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.

Jo Mora, Renaissance Man of the West

Brass Plaque: One of four different brass plaques at the Monterey County Courthouse, this one representing agriculture.

Brass Plaque
One of four different brass plaques at the Monterey County Courthouse, this one representing agriculture.
Photo Credit: Peter Hiller

It is rare for any artist to support a family solely through artistic prowess, and rarer still during the Great Depression. Joseph Jacinto “Jo” Mora (1876-1947) was such an artist. Mora used his wits as well as his expansive creative abilities to keep food on the table.

An illustrator, writer, cartographer, architect, photographer, sculptor, and painter, Mora’s extensive talent spanned several decades including during the New Deal era. Born in Uruguay, the son of a classical sculptor, Jo Mora grew up and attended school in neighborhoods in New Jersey, New York, and Boston. After attending art school, training with his father and honing his artistic skills as an illustrator for Boston area newspapers and book publishers, Jo followed his heart and traveled west.

Mora’s depiction of Justice as seen on the east side of the Monterey County Courthouse.

Justice
Mora’s depiction of Justice as seen on the east side of the Monterey County Courthouse.
Photo Credit: Peter Hiller

In 1903, Mora rode the train to California on his own to work as a cowboy at the Donahue Ranch in the Santa Ynez Valley where he would learn the ways of the Californio vaqueros and take time to draw, paint, and photograph the California Missions along the El Camino Real. He continued back to Arizona, living with the Hopi and Navajo, learning their languages and documenting their daily lives and sacred ceremonies in drawings, paintings, and photographs.

After two and a half years in Arizona, Mora tore himself away from a life he loved, married, and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area, working full time as an artist. He painted murals, continued to write and illustrate children’s books as he had done in Boston, as well as create heroic sculptures and decorative elements on numerous buildings in California. A rock and bronze statue of Miguel de Cervantes in Golden Gate Park was one of several sculptural commissions during this period of Mora’s life.

Mora and Stanton: Jo Mora (left) and Robert Stanton with one of the column caps in Mora's studio.

Mora and Stanton
Jo Mora (left) and Robert Stanton with one of the column caps in Mora’s studio.
Photo Credit: Lewis Josselyn from the Jo Mora Trust

The Mora family, his wife Grace, son Jo Jr., and daughter Patti moved to Carmel-by-the-Sea, as Mora was commissioned to create a monumental cenotaph in honor of Father Junipero Serra for the Carmel Mission. The family would quickly become ensconced in the community, living first in Carmel and then moving to nearby Pebble Beach.

In 1937, in collaboration with architect Robert A. Stanton, a family friend and neighbor, Mora undertook two enormous projects under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. Stanton was charged with designing a new courthouse for Monterey County and Jo was commissioned by the WPA to add artistic elements to the building. Stanton’s monolithic design gave Mora many options for his part of the project. He drew on his love of California and the Southwest to produce ornamental pieces tht reflected the history, commerce, and people of California—Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and Anglo.

Jo Mora in Studio:

Jo Mora in Studio
Mora posing with three of the bas-relief panels for the King City High School Auditorium, King City, CA.  Source
Photo Credit: Lewis Josselyn from the Jo Mora Trust

Mora created bas-reliefs capping the four tall columns in the west interior courtyard of the building; five travertine bas-relief panels above the west entrance; twenty three different 3-dimensional concrete heads of persons both real and archetypal; four different brass plaques on the building’s exterior doors ant the interior elevator doors; a bas-relief figure depicting Justice on the east side of the building, and a sculpted center column in a reflecting pool in the central courtyard of the building.

The success of the courthouse project would led to another Stanton-Mora undertaking in the southern end of Monterey County, the King City High School Auditorium, where Stanton designed the building and Mora, again working for the WPA, created bas-relief style figures for the column caps on the building’s sides, as well as a spectacular 9-panel bas-relief on the front. Mora depicted the performing and visual arts, along with images inspired by California’s many cultures.

Monterey Courthouse: In order for court to stay in session during the construction of the new building, Stanton's design was to build around the old courthouse and then remove the old building, board by board, through the open columns. Mora added many decorative elements to the completed building.

Monterey Courthouse
In order for court to stay in session during the construction of the new building, Stanton’s design was to build around the old courthouse and then remove the old building, board by board, through the open columns. Mora added many decorative elements to the completed building.  Source
Photo Credit: Photograph from the collection of the Pebble Beach Company.

Both of these striking buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and are still in use today.

