, leafless trees, and gray sky – not a building in sight. Within days Dunn would begin building a $1.5 million housing project on the 86-acre tract for the families of 350 workers at three defense plants in Fairfax: North American Aviation Inc., the Fruehauf Trailer Co., and the Aircraft Accessories Corp. Pictures taken later that month show one- and two-story wood frame houses filling the same view. Under young Ernie Jr.’s supervision, 40 of the 103 two-, four-, and six-family units were erected that December with the help of nearly 700 construction workers. Some controversies at the onset of the job had threatened that progress.

First, the job’s start was delayed during the fall of 1941 because seventeen homeowners whose houses had been cleared from the site complained that the government had not paid them in the condemnation proceedings. Once that issue was settled, subcontracted workers from Bowen Construction immediately began grading the steep terrain in late November.

Then, days after the bulldozers began terracing the bluff, Sen. Harry S. Truman of Missouri cited the Fairfax project as an example of government waste. Truman charged that taxpayers were having to pay $3000 an acre just to grade the site. Federal court appraisers – Grant W. Harrington, C.A. Lowder and Harry A. Smith – disputed the Truman figure and said that grading only cost $409 an acre. The appraisers found the unit cost per family to be about $3,840 as compared to a similar project at Louisville, Ky., where the cost was $4090. The Missouri senator was making a name for himself as a critic of government spending on the homefront during the early war years, but he missed the mark when he aimed at the defense housing just west of his state line.

Give ‘Em Hell Harry wasn’t entirely wrong about the Fairfax project -- the government probably could have saved a little extra money by cutting out some of the frills. Unlike their counterparts on the boxy, uniform St. Louis and Denver public housing projects already undertaken by J.E. Dunn, the architects on the Fairfax project tried to give the living spaces a homey look. The exteriors were painted in varying shades of gray, red, and blue with doors and windows trimmed in white. Front porches were bordered in white latticework. The landscaping costs included planting 5,200 small trees and shrubs and plots were set aside for individual “Victory” gardens. But much of the total $1.5 million budget went toward the essentials: sewer, gas, and water mains had to be laid and roads built and paved for the newly built community. After a few months into its construction, the housing project was named Quindaro Homes.