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Henderson, the second largest city in Nevada, was never intended to be a permanent town, let alone one of the fastest growing cities in the United States in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Originally founded as Basic Magnesium Corporation, Henderson owes its beginning to Franklin Roosevelt’s Arsenal of Democracy war mobilization that began in 1940. As the name implies, the town and the industrial complex at its heart were established to process the “miracle metal” of World War II, magnesium. Basic, as it was called by residents, played a critical role in America’s war effort, producing nearly a quarter of US wartime magnesium required to create lightweight aluminum alloys essential to the aircraft industry and the B-29 Superfortress in particular.

The location for the Basic townsite reflects the critical strategic role magnesium had in wartime planning and in the military industrial network. Four factors informed site selection: proximity to electricity production, proximity to large supplies of water, available rail capacity, and a secure and isolated location. The pace of planning and construction was extraordinary, and in under 11 months the industrial complex was completed including the magnesium extraction and processing facilities, new electrical generation and infrastructure from Hoover Dam, water processing plant and infrastructure from Lake Mead, expanded rail lines, and housing and community facilities for 14,000 employees. Like much of the war’s industrial infrastructure, Basic was intended to operate only for the duration of the war and the design and construction of Basic’s original buildings and housing stock reflect this thinking. As the war wound down, so did the demand for magnesium, and the Basic industrial complex cut back on operations beginning in 1945.

In 1947, the town was declared war surplus and offered for sale by the United States War Asset Administration. That same year, Nevada state legislators purchased the industrial complex and site through the Colorado River Commission of Nevada. With plant operations shut down, more than half of the townsites had been abandoned as employees moved on to seek work elsewhere. The State’s purchase of Basic Management had an unforeseen impact on southern Nevada as the water and electrical infrastructures that had supported plant operations at peak capacity now provided the capacity to support growing demand in nearby Las Vegas, making the post-war expansion in southern Nevada possible.

The original townsite homes were never intended to be permanent. Wartime projects and housing in particular were constructed to be useable for roughly twenty years, well short of the nearly eighty years of continuous use that we see today. As Henderson has grown and developed since the end of the war, the original Basic town center is now poised for redevelopment. While the merits of the original 1940’s town plan remain, the condition of the original building stock stands out as the limiting factor in the redevelopment potential of the historic core. This design challenge is intended to generate ideas to provide housing solutions appropriate to today’s needs within the historic townsite. Rather than a sweeping reorganization of the original plan, the objective is to keep the positive public spatial qualities of the streets and original townsite lots and generate an approach for the incremental improvement housing stock.

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By competing in this challenge, you are continuing in the hallowed footsteps of the original Henderson Townsite developers who met the urgent housing needs of thousands of people who supported our critical wartime efforts. The City of Henderson looks forward to the selection of the winning entry, which will contribute to the innovative redevelopment of this historic core and take it well into the 21st century.
— Debra March, Mayor of Henderson


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Located adjacent to the industrial facilities installation making up the Basic Magnesium Project, and identified as the Henderson townsite, is an emergency-born community development, complete in its services. The development borders on the United states Highway No. 95, about midway between Las Vegas, Nev., and Boulder City, Nev., approximately twelve (12) miles from each.

This development constitutes what can be considered a complete community establishment, providing housing and recreation for approximately 3,500 persons, based on an average of 3.48 persons per unit.

The Los Angeles & Salt Lake Railroad, Boulder City Branch, a division of the Union Pacific Railroad, connecting with the main line at Las Vegas, passes adjacent to the townsite on the south. this rail service presently serves the pantsite.

This townsite development was originally initiated to provide adequate and necessary housing and townsite facilities for the permanent employees of the Basic Magnesium project. At present it is housing the employees of the various agencies and lessees.

As constructed, the community development consists of a well-conceived town plan layout of hard-surfaced streets, graded service alleys, complete utilities such as sewer, water, and electrical services, 703 two-bedroom houses, 297 three-bedroom houses, all constructed on a standard plan of shiplap on wood frame, composition roof, tongue and groove wood flooring, electric heating, evaporative cooling, full sanitary plumbing, hot and cold water, open garage and driveway.

Also included are school buildings, two “bachelor type” apartment buildings of 29 apartments each; theater building, recreation building, housing a drug store, cafe, barber shop, and bowling alley; general store and market building; nursery-school building; post-office building; maintenance shop; paint shop; fire station; small shops building; Protestant Chruch; Catholic Church; Red Cross building; Boy Scout building; library building; athletic field and field house; asphalt-surfaced tennis court; baseball diamond; and complete hospital serving the area. (This hospital has presently been approved for disposal.)

Utilities - Water. - The housing area is served by a system of metal pipe lines to distribute blended treated water from the Water Treatment Plant. Initial water supply is from Lake Meade.

Sewer. - A connecting system of cast iron and clay pipe sewers with manholes, collects the sewage and delivers it to the sewage-disposal plant.

All utility services are supplied from the same source that serves the Basic Magnesium Project, with the exception of the electrical, which has been supplied by Southern Nevada Power Co., through a separate substation.

-Text from “Basic Magnesium Plant - Townsite Housing Brochure, 1946”

Courtesy of Henderson Libraries



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Innovation in Architecture, Infrastructure, & Technology

For 2019, the Committee on Design has chosen “The Innovators and Maintainers” as their theme.

What is your definition of “innovation”?

“Very simply put, innovation is about staying relevant. We are in a time of unprecedented change. As a result, what may have helped an organization be successful in the past could potentially be the cause of their failure in the future. Companies need to adapt and evolve to meet the ever-changing needs of their constituents.”

-Stephen Shapiro

“Creativity is thinking of something new. Innovation is the implementation of something new.”

-Paul Sloane

“Anything that is new, useful, and surprising. That last criteria, surprising, tends to ‘surprise’ people because they usually don’t hear many people talk about it. For me, a great innovation are the simple ones that make you slap your forehead and say, ‘Gee, why didn’t I think of that?’”

-Drew Boyd

“Innovation is a dominant ideology of our era, embraced in America by Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and the Washington DC political elite. As the pursuit of innovation has inspired technologists and capitalists, it has also provoked critics who suspect that the peddlers of innovation radically overvalue innovation. What happens after innovation, they argue, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labor that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.”

-Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel

As you tackle the challenge presented in this competition, think about what innovation means and how it can influence your response.

For more information on the Committee on Design, this year’s Conference theme, and the two Conferences in San Francisco (spring) and Switzerland (fall), visit: https://network.aia.org/committeeondesign/home.