River Village was constructed in the late 1950s through the Capehart program. The Wherry and Capehart housing initiatives addressed the demand for military housing during the Cold War. Using private developers, the designs tend to reflect what was being constructed in the civilian sector during the same period.
Located on the boundary of South Post, River Village is most easily accessed from Fort Belvoir's eastern entrance, reached via Mount Vernon Memorial Highway. As the name implies, River Village is sited on the eastern bank of Dogue Creek. The Dogue Creek Marina, located adjacent to the village, is accessed through the village.
Reinforcing the river theme, all of the streets within this neighborhood are named after important rivers. Street names include Hudson, James, Shenandoah, Potomac, York, Rappahannock, and Delaware.
The construction of additional housing units at Fort Belvoir was approved under the Capehart Act, passed by Congress in August 1955. Fort Belvoir's 618 Capehart units were designed by E. Tucker Carlton of Richmond, Va. Carlton was a graduate of the Virginia Military Institute and a Navy veteran of both World Wars. His architectural specialty was institutional buildings, but he also designed a wide variety of other architecture types including residential, commercial, religious, educational, and recreational facilities.
The total of 618 units were divided into four neighborhoods: 1.) Colyer Village, which included 62 units in 31 buildings, housed both non-commissioned officers' (NCO) and enlisted men; 2.) George Washington Village, the largest development, included 244 units in 122 buildings, and housed NCOs and enlisted men; 3.) River Village, consisting of 188 units in 94 buildings, housed NCOs and Company Grade Officers; and 4.) Fairfax Village, which included 124 units in 62 buildings for Company Grade Officers.
Colyer, George Washington, and Fairfax Villages all followed the typical site plan of the time for suburban subdivisions. As with housing developments in the civilian sector, the villages featured wide, curvilinear streets, sidewalks, and paved driveways. The exception was River Village, which incorporated a gridlike layout, with a single tree planted in the front yard of each building.
The Capehart buildings were designed as two-story, two- and three-bedroom duplexes. These wood-frame, rectangular buildings were constructed on reinforced concrete and brick-pier foundations. Exterior walls were clad in brick veneer and vinyl siding, and the garden roofs were covered with asphalt shingles. Building entrances were accentuated by flat-roofed canopies supported on steel "pipe columns" shielded by masonry screens roughly three feet tall. Each unit included a prefabricated chimney which projected from the rear slope of the roof.
Minor variations to the exterior were used to identify the four different building types. Distinguishing exterior features included different brick veneer and siding patterns, the width of the entrance, and the materials used for the porch screen. Porch materials varied from brick, to stone, or one of two types of concrete block. A fifth building type was designed, but never executed. It was more reminiscent of the Wherry projects, with a hipped roof, brick veneer, and small entrance porticoes.
Originally all of the buildings included exterior wood lap or board-and-batten wall siding, and lap siding and wood shingles for gable ends. The original exterior doors were solid wood with a multi-light transom, and the original windows were two-light with movable double-sash.
In 1996, Fort Belvoir underwent a major renovation of the Capehart housing. All of the exterior wood elements were replaced with either vinyl (siding) or metal (doors). The windows and sidelights were also replaced with vinyl, including the addition of a "garden" window in the kitchen and a "bay" window in the living room.
All Capehart units were designed with the same general floor plan. The units within River and Fairfax Villages were slightly wider than those within Colyer and George Washington Villages. Typically, the first floor consisted of the living room and dining room located on the party wall side of the plan. The kitchen, utility areas, half bath, entry vestibule, and stairs to the second floor were located on the exterior wall. The second floor included either two or three bedrooms and a bathroom. Interior finishes included hardwood floors in the living and dining rooms, while wood parquet was used on the second floor and sheet vinyl was used in the kitchen, utility areas, and bathrooms.
Both the site and floor plans for Fort Belvoir's Capehart units were similar to designs used in the civilian sector during the same time period, with one exception in the layout of the kitchens, which tended to be enclosed. Kitchens constructed in civilian homes at this time were typically open to the living space.
Statement of Significance
Both the Wherry and the Capehart programs represented the government's solution to the housing shortages after World War II. The programs attempted to involve the private sector in meeting the housing demand. Private developers were used to design and construct the housing. Together, these two efforts led to one of the Federal government's largest residential construction projects. Between 1949 and 1962, an estimated 21,000 Wherry housing units and 26,000 Capehart units were constructed on Army installations. 1
In addition to seeing unprecedented housing shortages, the market for housing in the Cold War era saw major demographic shifts that were mirrored by military families. Nearly 60 percent of all American families entered the middle class during the 1950s, with increased proportional spending on homes and automobiles. Families generally had more leisure time, and there was a rise in the marriage rate. The number of couples and individuals establishing households independent of extended family members jumped dramatically. The birth rate also rose, impacting the size of the typical American family (consisting of a couple and three children). All of these factors contributed to the demand for housing and led to the development of suburban neighborhoods throughout the country.
The construction industry also changed during this time. New building products changed how housing was built. The introduction of materials such as drywall and vinyl quickened construction and lowered costs. Additionally, the incorporation of air conditioning and other modern conveniences, which started to become standard in the 1950s, altered the way homes were designed and built.
Historically, changes within the civilian housing market have strongly influenced military family housing, and this time was no different. The rise of the middle class, changing family sizes, new building materials, and modern conveniences all affected military housing. The military soon followed the plans and layouts initially developed for the private sector.
With the inclusion of civilian developers, Fort Belvoir's Capehart housing illustrates how the construction of military housing during the 1950s followed national building trends.
River Village was officially named in recognition of the important role that rivers have played in the nation's history. Early plans for the village indicated that originally the village was going to be called Mount Vernon Village.
1 R. Christopher Goodwin and Associates, Inc. Neighborhood Design Guidelines for Army Wherry and Capehart Era Family Housing (Frederick, Md.: U.S. Army Environmental Center, 1995), 9.