New Deal Activist Kathy Flynn Honored As “Living Treasure”

New Deal activist Kathy Flynn

Kathy Flynn
New Deal activist Kathy Flynn
Photo Credit: Clyde Mueller Courtesy of Santa Fe New Mexican

Kathy Flynn, founder of the National New Deal Preservation Association (NNDPA), was recently named a “Living Treasure” for her work documenting and preserving New Deal history, sites, and artworks.

Kathy, a long-time New Mexico resident, grew up in Texas amidst the Dust Bowl. Her public service career included working as a reporter, a hospital administrator, and civil servant. Her job as Deputy Secretary of State sparked her interest in the New Deal. She later founded the NNDPA in order to document and preserve the New Deal’s legacy.

New Mexico is exceptionally rich in New Deal history. Courthouses, post offices, libraries, hospitals, theaters, schools, and more, were built in cities and small towns throughout the state. During the Great Depression, more than 50,000 New Mexicans got work with the Civilian Conservation Corps. Kathy tracked down and interviewed all the New Mexico CCC members she could find. She also set out to recover New Deal murals and other artworks that had gone missing or been painted over. She authored three books about the state’s New Deal history, art, and architecture.

Kathy has raised awareness of the New Deal through advocacy, education programs, commemorative events, and tours. She recently hosted a public forum that brought several descendents of the original New Dealers to Santa Fe to share memories of their famous families and their achievements—Nina Roosevelt Gibson, the granddaughter of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; David Giffen, the great grandson of Harry Hopkins who was head of the Works Progress Administration; Tomlin Coggeshall, the grandson of FDR’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet; T.J. Walker, the grandson of Frank Walker, an FDR confidante who coordinated the New Deal agencies; and David Douglas, the grandson of Vice President Henry Wallace, who also served as FDR’s Secretary of Agriculture.

Last fall, the NNDPA’s archive of articles, books, and ephemera of the New Deal that Kathy had assembled over decades became part of the permanent collection at the John Gaw Meem Library at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. Last spring, Kathy was named “One of Ten Who Made A Difference,” an annual award presented by the Santa Fe New Mexican, and was honored by Santa Fe Living Treasures, a nonprofit organization that recognizes elders who have generously served their communities. Kathy’s oral history will be soon be available to the public at the Fray Angélico Chávez History Library in Santa Fe.

Book Review: The Worst Hard Time, 312 pp

The Worst Hard TimeOn Black Sunday, April 14, 1935 a cloud two hundred miles wide carrying more than 300,000 tons of topsoil blackened the skies over the Great Plains. People lost their way as the wall of darkness rolled in; stores and schools were boarded up; cattle lay dead in the dust.

New York Times columnist, Pulitzer Prize winner Tim Egan earned the National Book Award for The Worst Hard Times. This must-read book is both a breathtaking historical narrative and a cautionary tale. Through painstaking research, including interviews with some of those who survived the Dust Bowl years, Egan paints a vivid portrait of America’s greatest environmental disaster.

Egan traces the roots of the Dust Bowl from wresting the High Plains from Native Americans to the “plow up” that tore the land apart. He brings to life those who wrestled the dry landscape—hard scrabble farmers, railroad barons, real estate speculators, and politicians. Most lost.

From 1930 to 1935 there were 750,000 bankruptcies or foreclosures on farms. Nearly a million people left the Great Plains—the largest displacement America had ever seen.

FDR clung to the belief that there was a way for man to fix what man had broken. Immediately upon taking office in 1933, he issued a call to arms to restore the land and keep farmers on it.

Dustbowl by Arthur Rothstein

Dustbowl by Arthur Rothstein
About to be engulfed in a gigantic dust cloud is a peaceful little ranch in Boise City, Oklahoma where the top soil is being dried and blown away. This photo was taken on April 15, 1935.
Photo Credit: Associated Press

Some of his first acts under the New Deal–subsidizing farmers, anchoring the land, planting millions of trees—were controversial even among members of his Brain Trust. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes questioned perpetuating farming on the parched prairies. In his view the land was spent. Meanwhile, Hugh Bennett, who fought for the creation of the Soil Conservation Service and became its first director, became a crusader when heartland politicians resisted federal involvement.

Egan recounts that Bennett was trying to win over skeptics in Congress when the sky over the Senate Office Building grew dark with dust. “This, gentleman, is what I’m talking about,” Bennett told them. “There goes Oklahoma.”

Egan’s epilogue will disabuse the notion that such massive environmental disasters are in the past. Bloated subsidies to corporate agriculture; ghost towns dotting the Plains; alarming rates of groundwater draw down; and persistent drought may be harbingers of Black Sundays ahead.

