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The Homes of Greenbelt Homes, Inc

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Housing styles in Greenbelt Homes Inc
Greenbelt is one of three New Deal-era “greenbelt” towns created to provide housing and jobs during the Great Depression. It was recognized as a National Landmark Historic District. for its architecture, planning, landscape, and community attributes, but here we’ll focus just on the historic housing styles. (For more of the fascinating history of Greenbelt click here.)

At Greenbelt’s launch in 1937, all residential units were rentals. In 1952, Congress voted to sell off the greenbelt towns, so residents of Old Greenbelt formed a housing cooperative (Greenbelt Veterans Housing Corporation, later Greenbelt Homes, Inc.) to purchase the homes. Today Greenbelt is the best preserved of the three greenbelt towns, in large part because the other two – in Ohio and Wisconsin – fell into private ownership.

Greenbelt’s Historic Housing Styles

The government designers of Greenbelt sought to strike a balance between traditional domestic design and the modern styles of the time – such as Art Deco and International. Using examples from both American and German designs, they merged the two to create the design of the housing seen today. The more decorative Art Deco and Art Moderne styles were used on the community buildings and spaces, like Roosevelt Center.

The original townhouse style units were built in a mix of traditional design (seen in the brick units) and the new International Style of the concrete block units that emphasized undecorated, streamlined wall surfaces, simple geometric forms, and an emphasis on the horizontal. The more traditional brick-clad units combined an emphasis on simplicity with a peaked slate roof. The result was buildings that were beautiful in their simplicity, in contrast with another style of that era – Art Deco, which emphasized highly decorative, embellished surfaces.

Another major emphasis of the International style homes was the use of industrial materials that had not been used in residential construction. The style, combined with the visible building material, contributed to the overall look.

The International Style had been first used in Europe starting in mid-1920s, and later in the US in the 1930s, though much less commonly than other styles. The choice of International Style in Greenbelt links it to other European-based housing experiments in the 1920s and 1930s.

The brick and (original) frame units are more of an urban vernacular style that was influenced by the rowhouses already seen in large cities like Baltimore, Washington, and NYC, and were influenced by the garden style coming from England.

Distinctive, Character-Defining Features 

  • A streamlined appearance, general lack of such ornamentation as shutters, awnings or trim.
  • Ornamentation is limited to horizontal bands of raised brick at the corners—sometimes called “speed lines”— that add visual interest at minimal cost. According to draft Historic District Design guidelines (which were never implemented), these are the most readily identifiable decorative element of the architecture of Greenbelt. They’re found on block and brick units.
Closeup of dentil on brick home in Greenbelt Homes
Decorative dentil on brick unit

 

  • Additional ornamentation was used on brick and block units around entry doors with simple dentil details and some raised masonry.
  • The massing is characterized by simple, rectangular forms with entry porches projecting from the main building mass.
  • Instead of conventional front and back yards, units have a “garden side” that faces interior sidewalks and a “service side” for access by cars and service vehicles, with the architectural fronts of homes facing the garden side. The idea of turning the houses inside out in this way came from Clarence Stein and his work at Radburn, NJ, which in turn was influenced by Ebeneezer Howard and his Garden City idea.
  • All units were built with service-side and garden-side porches, with the smaller service-side porches containing a trash closet. Porch roofs are flat and supported by simple, round metal pipe columns. All porch floors were poured concrete. Porches are cantilevered from the building facade and have a flat roof, supported by slender metal columns or wall brackets. As is the case with many of Greenbelt’s homes, this standard wasn’t always kept and some porches have slate-covered shed roofs on the service side.
  • Windows are flush with the facade. Rather than insetting the windows or allowing for projecting bay windows, the simplicity of the wall was kept with simple window openings.
  • Original doors are wood with small fixed panes of glass. The style is simple, relying on recessed panels and the arrangement of glass for decorative effect.
  • Originally all exterior trim, doors, windows were painted. All block units were off-white, with the horizontal brick banding left unpainted. Trim colors were bright pastel shades of blue, yellow, green and orchid.


Unique Features of Block Homes

Service side of Greenbelt Museum (concrete block)
Service side of Greenbelt Museum (concrete block)

 

  • The use of inexpensive cinder block was important in providing a large quantity of homes using both skilled and unskilled workers.
  • The primary and porch roofs are flat.  
  •  Windows were a multi-pane casement arrangement of about 12-16 panels. However, during the 1980s rehab, these windows were largely removed. 

