Greenhills Named a National Historic Landmark

New Deal Housing

New Deal Housing
A New Deal neighborhood
Photo Credit: John Vashon

Near Cincinnati, Ohio, the Village of Greenhills is one of only three New Deal “greenbelt” towns in the country. On January 11, it was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior.

Greenhills was a demonstration project of the Resettlement Administration (RA) a short-lived New Deal agency that relocated displaced and struggling urban and rural families to planned communities built by the federal government.

The concept for greenbelt towns began in the late 19th century. A “Garden-City Movement,” often dismissed as utopian, promoted self-contained, satellite communities surrounded by “belts” of farms and forests as the answer to the overcrowded cities of post-industrial England.

School children at Greenhills, OH

School Children
Greenhills, OH
Photo Credit: John Vaschon

The idea resonated with Rexford Guy Tugwell, an agricultural economist who was part of FDR’s “Brain Trust.” He persuaded the president that greenbelt towns could house thousands of people displaced during the Great Depression. Roosevelt made Tugwell the director of his Resettlement Administration (RA).

Tugwell immediately purchased some 6,000 acres in southern Ohio, including dozens of struggling dairy farms he hoped could be sustained by the soon-to-be-built greenbelt town of Greenhills.

WPA workers broke ground for the new town in 1935. Over the next two years some 5,000 men and women transformed more than a square mile of what had been cornfields into a village for 676 low-income families.

The WPA relied on mules instead of machines in order to maximize the number of workers and hours spent to develop the town. It directed them to add extra layers of plaster and paint to the buildings to keep people employed.

WPA workers building Greenhills

WPA workers
Building Greenhills
Photo Credit: John Vaschon

Greenhills’ planners provided what were seen as extravagances for low-income housing. Curved streets and cul de sacs separated homes from busy thoroughfares; walkways, pocket parks, and playgrounds were incorporated into pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods; a co-op shopping district (the first strip mall in Ohio), community center with a K-12 school, town library, and public swimming pool were constructed.

A variety of multi-family housing—duplexes, townhouses, and apartments—employed Colonial, Modern, and International-style architecture. Homes were built facing backward to provide views of  common areas and open spaces rather than the street. Utilities were installed underground.

To the consternation of some in Congress, the cost of the project came in at $11.5 million.

Tugwell had envisioned 20 greenbelt towns but managed to build only three—Greenhills, Ohio; Greendale, Wisconsin; and Greenbelt, Maryland– before the Supreme Court ruled the RA unconstitutional. The RA was dissolved in 1937. The Farm Securities Administration (FSA) assumed some of its functions.

Apartment Houses at Greenhills, 1939

Apartment Houses
Greenhills, 1939
Photo Credit: John Vaschon

Greenhills is a living example of a time when government fully dedicated itself to improving the lives of working-class Americans. Yet, Greenhills has struggled to preserve its New Deal legacy.

Parts of Greenhills are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and preservation groups have long called for a plan to protect historic properties. Over residents’ objections, the Village Council voted to raze many WPA-era buildings. Fifty-two of the original townhouses and apartments have been demolished, replaced with new, stand-alone single-family houses. In 2011, Greenhill was listed among Ohio’s Most Endangered Historic Sites.

Greenhills’ newly awarded status as a National Historic Landmark, administered by the National Park Service, may help. Property owners will now be eligible for federal grants to rehabilitate Greenhills remaining New Deal-era structures.

Indiana’s First CCC Museum

The ribbon cutting was also a celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Indiana State Parks.

CCC veteran Otis Stahl and Glory-June Greiff at the museum opening on July 31, 2016.
The ribbon cutting was also a celebration of the 100th Anniversary of Indiana State Parks.
Photo Credit: Eric Grayson

Thirteen of Indiana’s 24 current state parks were developed or improved by New Deal agencies. Pokagon State Park, in the lake-filled glacial moraine of the far northeast corner of the state near Angola, is the only one listed virtually in its entirety in the National Register of Historic Places.

For years Pokagon has gone all out to celebrate its Civilian Conservation Corps heritage, with good reason. It had the longest continuous CCC presence of any of Indiana’s parks. Company 556, initially formed in the fall of 1933 to do several projects at Indiana Dunes State Park on Lake Michigan, established Camp SP-7 at Pokagon the following year. The ambitious development program for Pokagon included reforestation, landscaping, road building, and construction of numerous outdoor recreational facilities. The CCC boys hewed local timber and split native glacial stone to construct buildings that harmonized especially well with the local environment, following the guidelines created by the National Park Service for state parks.

The former gatehouse was built by the CCC using native materials.

Pokagon Historic Gatehouse Pocket Museum
The former gatehouse was built by the CCC using native materials.
Photo Credit: Glory-June Greiff

Nearly all the park’s present landscaping and buildings–the saddle barn, shelterhouses, much of the group camp, the beach and bathhouse, overnight cabins, and the old gatehouse–are the work of the CCC, which remained in the park until January 1942.

Veterans of Company 556 began an annual reunion at Pokagon in 1953, always the last Sunday of July. This year, not only was the 63rd annual reunion held, but also the dedication of the CCC Gatehouse Pocket Museum, housed in the former gatehouse standing at the north side of the entrance. Styled, typically, like a tiny English cottage, it is built of brick and glacial stone trim with a massive fireplace chimney.

Woodcock served as a stonemason in the park. His dream was to establish a CCC museum at Pokagon.