Susan Ives is editor of the Living New Deal Newsletter

Our Mark on This Land: A Guide to the Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps in America’s Parks

Our Mark on this LandFor anyone seeking out the finest examples of the New Deal, no road trip is complete without a copy of Our Mark on This Land. In the manner of the Federal Writers’ Project guides to the states, Helen and Ren Davis have compiled a superb illustrated guide to the extraordinary contributions made by the Civilian Conservation Corps to our national parks and forests and our state parks. Those public lands were vastly expanded during the Great Depression largely because of the labor provided by three million CCC “boys” as well as President Roosevelt’s lifelong commitment to conservation.

The book opens with a 55-page introduction to the CCC that is one of the finest summations of its origins, organization, philosophy, and accomplishments I’ve read. It introduces some of the key players including the designers of the “National Park-rustic”-style buildings featured in the book’s illustrations as well as the landscape architects who strove for an artful artlessness in the way roads, campgrounds, and lookouts were constructed.

The second section is a state-by-state guide to select parks, including maps, brief histories, and CCC-built features. “Destination parks” are provided for those seeking out the all-stars. The final section is an appendix of supporting information and an extensive bibliography about the CCC.

The book is generously illustrated with photos of parks and structures, many taken by the Davises. If the sixteen color plates whet your appetite for more of the same, I’d also recommend Cynthia Brandimarte and Angela Reed’s excellent Texas State Parks and the CCC: The Legacy of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

Our Mark on This Land is a work of love as well as scholarship. It will make you want to hit the road to seek out what the Davises found in their own travels. Don’t leave home without it.

Reviewed by: Gray Brechin, Ph.D. is Project Scholar for the Living New Deal.

Milwaukee-Dearborn Subway System – Chicago IL

In February 1939, bids were collected by the city subway department to begin construction for the first section of the Milwaukee-Dearborn street subway system that would create a 3,322 foot section of the tunnel between Chicago and Haddon avenues (“Dearborn St. Subway”). This system was part of a larger four part plan to build a large scale 50 mile subway system (“Four Stages”). The expansion would extend rapid service by adding additional subways and connecting existing elevated tracks. The project was largely funded by the New Deal’s Public Works Administration after plans were completed and agreements were made in 1938. The Milwaukee-Dearborn system specifically would add 3.85 miles of subway tunnels onto the tracks already in place. To carve out the tunnels, 200 ton steel shields bore twin tunnels along the proposed route (“Start Subway Tunneling Work”).

The initial plan was to have the tunnel pass under the pre-existing La Salle street tunnel but instead it was decided to have the subway cut through the tunnel. This would keep the subway at the same grade level as the other loading platforms that were currently about 40 feet below the surface (“Change in Tube Plan”). Due to the $23,130,000 in grants the project received from the PWA, the Milwaukee-Dearborn subway system would connect the Logan Square and Humboldt Park area with a more direct route to Congress and La Salle in the loop (“Strangest Hike in Town”).

Construction began in March 1939 and continued until World War II began and rationing effort affected the materials being used to work on the tunnels. In 1942, the Milwaukee-Dearborn subway system was about 80% finished when work was halted until after the war in 1945. It then took until February 1951 for the tunnels to be fully completed and operational (“Blue Line”).

Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times

Susan Quinn recounts a fast-paced story about the Federal Theatre Project through the lives and times of those who conceived and led this unique New Deal relief program— Harry Hopkins, the driven director of the WPA, and the intrepid Hallie Flanagan whom Hopkins convinced to run the risky project. Both grew up in Iowa City and attended Grinnell College, after which Hopkins pursued social work in New York City and Flanagan headed an innovative performing arts program at Vassar College.

Quinn recounts a train ride in 1933 during which Hopkins and Flanagan envisioned the new federal program to employ thousands of starving artists—actors, directors, designers, writers, and tradesmen. “Hell!” the notoriously blunt Hopkins says. “They’ve got to eat just like other people.”

Federal Theater ProjectFlanagan was excited by the challenge of bringing live theater to millions of Americans for the first time and saw the potential of the FTP to take on the country’s deep-seated racism and social inequality. She sought Hopkins’ assurances that the government-subsidized FTP would be free from censorship—a difficult promise to keep. At times, she turned to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt—an enthusiastic ally of the FTP—to overcome red tape and political opposition.

Though the FTP’s budget was a tiny percentage—one-tenth of one percent– of the WPA’s overall expenditures, it had been labeled a boondoggle by the press, politicians, banks, businessmen, and even theater owners and workers fearing low-quality, low-priced competition. Yet by the end of 1935, 9,245 people got jobs with the FTP in big cities, regional theaters, and small towns nationwide. Some FTP troupes performed for the Civilian Conservation Corps at remote camps.

