The five-building Prowers County Welfare Housing complex on the north side of Lamar was built in 1938–41 as a series of Works Progress Administration (WPA) projects. The one-story sandstone buildings were the only New Deal public housing complex constructed in eastern Colorado. In 2009 the complex was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (700-1160 E Maple St, Lamar, CO 81052).
Public Housing for Prowers County
The Dust Bowl and the Great Depression hit Colorado’s eastern plains especially hard in the 1930s. New Deal construction projects were able to provide jobs for unemployed workers while also building civic, recreational, and cultural infrastructure in rural towns.
Uniquely in eastern Colorado, Prowers County also used New Deal projects to provide public housing for needy residents. In the mid-1930s the county was paying to house thirty to forty-five people at a cost of roughly $300–400 per person per month. It hoped to save money and provide better accommodations by building a four-building housing complex—three dormitories and one building with toilets, showers, and laundry facilities—on the northeast side of Lamar.
Because the cost of the housing complex exceeded the typical WPA funding limit, Prowers County had to split the project into four separate applications. The first application was submitted in late December 1937, the second in May 1938, and the last two in the first half of 1939. At some point in early 1939, the plan for the complex expanded from four buildings to five.
Meanwhile, construction on the first building started in October 1938 and was completed in April 1939. Workers immediately started the second building, which was completed in June 1940. By December 1941 the full five-building complex—featuring three apartment buildings, one commodities building, and one building with toilets, showers, and laundry facilities—was finished. The total cost for the complex was almost $60,000, with the WPA providing about $48,500 and Prowers County contributing more than $11,000.
Located on the south side of East Maple Street, the complex was arranged in the shape of an “H.” Four long rectangular buildings—the three apartments and the commodities building—were the legs of the H, and the smaller toilets and showers facility sat in the center. In keeping with the WPA’s practice of minimizing the cost of materials and maximizing wages, the one-story buildings were made of local sandstone using simple construction techniques. The three apartment buildings each had sixteen rooms configured in a mix of one- and two-room apartments, while the commodities building had two offices and several storage rooms to hold food from the Federal Surplus Commodities division and clothing from WPA sewing projects.
Residents started to move into the Prowers County Welfare Housing complex in September 1939, when only one building was finished. Residents had to use temporary toilet facilities until March 1940, when the building with toilets and showers was completed. In addition, the county soon decided that the apartments were too small for families with children, so the complex ended up housing mostly older residents who had no pensions or other means of support. Nevertheless, the county was able to provide these people with better housing while also saving $100 per person per month on rent. Single people occupied the one-room apartments, and couples stayed in the two-room apartments.
The Prowers County Welfare Housing complex was probably used for less than a decade, although its exact dates of occupation are unknown. In the 1960s it became part of the Prowers County Department of Social Services, and it was later used by Head Start, the Junior Chamber, and a day care center. In 1994 it was leased to a local bus manufacturing company called Neoplan, which reconfigured unit 2 as temporary worker housing. After Neoplan shut down in 2006, the complex stood vacant.
In 2009 the Prowers County Welfare Housing complex was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, which helped spark new interest in the buildings. In 2011 Lamar Community College received a State Historical Fund grant to rehabilitate the complex as a mixed-use center for business offices, studios, and student housing, but the project stalled because of the prohibitively high cost of making the buildings suitable for current use while also preserving their historical integrity.