A highlight of the Labor Day Festival for me was taking the Walking Tour of Greenbelt with the very knowledgeable Steve Oetken, docent at the Greenbelt Museum. Steve’s degree in historical preservation was evident and much appreciated. Here’s just some of what I learned.
Greenbelt was built for three reasons: to provide low-income housing, to provide jobs, and to implement various planning ideas being used in Europe. Those ideas include the notions of a “green town,” the “neighborhood unit,” and the English concept of “garden cities” advocated by Ebeneezer Howard, and seen at the Welwyn and Letchworth garden cities.
The “neighborhood unit” concept promoted by Clarence Perry was used in the Community Center, where the idea was to centralize services where everyone would live within a half mile of them. So that building originally held not just a school but also a library and churches, at least until the library and churches were built independently elsewhere around town. Later the building held just the Center School until the 1980s when the county decided to demolish the building. After much hue and cry, the school was moved and the building was saved, to be turned back into the Community Center we know and love today. The building is Art Moderne, a very futuristic style. Typical Art Moderne features found in the building include its flat roof, glass block, curves, and horizontal elements.
Of special note at the Community Center are the friezes depicting the Preamble to the Constitution. They’re the work of sculptor Lenore Thomas, who was commissioned by the Resettlement Administration. We learned that her “Mother and Child” statue in Roosevelt Center was widely criticized at the time as somehow “alien” and it was vandalized. On a happier note, Thomas’s papers have been donated by her family to the Greenbelt Museum, which will be launching an exhibition about Thomas in early 2015.
Facilities for recreation by Greenbelt’s residents – play fields, lake and more – were a big part of the original plan, though they were threatened with budget cuts as the project progressed. Thanks to Eleanor Roosevelt’s championing them personally with FDR, they remained in the plan. So Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign might have been inspired by that earlier First Lady’s lobbying on behalf of fitness.
Moving on to the Roosevelt Center, we learned that the goal there was to provide all the service needed by residents, which services included a shoeshine shop, a soda fountain, a variety store, barber shop, valet/shoe shine shop, tobacco shop, a gas station (still standing and serving gas), and the movie theater that opened in 1938. The Co-op Supermarket and Pharmacy was originally located where the New Deal Cafe is now and were moved to a stand-alone building in ’48.
The original homes in Old Greenbelt were of three types: brick, in the style of English garden houses; concrete block (typical of the International Style, which is similar to the Art Moderne style in Roosevelt Center); and a few wooden frame. The International Style is cheaper than the more decorative Beaux-Arts style, which had been popular prior to the late ’20s and ’30s and featured a great deal of ornamentation.
Much of the material used in building Greenbelt had previously been used mostly in industrial building – concrete cinder block, copper threaded piping, asbestos, glass block – and it was used in Greenbelt because it was cheaper than traditional building material (brick) and complemented the new modern style that the planners were going for.
About 1,000 more units of “war-time housing” of wooden frame were later added. They’re sometimes called temporary housinsg, as though they were to be torn down, but that’s not proven by the records. So the term “temporary” is controversial.
The first home inhabited in Old Greenbelt is at 1G Gardenway, on the left in this photo.
FDR had been roundly criticized for building Greenbelt and the other green towns (Greendale in Wisconsin and Greenhills in Ohio) and there was pressure to sell them off and let private enterprise take care of the housing market. That eventually happened in the ’50s and we’re so lucky that a group of veterans arranged to buy the houses and run them as a cooperative – Greenbelt Veterans Housing Cooperative, which later became Greenbelt Homes Inc.
Tour-goers were fascinated to learn that the notion of Greenbelt was none too popular in Prince George’s County back in the ’30s, when it was mostly rural and totally segregated. In fact, it was the county that insisted that Greenbelt be for whites only, not the federal level. More anti-Greenbelt sentiment in the county was over it getting services not widely available throughout the county (sewer, water, paved roads, etc).
When Steve said Greenbelt was all an experiment and that some parts of it worked and others didn’t, I thought of the whites-only policy as one of the early mistakes that’s thankfully been corrected.
The Lay-out and Landscape
The primary influence on the lay-out of Old Greenbelt’s residential area was the ”brilliant” planner Clarence Stein, who had earlier planned the town of Radburn, NJ, and here in Greenbelt he had the chance to correct some of the problems found in Radburn. Stein is credited with the garden side/service side concept, homes turned inside out, and arranging them by superblocks, which were seen as another way to create identity among residents (as do courts on a smaller scale).
Also involved in the landscape was Angus McGregor, who moved many young trees and other vegetation out of the way of construction and put them in a nursery until they could be replaced at the end of construction.
I asked Steve how so many hedges came to be installed here. His understanding is that they were a way to demarcate parts of the green space that residents were expected to maintain (fences weren’t allowed until the ’50s). Hedges had to be just 18 inches high to maintain a feeling of open space in the garden-side areas.
More Walking Tours
Walking Tours are traditionally held during the Labor Day Festival and are provided for visiting groups, with prior arrangement. To arrange a tour contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or 240-542- 2064 at least two weeks before the tour date. Cost is $5 per person for the house and walking tour.