The FTP produced dramas, comedies, musicals, and children’s theater, including The Revolt of the Beavers, which told the story of a cruel beaver chief who keeps the underling beavers busy processing bark but shares none of the proceeds from their labor. Many scripts were derived from news articles about the hardships of the Great Depression, a controversial genre Flanagan dubbed “The Living Newspaper.”

The FTP’s leading lights included T.S. Eliot, Arthur Miller, Sinclair Lewis, John Houseman, and Orson Welles. It was the Welles/Houseman production of Marc Blitzstein’s pro-labor musical The Cradle Will Rock that proved most dangerous for the FTP. Flanagan was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee to defend the program before its enemies.

Few government programs received or weathered such scrutiny as the FTP. Thanks to Quinn’s book, this creative and daring project remains in the spotlight.

Reviewed by Susan Ives

Matanuska Colony Community Center (Palmer Historic District) – Palmer AK

What is now the Palmer Alaska Historic District was founded in 1935 as the Matanuska Colony Project. It was one of 100 New Deal resettlement programs and involved major efforts by FERA and the Resettlement Administration. The town site of Palmer expanded rapidly with the relocation of 203 colonists from Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin in 1935 under the Relocation project.  Prior to that the area was composed of homesteads primarily. The Palmer Historical Society has a Colony House Museum that is a ‘house’ as it would have been in 1935-1945.  It is an original colony house moved into the historic district.

A registration form of the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) describes formal characteristics of the district: “Within the boundaries of the Matanuska Colony Community Center there are twenty-seven buildings, one site, two structures, and one object. They stand in a nine block area in the City of Palmer. Eighteen buildings, two structures, and one site are contributing properties in the historic district. […]

The contributing properties were built between 1935 and 1940 as part of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration’s (FERA) Matanuska Colony rural rehabilitation project. A non-profit organization, the Alaska Rural Rehabilitation Corporation (ARRC) incorporated to implement the plan. Centered around a quadrangle, the integrated community center reflects early community and land use planning. The community center buildings originally shared many of the same building elements. One to three stories in height, all buildings were frame construction and most had rectangular floor plans.”

The Matanuska Colony Community Center consists of the following properties listed in the National Register of Historic Places:

  1. Water Tower (AHRS Site No. ANC-747).
  2. Warehouse (AHRS Site No. ANC-711).
  3. Cannery/Creamery (AHRS Site No. ANC-478, later known as Mat-Maid Building).
  4. Alaska Railroad Siding (AHRS Site No. ANC-755).
  5. Chicken Hatchery (AHRS Site No. ANC-480).
  6. Palmer Depot (AHRS Site No. ANC-089).
  7. ARRC Administration Office (AHRS Site No. ANC-690).
  8. Beauty/Barber/Cobbler Shops (AHRS Site No. ANC-479).
  9. Trading Post (AHRS Site No. ANC-477).
  10. Central School (Borough Building, AHRS Site No. ANC-483).
  11. Quadrangle Site (AHRS Site No. ANC-754).
  12. Dormitory (AHRS Site No. ANC-481).
  13. School Superintendent’s House (AHRS Site No. ANC-693).
  14. Manager’s House (AHRS Site No. ANC-692).
  15. Accountant’s House (AHRS Site No. ANC-694).
  16. Staff House #1 (AHRS Site No. ANC-751).
  17. Staff House #2 (AHRS Site No. ANC-695).
  18. Staff House #3 (AHRS Site No. ANC-696).
  19. Staff House #4 (AHRS Site No. ANC-698).
  20. (a & b) United Protestant Church and Parsonage (AHRS Site No. ANC-248).

 

Campbell House – Palmer AK

This 1935 Colony House was built as part of the New Deal resettlement program that brought colonists from Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin to Palmer Alaska in 1935.

The building has recently been restored and accepted to the National Register of Historic Places. It is also the recent Recipient of the 2013 Alaska Association for Historic Preservation Award of Excellence.

City Pool – Winter Garden FL

The accompanying photo was used on p. 50 of “All Aboard! A Journey Through Historic Winter Garden 1880-1950,” written by The Winter Garden Heritage Foundation.

The photograph portrays the Winter Garden City Pool at 1, Surprise Drive, Winter Garden. This popular facility was one of the WPA projects made possible through the efforts of Mayor George Walker. The pool was originally filled by a natural artesian well. The pool is still in use and is now called Farnsworth Pool.