 

Concrete Block Garden Side in Greenbelt Homes Inc
Concrete Block Garden Side

 

Unique Features of Brick Homes

Brick Garden Side (Historic Photo) in Greenbelt Homes Inc
Brick Garden Side (Historic Photo)

 

  • Roofs. are slate side-gabled.
  • Windows were a multi-pane casement arrangement of about 12-16 panels. However, during the 1980s rehab, these windows were largely removed. 
  • Originally left unpainted, the brick was discovered to be porous and many units were painted off-white as an experiment in insulation techniques. Since then many have been left to weather. During the 1980 HIP some of the painted bricks were sandblasted to remove the paint, which was possibly the worst thing you could do because it damages the brick and allows it to become more porous.
  • Brick homes were built with more skilled workers than the original block homes.
Brick Service Side in Greenbelt Homes Inc
Brick Service Side

 

Brick Side View in Greenbelt Homes Inc
Brick Side View

 

Unique Features of Frame Homes

 

Frame Service Side in Greenbelt Homes Inc
Frame Service Side

In 1941 and 1942 another 1,000 units were built of wood frame as “defense housing” by the Farm Security Agency for the Federal Works Agency, following the general principles of earlier housing. However, many features were cut back to save on construction costs.

  • Wood frame construction with frame cladding, now replaced with vinyl.
  • Wood trim elements were used to highlight windows, doors and entry porches and a string course around the building to highlight the second story. Much of that detail has been removed due to the vinyl that was applied in the 1980s rehabilitation.
  • Windows were double-hung with a divided light. This design has been removed during the 1980s rehabilitation.
  • Roofs are asphalt shingle roof.
  • Many units included a trash closet, which instead of being part of a porch, were now inserted into the shell of the unit.

 

Frame Garden Side in Greenbelt Homes Inc
Frame Garden Side

Changes Over the Years

One of the most significant changes to the community was the addition of frame units built in the 1940s as part of defense housing. These units used some of the details of the brick units, but were simplified further and used some construction methods used by the military. The brick and block units have had modifications and additions over the years, though much of the original massing of rows and courts can be discerned.

A major renovation in the 1980s removed the original steel casement windows and replaced them with vinyl-clad sliders or one-over-one, double-hung sash. A few of the block units have been covered in vinyl siding that obscures the original design. However, all brick and most block units retain their original design.design.

GHI Housing Types Today

There’s a wider variety in housing types among GHI’s 1,600 units than simply the three types described above. Thanks to GHI Assistant General Manager Tom Sporney for providing the following numbers and for deciphering some historical records for this article.

One-bedroom "honeymoon" homes in Greenbelt Homes Inc
One-bedroom “honeymoon” homes

 

  • 256 Block homes with 1-3 bedrooms, and 10 with a basement!  The 12 1-BR are “honeymoons,” which got their name because the original residents were married couples with no children. That was the smallest family unit allowed in those early social-planning days. Couples who subsequently had children were allowed to move to larger units.
  • 296 Brick homes (actually frame structures with brick veneer) with 1-3 bedrooms, four of them 1 BR – honeymoons.
  • 22 Cement-asbestos sided townhomes, which are identical to the “brick” townhomes except they have the siding instead of the brick veneer.

 

Free-standing homes in Greenbelt Homes Inc

 

  • Built at the same time were 5 pre-fab freestanding homes on Woodland Way. (Above) Note that they’re positioned so that the front door doesn’t face the street.
Side-by-side entrances to 1 BR frame homes in Greenbelt Homes Inc
Side-by-side entrances to 1 BR frame homes

 

  • 992 frame homes of which 140 are one-bedroom, all on one floor either above or below another unit.

Newer homes with basements in Greenbelt Homes Inc

  • 25 larger townhouses with basements built in 1969. (Above). They’re located across from Greenbelt Elementary School.

Freestanding homes in Greenbelt Homes Inc

  • 4 larger freestanding built in 1967. (Above) Located on Northway, Woodland Way and Greenhill Road.

More variety: There’s a variety of different floor plans even within each type of unit. Some homes have attached garages. Of course some have additions that were added after the coop was created.

Sources:

A big thanks to GHI members Aaron Marcavitch, Stephen Oetken, Benjamin Fischler and Isabelle Gournay and GHI Assistant Manager Tom Sporney for their contributions to this article. Other sources include:

Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog at GardenRant.com and direct Good Gardening Videos.org, a nonprofit, ad-free educational campaign.

  1. Mary Ann Baker
    | Reply

    Thank You…enjoy reading this history and seeing the aArchitecture styled trimming.

    I live in the featured newer townhouse on Laurel Hill. Rd.

    .Look foward to more blogs in the future.

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