A moderne school in a New Deal town.
I've always been fascinated with the historical development of Greenbelt, Maryland, or rather the philosophy behind the "progressive utopias" of the early twentieth century. Often taking a back street to the broader planning principles that shaped these New Deal communities, the architecture of Greenbelt towns actually offers a pretty unique look into the evolution of America's architectural attitudes. A transitional piece of architecture, the Greenbelt Center Elementary School, not quite Art Deco but not quite (big M) Modernism, appears striking and refined, a capable rendition of a modern aesthetic in a town driven by reformist ideals.
One of three cooperative communities built by the New Deal's Resettlement Association, Greenbelt, Maryland, began as a self-contained town thoughtfully integrated into its suburban site. Inspired by the "garden city movement" and planned for the suburban resettlement of rural and urban families (it is important to note that Greenbelt was designed as an all white community, see Amanda Kolson Hurley's Radical Suburbs and James L. Loewen's book Sundown Towns), Greenbelt survives as an unconventional experiment in planning, the physical manifestation of New Deal notions of social reform. Opened in 1937, the Greenbelt Center Elementary School (now Greenbelt Community Center) stands as the town's symbolic heart. Carefully situated into Greenbelt's crescent-shaped development, the school is centrally located at the edge of a large, open recreation area. In a town known for its separation of pedestrian and vehicular traffic, the school links to the rest of the planned community via a system of walkways that kept children safe from the busier streets.
While some of Greenbelt's housing echoes aspects of the International Style, the school building reflects a more streamline moderne aesthetic with its smooth white walls, graceful buttresses, rows of casement windows, and glass block transoms. Designed by Reginald Wadsworth, a Montreal-born architect working for the U.S. Housing Authority, and Douglas Ellington, an architect from North Carolina best known for his Art Deco work, the building is low in scale and simple in form, its slightly asymmetrical facade with a recessed entry still managing to offer a feeling of balance and stability. Originally composed of a main block (containing the auditorium, gymnasium, and a small arts and crafts shop) and a projecting classroom wing, the L-shaped plan allowed the building to function as both a community center and an educational space, separating the two functions as needed.
The treatment of the building's exterior seems simple, but a series of bas-relief panels offers visual interest and symbolic meaning to the smooth, rounded facade. Created by Chicago-artist Lenore Thomas Straus, the sculptures stagger across the front of the building. Displayed under the window bays and over the main entrance, the large hand-sculpted Indiana limestone reliefs depict the preamble of the Constitution, an illustrative reminder of Greenbelt's underlying philosophy. Reflective of the muscular moderne stylings of the period, Thomas' sculptures may have been influenced by the reliefs that adorn Paul Cret's Folger Library (1932) in nearby Washington, D.C.
In its streamlined simplicity and deliberate plan, the building's design mirrors the school's progressive curriculum, and as the heart of the town, reinforces the social concepts of cooperation and community. A noteworthy example of early modernism, the school was almost lost (twice) to demolition in the 1980s, and as a result, the City of Greenbelt took ownership of the property, converting it to a community center after a sensitive renovation. Today, it is listed as a National Historic Landmark.
All photographs (unless otherwise noted) are part of the Historic American Buildings Survey, available here.
Historic American Buildings Survey, Catherine C. Lavoie and Jack E. Boucher, photographers. Greenbelt Community Building, 15 Crescent Road, Greenbelt, Prince George's County, Maryland. Documentation compiled after 1933. Library of Congress, md1174.
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