Village green

Children on grass, Greendale, WIGreendale, Wisconsin, September 1939, by John Vachon, via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (all photos here).

Greendale was one of three New Deal “Greenbelt Towns” built by the federal government in the late 1930s. The other two were Greenhills, Ohio, and Greenbelt, Maryland.

Children on grass 2, Greendale, WI

The planned communities offered affordable housing and commercial, educational, and social facilities — all within walking distances and in the midst of park-like landscaping.

Their construction also created jobs, supporting each area’s recovery from the Depression.

Child on tricycle, Greendale, WI

Greendale was built on 3,400 acres about 3 miles southwest of Milwaukee. Work began in 1936. The first families moved in in April 1938.

There were 366 residential buildings (for 572 families), and each had an average of 5,000 sq. ft. of outdoor space.  The town center included the Village Hall, a movie theater, a newspaper, a volunteer fire station, schools, a co-op market, a tavern, and other businesses.

Children with wagon, Greendale, WI

A large old barn on the town site — which can just be seen on the left above — was preserved as a community theater and social center.

flag and street, Greendale, WI

Greendale’s chief planner was Wisconsin landscape architect Elbert Peets, a designer somewhat at odds with his own time.

“He disliked the curvilinear suburban streets and sweeping lawns then in fashion,” according to William H. Tishler in his book, Midwestern Landscape Architecture.

In 1917, he had visited a number of European cities. “He was especially impressed with the urban squares, piazzas, and parks that he saw on foot,” according to Tishler.

“To Peets. . . , the ‘calamity of the first magnitude’ was the reverence given by American landscape architects to ‘the English landscaped style of gardening.’ A proper antidote for the ‘native-imitative’ design schemes. . . could be found in ‘such rudimentary principles of design as straightness, uniformity, economy and equal balance.'”

He blamed Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr., for making nature “the holy word of his time.” He believed Central Park was a failure because its planners had “thought of the city as the enemy of the country.”

Accordingly — and also influenced by American colonial towns and midwestern villages — he built his experimental town “around a line instead of a point,” writes Tishler.

There was a long main boulevard. Side streets were mostly straight and set into grids.

Street of houses, Greendale, WI

Most houses were placed within several feet of the curb.

There are two drawings of Peet’s plan here, on pages 205 and 208 (you will need to scroll up and down).

street and roses, Greendale, WI

And, unlike as in some other planned communities, “Peets also assumed that midwesterners would prefer housing lots that were ‘definitely bounded and privately controlled.'”

Girl on fence, Greendale, WI

He called Greendale “a workingmen’s town” — “in actuality and in appearance it must be direct, simple, and practical, free of snobbishness, not afraid of standardization.” 

Playing ball, Greendale, WI

He did not neglect the new community’s link to the countryside, desiring that “our people may have close contact with the land and its plants and also with farm life and its work.”

“The initial plan was for two-thousand acres of permanent open space* encircling the residential districts. Greendale was unique among the three federal towns. . . since its greenbelt included exceptionally productive agricultural land — seventeen dairy farms and twenty-three small truck and poultry farms. Besides providing for some continuation of farming, Peets planned for hiking and cross-country ski trails through much of the greenbelt. Moreover, . . . he assured, ‘we shall do whatever we can to preserve and create communities of native plants.'”

"Mr. Kroenig, community manager, talking with farmer who operates [Greendale] cooperative pasteurizing plant, June1941.
“Mr. Kroenig, community manager, talking with farmer who operates [the Greendale] cooperative pasteurizing plant,” June 1941.
Peets ultimately used non-natives for about a quarter of all the landscaping plants, which incurred the ire of Jens Jensen; he called it “a tragedy.” Peets answered that the number of Jensen-approved plants were too few and that certain non-native plants “were appropriate to the setting,” according to Tishler.** (That debate continues.)

Jenson was also unhappy that the recently reconstructed Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia provided the models for Greendale’s Village Hall and other public buildings: “The buildings are lost. Frank Lloyd Wright, a true son of Wisconsin, should have been the guiding hand, but a profit [sic] is always stoned in his own country.”

(A have to say that I once saw Wright’s plan for Broadacre City at Taliesin, and it was dismal  — all about the car.)