Museum display honoring the late Roger Woodcock.
Woodcock served as a stonemason in the park. His dream was to establish a CCC museum at Pokagon.
Photo Credit: Glory-June Greiff

“Pocket museum” is an accurate term; essentially it is no more than a single exhibit celebrating the work of the CCC here and in other of Indiana’s parks, a wonderful reuse for the old but charming gatehouse that stood idle all these years. The majority of the artifacts on display are those of one man, Roger Woodcock, who died in 2007. Roger was the man behind the annual reunions, the man who funded the National Register nomination for the park’s two-story shelterhouse and, later, who partly funded the nomination for the entire park. His story, which I recorded more than 25 years ago, is archived at the Indiana Historical Society. A photograph of Roger, nearly life-size, watches over the exhibits with pride.

A CCC Jewel Restored on Lake Michigan

Exterior (Restored)

Lake Michigan Beach House
Exterior (Restored)

When the state of Michigan was given 3,500 acres of logged-over land on the shores of Lake Michigan in 1926, it was hoped that the nearby Big Sable Point Lighthouse might become a beacon not only for ships but for tourists as well. Back then, the land was reachable only by foot or boat, and the state lacked money to develop it as a park. That changed in 1933 with the advent of the New Deal.

The Pere-Marquette S-2 CCC Camp quickly went up on the state’s land and the young men of the Michigan Civilian Conservation Corps began shaping the sand dunes, beaches, and skid trails into the Ludington State Park.

Under the direction of the National Park Service, they built roads, retaining walls, campgrounds, hiking trails, the park’s headquarters, and the Lake Michigan Beach House. Designed by renowned NPS architect Ralph B. Herrick, the one-of-a-kind, arts-and-crafts-style Beach House is regarded as the crown jewel of Michigan’s park system.

Lake Michigan Beach House
Veranda

The CCC Boys hand dug the foundation, water system, and septic field for the 116-foot building. A deal struck with the Morton Salt Company in the nearby town of Ludington had the CCC tear down a derelict salt mill in exchange for salvaged materials. The Corps carefully reclaimed the rust- colored bricks and massive, rough-sawn, white pine beams to build the two-story Beach House.

Time and weather took their toll on the 1935 landmark. In 1999 the state undertook a $1.6 million restoration of the iconic building. Reconstruction began in 2012. The interior was gutted and a new wood shingle roof was installed. The exterior— sandblasted over decades by the fierce Lake Michigan winds—was refurbished with new bricks and mortar carefully chosen to match the original.

Lake Michigan Beach House
Interior (Restored)

The upper floor, which had been subdivided, was restored to one large room. The original stone fireplace still occupies the south end. Doors on three sides lead to a veranda and patio. In place of the original changing rooms, there’s now a café and gift shop. New signage along the beach walk interprets the geology of Lake Michigan and some of the largest freshwater sand dunes in the world.

CCC Men
in front of the newly constructed Beach House, 1935

 

Ludington State Park has grown to 5,300 acres and receives nearly a million visitors annually. The Lake Michigan Beach House was added to the National Register of Historic Places this year. A display honoring the men of the CCC who built the state park soon will be installed in the beautiful Beach House they constructed.

With thanks to Alan Wernette, State Park Interpreter,
Ludington State Park

For Sale: America’s Historic Post Offices

Citizens protest at the Downtown Berkeley Main Post Office

Citizens protest at the Downtown Berkeley Main Post Office
Berkeley, California

 

Despite growing public protest, the U.S. Postal Service is moving apace to sell the public’s historic post offices. Last month, the Postal Service added four more post offices on the National Register of Historic Places to its “For Sale” list: California’s La Jolla Wall Street Post Office, built in 1935; New York City’s Old Chelsea Station on West 18th Street, and the Bronx General Post Office on the Grand Concourse, both built in 1937; and the Berkeley Downtown Post Office, which, in spite of a year long campaign to keep the century-old building in the public domain, was recently slated for sale.

Like many other endangered post offices, these buildings contain unique New Deal artworks.

During the 1930s the federal government put thousands to work building the nation’s postal system.  In big cities and small towns alike, New Deal post offices are among the most artful, architecturally distinguished, and beloved buildings.

The thirteen murals in the Bronx Post Office created by New Deal artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson are considered masterpieces.

The Bronx Post Office
The thirteen murals in the Bronx Post Office created by New Deal artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson are considered masterpieces.

“Apparently the country is done with that kind of idealism,” notes Gray Brechin, geographer and Living New Deal Project scholar, “Rather than building beautiful public places, the federal government is selling them off.”

Buildings on the National Register of Historic Places are afforded some protection—their exterior must be preserved. But once sold the buildings are often gutted. In at least one case, a 1937 post office in Virginia Beach, Virginia was demolished to make way for a Walgreen’s pharmacy.

The National Historic Preservation Act ensures public access to public artwork, but when post offices are sold the murals and sculptures often are removed to storage. Even when the art remains in place, it’s up to the new owners whether the public may view it.

The Postal Service financial crisis started in 2006 when Congress required the Postal Service to pre-pay 75 years of workers’ benefits within ten years. Although many blame email for the Postal Service’s demise, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 is responsible for $4 out of every $5 in Postal Service debt—more than $15 billion in 2012. In response, the Postal Service is cutting services and selling many of its most valuable properties.

CB Richard Ellis, a giant commercial real estate firm, holds the exclusive contract to sell postal properties worth billions. CB Richard Ellis’ chairman is Richard Blum, a University of California Regent and the husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein. So far, the press has shown no interest in investigating how that contract was awarded, nor its terms.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) introduced legislation to repeal the law responsible for the Postal Service’s death spiral. The bill recently passed the Senate but the other has yet to be voted on in the House.


The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Historic Post Office to its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places of 2012.

Read Francis O’Connor’s open letter about post office art »

For a list of endangered post offices go to:  http://www.savethepostoffice.com