Greenhills, Ohio, was one of three “Greenbelt Towns” built between 1935 and 1938 by the U.S. Resettlement Administration. (The other two are Greenbelt, Maryland, and Greendale, Wisconsin.) There are more Library of Congress photos of Greenhills here.
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.
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.
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.
Greendale’s chief planner was Wisconsin landscape architect Elbert Peets, a designer somewhat at odds with his own time.
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.
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).
And, unlike as in some other planned communities, “Peets also assumed that midwesterners would prefer housing lots that were ‘definitely bounded and privately controlled.'”
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.”
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.'”
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.)
Greendale’s particularly house-y houses were designed by architect Harry Bentley.
“[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.”
I like the garage/shed side buildings, below.
They look like a re-use of shipping containers (although they probably aren’t); the effect is rather current.
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.
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.
Mother and daughter cut flowers in their cottage style garden in Greenbelt, Maryland, near Washington, D.C., September 1938, by Marion Post Wolcott, via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Greenbelt was one of three* “Greenbelt Towns” created by the New Deal federal government in the late 1930s. The built-from-scratch communities were designed to provide the best of both city and country living.
In addition to affordable housing, they incorporated commercial, medical, educational, and social facilities — all within park-like landscaping.
. . .Greenbelt was an experiment in both the physical and social planning that preceded its construction. Homes were grouped in superblocks, with a system of interior walkways permitting residents to go from home to town center without crossing a major street. Pedestrian and vehicular traffic were carefully separated. The two curving major streets were laid out upon and below a crescent-shaped natural ridge. Shops, school, ball fields, and community buildings were grouped in the center of this crescent.
. . .The first families were chosen not only to meet [low] income criteria, but also to demonstrate willingness to participate in community organizations.
[They] arrived on October 1, 1937, [and] found no established patterns or institutions of community life. Almost all were under 30 years of age. All considered themselves pioneers in a new way of life. A mix of blue and white collar workers, they reflected the religious composition of Baltimore and Washington, D.C.—Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish; but because of the racial bias controlling public policy at that time, all were white.†
. . .In 1952, when Congress voted to sell off the greenbelt towns, citizens in Greenbelt formed a housing cooperative (Greenbelt Veterans Housing Corporation, later Greenbelt Homes, Inc.)
“Old Greenbelt” has been well preserved over the years and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997. The photo above shows some of its rowhouses with gardens in 2005. It was taken by James W. Rosenthal for an Historic American Buildings Survey (via Library of Congress).
†The Census found that 41% of residents were African-American in 2000.
Greenhills, Ohio is one of only three “Greenbelt Towns” built [by the federal government] in the United States. The other two are Greenbelt, Maryland, and Greendale, Wisconsin. The three towns had their start during the Depression Era.*
. . . The building of these towns provided much needed jobs for those in the trades (brick layers, plumbers, carpenters, electricians, etc.), as well as people not in the trades who worked at clearing land, digging trenches, etc.
. . . The most important aspect of these towns was to provide low income families with affordable housing to raise their children in and a safe environment with access to large open “green” spaces. Pathways were created in each section of homes to connect the sections to each other, as well as provide a pathway to the Village center.
— The Village of Greenhills website
There are more Library of Congress photos of Greenhills here.
*The first residents moved in in April 1938.