It may seem presumptuous to lifelong Greenbelters, but in my seven years living here and writing about the place, I thought I was pretty well informed. Then I listened to Megan Searing Young interviewed on this very cool podcast about museums – Museums in Strange Places – and was humbled. Megan is director of the Greenbelt Museum, of which I’ve become a BIG fan, so I shouldn’t have been so surprised.
Now in its second season, the podcast is focusing on the museums of Maryland, and we’re lucky to have hostess Hannah Hethmon devote this episode to the Greenbelt Museum and Historic Greenbelt itself. Here’s a long list of the stuff I learned in that 46-minute podcast. Kudos not just to Megan for her answers but Hannah for getting it all right in the final product.
- Greenbelt was built for three reasons: as a relief project (to provide work); to provide housing in a shortage; and as a model of town planning. It was “very experimental, expensive and controversial.”
- The apartment buildings were originally for young couples and “a few single males.” Describing the process residents had to undergo to move up to larger units, Megan admitted, that it was “a fair amount of involvement of the government in your business.”
- The original residents, called “pioneers,” were selected partly because they were willing to shop at Greenbelt’s co-op businesses, (the grocery store, movie theater, valet and variety store), which got seed money from Edward Filene.
- Greenbelt was originally segregated because the county was “deeply segregated.” State Senator Sasscer was a primary opponent of Greenbelt – for being integrated, for including residents who he feared would become a burden on the county’s relief rolls, and therefore leading to higher taxes..
- The original plan had included what were to be called “Rosville Rural Development” homesteads for African-Americans who would farm the land on 5-acre plots. When planners realized that would sink the project, they abandoned the homesteads. Megan refers to Greenbelt as “only a Utopia for white families.”
- Hannah in her narration said “Greenbelt was a radical idea in the 1930s. The planners embraced ideas of religious integration and community-centered living that we can still look to as models today.”
The Museum/Home at 10B Crescent Road
- In 1937 when Greenbelt opened for new residents, its kitchens were considered “state of the art.” Pioneers might have previously used a single bunsen burner, a coal-burning stove, or one little heating coil, or even shared a kitchen with another family. This kitchen was electric and so new, the power company came and gave lessons in how to use an “electric cooker”.
- Also ahead of its time were the overhead lights, and windows in every room for cross-ventilation.
- Looking in the bedroom closet, Hannah was “loving these clothes in here” in mauve, mustard and avocado colors, “which are basically the Ikea colors of the season right now.”
- Admittedly I’m in a somewhat larger unit (a 3-bedroom masonry) but I was surprised by Megan saying this unit has “an extraordinary amount of storage” and that the planners must have expected that more prosperity was coming and that residents would be able to buy more clothes.” Hannah said it’s “interesting for a project that’s rather Communist or egalitarian to have this kind of aspirational capitalism closet.”
- The Greenbelt Museum opened in 1987 for Greenbelt’s 50th anniversary. Historic home museums from the ’30s are rare, “let alone homes for low-income families.”
- Home furniture was designed especially for Greenbelt by the Special Skills Division within the Resettlement Administration. Residents could order one piece or a houseful at the showroom in the center of town, then wait quite a while for the items to be made and delivered. They were that popular.
- One influence was the Finnish designer Alvar Aalto. When Hannah admired the furniture, calling it Midcentury Modern or Danish and trendy, Megan said “We get lots of requests. People want this furniture.”
- Some pieces are convertible. The couch is very low, so as to make the room look smaller.
- The rug in the living room, which is not Modernist at all, was actually used by the first occupants there.
A New Museum Philosophy
- There are no velvet ropes in the museum that would restrict visitors. This effort to engage visitors more emotionally is a bit controversial. The very accessible Fiestaware dishes are used (so could be easily replaced), and visitors are allowed to sit on the couch, which doesn’t have the original upholstery. The idea is to remove fragile or irreplaceable pieces and let people “experience the home in a much more authentic way.” Leading this change in museum approach is Franklin Vagnone, who wrote the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums and whose stay in this museum is chronicled here on Greenbelt Online.
- The bathroom cabinet is filled with period-appropriate items, and even bedroom drawers are gradually being filled with period clothes, including unmentionables. Megan said “We wanted to not have a lot of labels. We wanted it to seem like the family had just walked out.”
- Hannah sat on the couch, looked around and proclaimed “This is quite nice from here. Oh, I would, If I was going to live in this area and I had to pick a home, this is nice. You’ve got windows on each side. I can see the kitchen window. I can see the park out back. and the neighbor’s house.” Megan responded that “It’s hard to believe you’re 15 miles outside the Nation’s Capital.”
- Megan said that to move to this new town you had to make at least $800 a year but no more than $2,200 a year. “There are stories of people turning down promotions at work because life here was so extraordinary, they didn’t want to move.” What a testament!
- I love this story Megan told of a current example of local pride.”Recently I was giving a walking tour and someone came out from one of these houses and said ‘Our court’s the best. We have an annual BBQ that beats everything.'” She added that “People really do identify with where they are in Greenbelt. When people come back here, they identify themselves as “I lived in 13 Court,” et cetera.” In my experience, they sure do.
- And I love this comment on Greenbelt’s religious diversity: “Kids growing up here did not realize it was unusual to live with Catholics on one side and a Jewish family on the other. That was incredibly unusual for the 1930s U.S. Typically you had neighborhoods that were all worshiped the same and here it’s intermingled. It was designed that way.”
Inner Sidewalks and Hedges
As Megan and Hannah walk toward Roosevelt Center along some inner sidewalks, Hannah says “It’s so cute because we’re walking between this really narrow lane between hedges, which prompts a quick response from Megan about those hedges.
Early on, these hedges would not have been allowed to be this high. You could only have a hedge that was 18 inches tall, which would have again reinforced that sense of openness. A lot of people [now] have these high hedges to provide privacy and that was not the idea. They really wanted the community, particularly within the courts, to sort of gel, to become a smaller unit within the larger unit of the community, and many of them did.” (I’ve been trying to track down the original maximum hedge height, and I got my answer – super-short!)
- Hannah declared the Community Center “So beautiful!” Megan described the style as Art Deco to some, Modernist International Style to others. What I’d never heard is that some Greenbelters called the design of the building and some of the homes “functionalist,” which I kind of like. “It’s not overly fancy but it’s very beautiful in its restraint.” And it’s known as “one of the more significant examples of municipal Art Deco architecture in the region.”
- Yet, it was almost torn down. A referendum was called for its protection, which resulted in its being saved and repurposed from a school building into the hugely successful community center it is today. ‘It’s full and thriving.”
- The Museum’s showroom in the Community Center includes a model relief originally intended to represent the “Establish justice” clause in the Preamble to the Constitution, but was rejected as too radical, it seems. It depicted a judge and jury standing with their backs turned away from a group of hooded figures hanging a man from a tree. I agree with Hannah that it’s important to have preserved this original design as “a testament to both the complicated history of this Utopia at the time when it was born, as well as the progressive ideas that the community has managed to keep alive and well for all these years so that future generations of city planners can look to Greenbelt and be inspired to create neighborhoods that prioritize quality of life and community over profit.” Here, here.