PHV In-Depth #3: A Typical Apartment Building

As usual with this blog, these are my memories of being an elementary school kid in Patrick Henry Village in the late 70s and early 80s.  I’m always interested in hearing about how things have changed or where my memory has drifted a bit from reality.  In this in-depth post I’ll be linking to several zoomed-in Google Maps satellite views as I find a good example of a particular feature.

First off, I feel like the term “apartment building” is probably not the correct military term for the PHV housing.  Perhaps barracks is more correct?  But there were other facilities around Heidelberg such as Patton Barracks and Campbell Barracks, which were workplaces rather than residential areas, so that’s probably not right either.   Oh, I think I have it — they were called quarters.

The Stairwell

For the most part, each building consisted of three stairwells for access to the living quarters.   Click here for a good view of the front of one of these buildings.  I recall that each stairwell had a small, flat awning covering the door and somehow it was possible to climb up on top by using handrails or drainpipes or whatever was nearby.  I don’t remember ever getting on top of one of these, but for some reason I remember a layer of gravel on the top so perhaps I climbed up high enough to at least see what was up there.  I think other kids would sit up there and dangle their feet over the edge.

There were two apartments per floor for each stairwell, so that makes 18 quarters per building.  The front wall of the stairwell consisted of windows overlooking the parking lot, and I recall resting my forehead against the glass to try and look straight down and see who was down by the door.  The floors were white tile and really carried sound, so we were always told not to yell or slam the door.  The stairwell also went down one flight into the basement, and in our building there were exposed pipes cutting across the ceiling here.  We played a dangerous game where you would stand on a step and jump to grab onto the pipes and swing before dropping down to the basement floor.  We would challenge ourselves by moving up one step at a time, each step increasing the distance between you and the pipes.  I’m surprised we never pulled one of the pipes out of the wall and caused a serious plumbing issue.

I don’t recall there being elevators in these buildings at all, so if you were on the third floor then you had a lot of steps to climb every day.  However, the satellite view shows that many of the buildings now have these strange white additions in the back; you can see some examples here.  These didn’t exist on any buildings back in my day, and I can’t imagine what they might be.  My first thought was that they might be some sort of add-on elevator shaft, but they don’t correspond with the locations of the stairwells and it seems like there are too many of them for that purpose.  If anyone can explain these, please comment on this post!

One last thing I recall about the stairwells is that you could look up or down in the middle, between the railings, and see up and down the length of the entire building.  As distasteful as it sounds now, one game we used to play would be to go to the top of the stairwell and then spit down this small central open area.  The goal was to try and hit the basement floor, but it was tough because you’d often hit one of the railings on the way down.

The Quarters

We lived in two different units in PHV, and as far as I can recall they had the same layout.  They were at least partially hardwood floor, and may not have had any carpeted area at all.  The door opened up to the living room, with the dining room off to the other side.  The kitchen had a pass-through window into the dining room. There was one bathroom and two bedrooms, so I had to share a room with my younger brother.  The rooms were heated by radiators, where you turned a knob on each to control the hot water (or was it steam?) flowing through the metal structure.  I’m not sure if we actually did bang our heads on these radiators sometimes or if our mother just warned us about that possible danger, but I do remember thinking of them as a bit of a hazard.

The Attic

The function of the attic space has always been a bit of a mystery to me because I remember it being used in different ways.  We kids used to climb the stairwell to the fourth floor and try to open the doors there.  Usually they were locked, but sometimes they were open and in those cases we felt compelled to play up there, running the length of the place and yelling just to hear our voices echo.  I recall the area up there being one giant tiled room spanning from stairwell to stairwell, with several windows jutting out on either side as you can see in the picture at the top of this post.  One time we got the bright idea to make a paper airplane and throw it out the window, just to watch it go all the way to the ground.  Before long we were sending whole squadrons of aircraft down to the lawn below, although some of them got stuck on the tile roof or in the gutter.

I recall that sometimes this area was used as sort of an overflow storage area, and I also have the distinct memory of a few girls playing with a large collection of pink Barbie dolls and accessories up here one time.  I don’t know if they brought them from their apartment, or if they were actually stored up there.

We had two different grandmothers come to visit us from the States, and they both stayed up in the attic and came down to our apartment in the mornings.  This makes me think that perhaps the attic was sort of a common area and maybe you could request or rent the usage of that space for some amount of time.  I don’t have any memory of a bed or any furniture being up there, but such things must have been moved in as needed.

The Basement

Each building had a long basement hallway running the length of the building.  One side of this hallway had a series of storage rooms which were assigned to the apartment units above.  I recall these wooden doors being painted a pale green and having a small window covered with a metal mesh, with an identifying number painted on each.  Sometimes you would find one of these doors open when the room was not in use, which of course gave us a new place to play in.

The other side of the hallway had an open doorway leading to either one or two large laundry rooms.  I remember the washers and dryers ringing the walls of the room, with folding tables in the middle.  As I’m writing this, I’m just remembering that these rooms had small windows at ground level and it was possible to climb up on top of one of the machines and then crawl out to the back of one of the buildings.  I think we used this “secret entrance” in both directions, probably for no real reason except that it was cool because it was different and parents couldn’t do it.

