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Modernist Architecture and Greenbelt History as Taught at UMD

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I’m one of those retirees happily auditing courses at the University of Maryland – tuition-free. (Find out how here.) And in the spring of 2020 I was enrolled in the History of American Architecture course taught by Dr. Caroline Hickman,.a course that started on campus and switched to Zoom, like everything else.

But this post isn’t about classes going virtual – it’s about showing off the cool Modernist buildings we saw that remind me of Greenbelt’s own historic buildings.

International Style examples – Greenbelt Museum and Lawrence Apartments.

Modernist Architecture

“Modern or Modernist Architecture was based upon new and innovative technologies of construction, particularly the use of glass, steel and reinforced concrete; the idea that form should follow function, an embrace of minimalism, and a rejection of ornament. It emerged in the first half of the 20th century and became dominant after World War II until the 1980s, when it was gradually replaced as the principal style for institutional and corporate buildings by postmodern architecture.” (Source.) Modernism spread from Europe to the U.S. beginning in 1925-6 and by the Great Depression in the ’30s, examples of modernism were abundant in the U.S.

Greenbelt’s historic block homes and the apartment buildings along Crescent Road are examples of the International Style, which is either a version of or synonym for Modernist.” (Definitions vary.) “The International Style or internationalism, a major architectural style that was developed in the 1920s and 1930s and was closely related to modernism and modern architecture. The style is characterized by an emphasis on volume over mass, the use of lightweight, mass-produced, industrial materials, rejection of all ornament and colour, repetitive modular forms, and the use of flat surfaces, typically alternating with areas of glass.” (Source.)

On the right, what looks like International Style to me. It’s a home at the northern end of Research Road.that I’d love to see the inside of!

Examples of Art Deco and Streamline Moderne

Art Deco, exemplified in Greenbelt by the Old Greenbelt Theatre, was originally a decorative style in furniture that was popularized by the 1925 Expo of Decorative Arts in Paris – thus the name “art deco.” Known for strong geometric patterns and bold colors, Art Deco architecture came to the U.S. beginning in 1925-6 and its most famous examples are in Miami Beach. (Source.)

Greenbelt’s Community Center is an example of Streamline Moderne, which isan international style of Art Deco architecture and design that emerged in the 1930s, was inspired by aerodynamic design. Streamline architecture emphasized curving forms, long horizontal lines, and sometimes nautical elements. In industrial design, it was used in railroad locomotives, telephones, toasters, buses, appliances, and other devices to give the impression of sleekness and modernity. (Source.)

No more terminology! Here are the important Modernist buildings in the U.S. that were mentioned in our textbook and seen during our professor’s talk. They reminded me so much of Greenbelt’s most distinct buildings.

The Walter L. Dodge House in West Hollywood, built in 1916. The reinforced-concrete house blended Spanish Mission and Modern architectural styles.

The Strathmore Apartments in Los Angeles, built in 1937 in the International Style by architect Richard Neutra.

Lovell Beach House in Los Angeles by Schindler, built in 1926. “The Lovell Beach House is generally considered one of the greatest works of pioneering modern architect, R. M. Schindler. It demonstrates an early use of concrete which predates and predicts the post-war Brutalist style, in which concrete is left unsurfaced, and structure is distinct from enclosure.”

Modernist “space age” look of the 1936 S.C. Johnson Headquarters in Racine, Wisconsin, by Frank Lloyd Wright. “The building features Wright’s interpretation of the streamlined Art Moderne style popular in the 1930s.”

Here in D.C., the Folger Library,1932, is “a neoclassical building that, in a nod to Modernism, stripped the face of any decorative elements.”
The interior is Tudor.

The Hecht Co Warehouse, on New York Avenue is Streamlined Moderne. 1937.

The WTOP Radio Building in Wheaton, MD, designed by Corning, was built in 1939. “The style is a mix of Art Deco and early International Style, reminiscent of the work of Le Corbusier.”

The longer I’ve lived in and around International Style block homes, the more I love the look. (I once wrote about “warming to our blocky International Style homes.) Since taking this history course, I’ve decided to go all in for Greenbelt’s history and remove the siding from my house! Here’s what it looks like now and how I hope it’ll look very soon.

Garden Cities

The History of Architecture course also included important movements in planning, so naturally touched on garden cities in the U.S. From our textbook:

Garden cities originated with Ebenezer Howard and the ideal of creating a living environment with benefits of city and country, as proposed in his 1898 book “Garden Cities of Tomorrow.” Garden cities would be “satellite communities that preserved and enhanced the beauty of nature while providing social opportunity, low housing costs, and high wages. They would incorporate extensive open space and control speculation in land through communal or municipal ownership of land. Such cities would be surrounded by productive greenbelts of farms and forests that would act as insulation against encroachment by outside development while providing recreational space.” Howard realized his dream with the building of Letchworth outside London, which began in 1902, followed by Welwyn in 1919.

Most responsible for transmitting the garden city ideas to the U.S. were landscape architect Henry Wright and architect Clarence Stein. From 1924 to ’28 Stein and Wright built Sunnyside in Queens on 70 acres – the first garden city suburb in the U.S. that was based on Howard’s ideas, with apartment blocks clustered around large communal gardens. You can peruse the current-day photos of Sunnyside here.

Next came Radburn, New Jersey, just outside New York City, on which construction began in 1928. Familiar traits to Greenbelters include a similar town size, superblocks, open landscapes, duplexes and rowhouses, and the separation of pedestrians from traffic. I visited Radburn in 2017 and my photos and interview results are here.

Before mentioning Greenbelt, Professor Hickman showed us a suburban community “of local interest” that wasn’t Greenbelt but Roland Park, the first planned suburban community in the U.S., which is now part of Baltimore. It was developed between 1890 and 1920 as an upper-class streetcar suburb, the early phases of which were designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr. (Source.) This wealthy section of the city is well preserved and thriving today.

On the subject of Greenbelt, our textbook covers the New Deal program directed by Rexford G. Tugwell, a “firm believer in the planning fork of Ebenezer Howard. The Resettlement Administration was to construct suburban satellite industrial communities designed, as Tugwell wrote, ‘to put houses and land and people together in such a way that the props under our economic and social structure will be permanently strengthened.””

Professor Hickman showed the class several images of Greenbelt’s plan and architecture, commenting that people who live in Greenbelt “seem to really like it”! Indeed we do.

Follow Susan Harris:
Susan started blogging about Greenbelt soon after moving here in 2012, and that first blog has grown into this nonprofit community website. She also created and curates the Greenbelt Maryland YouTube channel. In 2021 Susan joined the Board of Directors of Greenbelt Access TV. Retired from garden writing and teaching, she continues to blog at GardenRant.com.

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