Man on crutches, Greendale, WI

Greendale’s particularly house-y houses were designed by architect Harry Bentley.

house front, Greendale, WI

“[M]ost of the residential buildings exhibit a stripped-down, functional, modernistic variant of the Colonial Revival style in which architectural features, such as hipped roofs, brick pilasters and quoins, wide brick chimneys, and enclosed vestibules are predominant,” according to Greendale’s National Historic Landmark Registration Form.

“Others reflect a simplification of the English Cottage Style through the use of gabled roofs, the placement of chimneys on the street-side elevations, and window configuration.”

Apple St. House, Greendale, WI

I like the garage/shed side buildings, below.

Children with tents, Greendale, WI

They look like a re-use of shipping containers (although they probably aren’t); the effect is rather current.

woman w/ flowers, Greendale, WI
Greendale’s residents could plant flowers and small vegetables in their yards. Larger plants like corn had to be grown in the town’s allotment gardens.

A limited budget helped determine both the fairly simple houses and, some thought, Old World look of the town, according to Tishler.

“Greendale’s planning staff paid a great deal of attention to keeping down costs. Cinderblock, stucco, whitewash, and drab-colored paints could be purchased locally and inexpensively; once in place the materials were regarded as providing a ‘gracious functionalism’ to a workingmen’s village. Peets and Bentley disavowed any intention to imitate European villages, and were somewhat bewildered when early visitors commented on the similarity.”

Originally, all the families rented their dwellings from the government. But after 1950, they were given the right to purchase their units. Nearly all were in private ownership two years later.

In 2012, Greendale was named a National Historic Landmark.

Greendale in 2012, by Freekee, via Wikimedia Commons.
Greendale in 2012, by Freekee, via Wikimedia Commons. Siding has been added to some houses.

Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain,
Where health and plenty cheared the laboring swain . . .

How often have I loitered o’er thy green,
Where humble happiness endeared each scene!

— Oliver Goldsmith, from “The Deserted Village


* “Unfortunately, the large greenbelt that Peets so strongly sought to maintain and protect was reduced in size; today, only a small version exists as part of the Root River Parkway,” according to Tishler.

**According to Greendale’s National Historic Landmark Registration Form, Peets said that his proposed plants “needed little skilled care and . . . were familiar to the residents. Familiarity, in Peets’s terms meant plants, shrubs, and trees that appealed to the average person and were likely to evoke the image of small town America, drawing from a long history of use and collective memory in the Midwest. Regardless of whether such species were technically endemic to the Great Lakes region, their use was justified on the basis that such old favorites were culturally appropriate, had popular appeal, and responded favorably to the growing conditions of the upper Midwest. ”

There are some good old drawings and plans and pictures of a more recent Greendale if you scroll to the last pages of the Registration Form.




12 thoughts on “Village green

  1. Two houses in the contemporary photo have blue and white signs on the lawns. I tried to enlarge them enough to read them but they were too fuzzy. However I believe they are Recall signs, but whether they are for or against Scott Walker I can’t be sure.

    1. Whether they are for or against, they seem to go all the way down the street.

      Greendale started out as a low to moderate income town; now it seems to be a moderate to wealthy one. It has about 14,000 people and is 92% white (in a county that is 62% white), according to the 2010 census.

      How did Milwaukee go in the recall?

    1. I imagine the white and “drab” colors were a good idea when the community was just starting out. Over the years, residents would want to be more expressive.

      I like the two kinds of original front fencing (and the probably temporary wire fence in the back). And the shared space in the back in the top photos.

  2. What an absolutely fascinating story. I wish that it was possible to build some low to moderate income housing in some of the declining urban areas today. You might possibly solve two problems at once if you included commercial development. I like the inclusion of existing farmland.

  3. Thank you for sharing the fascinating history of these three depression-era planned communities. i spent many years studying and teaching urban sociology and have long had an interest in both planned communities and the city beautiful movement — but somehow I had missed this history.

    1. I thought Greendale’s arrangement of space (and even its less visionary architecture) culturally and psychologically astute — as well as remarkable for attempting to converse and incorporate both recreation and farming in the green spaces.

      I’m looking at a couple of the WWII defense industry housing complexes right now.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.