At each end of the long hallway you could find a heavy door which opened to the rear of the building, where you then climbed a set of concrete steps to ground level.  When playing hide-and-seek or whatever else, I remember it being common to enter and exit through both sides of the building in order to confuse your pursuers.  This view is a good shot of the stairs leading to the back basement doors, although strangely this building is missing the sidewalk from the northern stairwell around to the front.

The Coal Room

At the time I lived in PHV, at least, these buildings were heated with coal and on one end of each building was a metal hatch low on the wall which opened to a large basement area filled with mountains of coal so that you couldn’t even see the floor.  I think coal trucks used to pull up to these doors and just dump their payload directly into that room.  Sometimes you’d find one of these hatches open, which of course mandated that you must crawl down into the room and run around on the piles of coal.  It was very easy to get black marks on your skin and clothing from doing this, which was a sure way to get in trouble with the parents.  I remember it being a scary thing to descend into this room because it wasn’t always certain that you’d be able to climb back out.  I know on some occasions you needed a friend to grab your hands and pull you back out, if the coal near the window wasn’t high enough to get you close.  Strangely, I don’t really remember a regular door for entering this room, either from inside or outside, but I assume there must have been one.  I also don’t remember any sort of furnace or anything where this coal would be shoveled, but again, it seems like something along those lines must have existed.

In looking around with the satellite view, I’m not able to find one of these metal doors.  Either they’ve been sealed up if coal is no longer in use, or else they just aren’t clearly visible via these views.

The Dumpsters

Every building had a pair of big metal dumpsters at one end where you’d take your trash.  They were just sitting on a concrete slab where a trash truck could pull up and empty them, but the satellite view tells me that this has now changed to become one or more areas surrounded by a green fence, as you can see here.  These dumpsters were sources of adventure to us kids, and I can recall dumpster diving on many occasions and sometimes finding cool stuff.  One time we found several unused rolls of toilet paper, and an older kid taught us how you could throw these rolls and have a long tail of toilet paper extending out behind.  It goes without saying that we made a big mess of the area that day.

If you’ve read any of my previous blog posts, you know that we kids liked to climb everything in sight, and the dumpsters were no exception.  By sliding open one of the doors halfway up either side, you could climb up onto that ledge and from there boost yourself up onto the top.  I don’t know what we did once we got up there, but I know we climbed them countless times.  In fact, we threw those toilet paper streamers from the top of a dumpster so we could maximize our distance.

The Back Yard

For the most part, the rear of a building was just an open grassy area between buildings.  However, some buildings might have a kid’s sandbox or maybe a few picnic tables back there.  I believe that most buildings had a slab of asphalt at one end which would have a bunch of metal poles from which you could run wire and air dry your laundry.  I can’t find a single example of this in the satellite view, so I assume all of these laundry areas have since been removed.  Each pole was actually a bit like an upside-down U, where you’d have two vertical bars which were connected by a long horizontal bar.  As was our tradition, we quickly learned how to climb up on this horizontal bar and perch there while talking with friends.  I think some kids would do a trick where they locked one leg around the pole and then would spin forward or backward all the way around, but that was always too scary for me.  I do recall just grabbing onto one of the vertical bars and walking around in circles while leaning outward so that the pole was all that kept you from falling, and I distinctly remember the flakes of beige paint that would often come off into your hand while doing this.

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Categories: PHV In-Depth | Tags: , , , , | 16 Comments

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16 thoughts on “PHV In-Depth #3: A Typical Apartment Building

  1. Jeff Stallard

    The white columns have got to be fire escapes. They coincide with the 2nd bedroom of each apartment, and it only makes sense that you would need a secondary egress point in case there’s a fire in the stairwell. I think Matt’s little rag-torching fiasco had a lasting effect on the safety policy. 🙂

  2. The 4th floor was the maids’ quarters. As well as I remember, you had to request one and be on a waiting list because there weren’t enough of those for every apartment to have one. People used them mostly for storage I think.

  3. Joanna Ellison

    I loved living at PHV. I remember one year there was a very bad storm and a trailer flew over one of the buildings or the cub scout building I think it was called (not sure) what the building was called, but its the one we would pass before getting to Heidelberg Middle School. Anyways, I lived in the building next to the playground on the 2nd floor (Alamo Circle). what nice memories.

  4. Joanna Ellison

    I remember spitting down the stairwell from the top, the dumpster diving and making little forts in the basement at the bottom of the stairwells. I also remember the coal, melting the snails with salt, the sand boxes and the tons of barbie doll stuff we would bring outside and play with. Also, playing with and trading marbles. It was so much fun.

  5. I think those are elevators – tacked on somehow. At first, Dad and I thought they lined up with the stairwells, but maybe they actually don’t, like you said. If they are indeed elevators, that would have been really nice to have for carrying groceries up and laundry down! What else could they be??? I hope someone knows.

