To kick off our 2016 summer “Freakin’, Tiquen'” vacation, Chris and I met our friend Robert who gave us a tour of Greenbelt, Maryland. Conceived in 1935 by Rexford Guy Tugwell of the United States Resettlement Administration, Greenbelt was the first of the “green” communities to be built by the New Deal. The other “green” communities are Greendale, Wisconsin (near Milwaukee) and Greenhills, Ohio (near Cincinnati).
The concept behind Greenbelt was for a self-sufficient cooperative community. It was planned to help relieve the housing shortage near Washington, D.C. and to provide housing for federal government workers. The town was laid out in such a way to keep cars and pedestrians separate creating a safe environment for children to walk to school and play. Douglas Ellington and Reginald Wadsworth, the principal architects, were hired in June of 1935. Construction began the following December on depleted tobacco farmland with the first section of Greenbelt available for occupancy in 1937. The original per month rents were $18.00 – $25.00 for an apartment and $28.00 – $41.00 for a semidetached house. Greenbelt was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and designated as a National Historic Landmark in 1997.
The Greenbelt Community Center was, and still is, a very strikingly modern or moderne building. The only ornamentation is the bas-relief sculptures on the front of the building. Created by WPA artist Lenore Thomas that depict the preamble of the constitution. Originally opened as the elementary school in 1937 it became the community center after a new school was constructed in the early 1990’s. The building always served the community from the beginning. Besides being the school, it was where dances were held, a library for the residents and place for meetings and religious ceremonies. Thanks to grant funding the Community Center was refurbished in 1991.
Across the road from the Community Center are the original Greenbelt housing units. The residential section is arranged in a crescent surrounding the town center. The architectural style of these buildings were as modern as the concept of Greenbelt itself. The apartment buildings were designed in the International Style which came into prominence in the 1930’s. Typical International Style elements include the use of glass block, flat rectilinear surfaces and no ornamentation.
Behind the apartment buildings are the semidetached row houses with gardens. These were patterned after English housing with steel casement windows, plain flat walls and pitched slate roofs.
We would consider these apartments and houses small by today’s standards. For example, a two bed, 1 bath townhouse is about 780 square feet. In Franklin Roosevelt’s second inaugural speech he said “I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.” The 1939 film The City highlighted the deplorable state of urban living in the United States at the time and ended with Greenbelt as an example of what we can and need to achieve. To live in a place like Greenbelt seemed to be a utopian dream for many people still struggling with the effects of the Great Depression.
Streamline Moderne is the best way to describe the look of the town center. The market and theatre were the cornerstones of the center. At the end of the center stands the sculpture “Mother and Child” also by Lenore Thomas.
The market continues to be a cooperative run by the citizens of the town. In fact the whole cooperative concept of Greenbelt was viewed by congress as communistic and several members of the community appeared before the House Un-American Activities Committee in the early 1950’s.
Nine months after the first residents moved in, the Greenbelt Theatre opened on September 21, 1938. The first film shown was Little Miss Broadway starring Shirley Temple. The theatre was designed by Reginald S. Wadsworth and Douglas O. Ellington in streamlined modern and originally had a seating capacity of 590 seats. It operated as a movie theatre until 1976 and reopened as the community arts center in 1980. Closed again in 1987, it was purchased by P & G Theatres and reopened again in 1990. Today it is run by The Friends of Greenbelt Theatre. The remodeled theatre has a reduced seating capacity of 380 and both digital and 35mm projection. It is one of the best theatres around the D.C. area.
If you happen to be in the D.C. area and want to see an actual living remnant of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal do not miss a trip to Historic Greenbelt, Maryland.
For information about tours click here.
Anthony & Chris (The Freakin’, Tiquen’ Guys).
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