  6. In the 80’s, I worked on Campbell Barracks in the JAG office. As you enter the main gate, turn left, and it was the first building there. One day they had a bomb scare, so they put the suspected briefcase in the middle of that parade field and announced over the loud speaker for everyone to take cover, even inside the buildings, as they were going to blow it up. They had a countdown, and did just that, but only a bunch of paper shreds flew out. We said “Darn it, there went somebody’s perfectly good peanut butter and jelly sandwich.”

  7. Pat Boardman

    They aren’t elevators; they’re add on bathrooms/laundry rooms.
    I’m a current resident of PHV; moved here in the summer of ’09.

  8. I found your blog the same day I learned that PHV will be closing in 2014. Dang! I was there around the same time as you–late 70s, early 80s. I’d like to add my own memories about the apartment buildings:

    1) I twice broke my arm while living in PHV–the first time, I’d been swinging from the hot water pipes in the basement; the second time, I was swinging from those metal structures that people attached their clotheslines to if they wanted to dry their laundry outside. I finally learned my lesson.
    2) The 4th floor was mostly empty in my building, but my dad got one small room in which he set up his art studio. I recall once I was exploring the rest of the attic and I found some dirty magazines tucked into the fireplace. I was completely shocked and quickly stuffed them back inside!
    3) I climbed up on the stairwell awning at least once, because I remember that gravel on top. However, I think my parents must have gotten onto me because I don’t recall doing it often (and it seems like something I’d have loved to do).
    4) Yep, I totally remember people spitting in the stairway. Also, the adults in my building liked to congregate in the stairways after work. They’d sit on the steps outside someone’s apartment, chatting and drinking wine.
    5) I loved the dumpsters by PHV Elementary. At the end of the school year I always found papers and books that I’d take home, and once I found some Donna Summers records. Yeah!
    6) We never banged our heads on the radiators (though we burned our fingers occasionally); however; we’d occasionally bang our heads on the windows when they were opened inwards.

    By the way, my profile picture on Facebook is cropped from a picture of my PHV softball team!

  9. joey

    don’t forget that the 4th floor also had rec rooms, I think 2 per building at the very ends of the building. used for lots of rainy day playtimes(along w/the cellar w/those dungeon like doors with those ancient skeleton key locks) -the rec rooms were where my cub scout pack would have meetings.

    the coal room-if I remember rightly was accessed through a heavy metal door that was under the stairwell at the cellar level- us kids use to claim that there were hidden fallout shelters down there due to the construction of the door. I only saw that door open once- and the stairwell led down down down and I was too scared to venture too far down as I was afraid someone would close the door behind me.

    air raid sirens- remember the sirens on the building and their weekly tests? sure got your attention.

    dumpster diving- anytime you saw the moving trucks in the courtyard- you got your crew together to get first dibs on the fresh loot.lol. amazing how many copies of playboys we got that way. and speaking of which- anyone remember having stashes/caches of various things you wanted to keep-but didn’t want tto bring home?

    • I just remembered once going to the attic of another apartment building for a “yard sale.” Also, I distinctly remember watching Jaws (mostly with my hands covering my eyes, and peeking through my fingers) with a bunch of other adults and kids in the attic. A lot of my memories of PHV are like this–just scattered images.

  10. I think they are all about the same, but there were some differences. I know we had a bigger kitchen than some (but we had a recently renovated one). Some people had coat closets while we didn’t. The bigger families had a second bathroom in their apartment (which is why some have those add-on bathrooms sticking out of the building and others don’t). I imagine they removed the clothes lines because people started having dryers, although that varied too. We had a washer and dryer stacked in our kitchen but some of the people on PHV didn’t have one and used a community washer/dryer in their basement. I’m not sure if you had seen my posts on housing but I posted about it here http://embracingadventure.com/2012/01/29/permanent-housing-patrick-henry-village/ and here http://embracingadventure.com/2012/01/31/on-post-housing-inspection-and-recieving-our-temporary-furniture/ I thought I had posted more pictures, but I guess not. I know I took a ton of them though so if there’s anything you’re wanting to see a picture of from in the apartments I probably have one.

  11. Pingback: PHV in the 1960s | Patrick Henry Village

  12. Stephanie

    Our girl scout troupe met in one of the big attic rooms, and we had at least one of my birthday parties up there as well. I remember the smell of the outside stairs/entrance to the basements always smelling like pee, and more than once catching the boys peeing into it (as well as the playground equipment!)

  13. Laura

    So many memories came flooding back as I read this. We lived in PHV from the fall of1982 until the Summer of 1984. First we lived in the BOQ because there was no housing. we had two adjoining rooms. Then, we briefly lived in the maids quarters as we called them. It was one large room that was the family room and dining area and then there was a long hallway that had 6 bedrooms off of it. The bathroom was an odd set up. there was a toilet and sink in one room and a sink and shower in the other. I remember the kitchen only had a cabinet under the sink so there was no pantry to store things so my mom used brown paper bags to separate things. I also remember in some buildings it was an activity room and I think we held Girl Scout meetings and Good News Club meetings in those rooms. Finally we finally got to move into a real place. I think it was on San Juan Hill. My favorite teacher was in 4th grade while we lived here. Her name was Dr. James. I would love to know what happened to her.

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