Greenbelt 75th Anniversary Symposium: Session 2
Greenbelt’s 50th anniversary celebration in 1987 included many projects, and two of them have had long lasting impact. One is a history book titled “Greenbelt: History of a New Town: 1937-1987” edited by Mary Lou Williamson which was updated in 1997 at the 60th anniversary celebration and is still the authoritative history of Greenbelt today. The other is the creation of the Greenbelt Museum. In December 1986, the city purchased an original two-bedroom, cinderblock townhouse from GHI at 10B Crescent Road, and Friends of the Greenbelt Museum led a fund raising drive. The museum was dedicated on October 10, 1987 and this year it celebrates its 25th anniversary. This second session of the Greenbelt 75th Anniversary Symposium features people who were or are involved with the museum and is titled “The Greenbelt Museum at 25.”
Sandra Lange is the moderator of this session. She opens by saying that 25 years ago she chaired the city’s 50th Anniversary Committee: “We had a lot of projects. The most important and the crown jewel of all our projects was the establishment of the city’s Greenbelt Museum.” She tells that it was Dorothy Sucher who in 1972 wrote a letter to the Greenbelt News Review proposing a museum. When the city’s 50th anniversary approached, Sucher called the establishment of a museum “the Possible Dream”: “The original objective was to preserve for the benefit of the public Greenbelt’s unique heritage as one of America’s earliest planned towns. Built during the thirties as an expression of the philosophy of the New Deal, the cooperative movement, and as an experiment in community living, the museum will celebrate the founding of the city and display objects of historical and artistic interest related to that period in a manner that will provide visitors with cultural and educational enrichment. Involvement of the community on an on-going basis will be an integral part of the museum.”
Barbara Havekost was a member of the Museum Sub-Committee of the city’s 50th Anniversary Committee, helped to prepare the museum house for its grand opening in October 1987, and has served as the museum’s Coordinator of Volunteers to train docents to give tours. She is also a member of the 75th Anniversary Committee.
She recalls that when Greenbelt Homes, Inc., which owns the museum house, was carrying out its community-wide rehabilitation program, a group of them realized that it was necessary to save the radiators and casement windows as one day there might be a museum. It was Dorothy Sucher, she tells, who found them a pro bono lawyer who helped them establish a 501c3 organization and a CPA who became the group’s treasurer until recently. Havekost tells about the work involved in restoring the house to its 1937 shape including dismantling the enclosure around the gardenside porch which was made of cinderblocks and was an later addition to the house, removing ceramic tiles in the bathroom so it would look like 1937, and scrubbing the floors. “Floors and windows were my job.” She recalls that a museum professional who lived in town told her: “The only reason this thing is working is that you people are too dumb to know you couldn’t do it.” “It was a lot of work,” she says, “frankly, if I had known how much work it’s going to be, I’m not sure I would have the courage to do it.” She concludes: “In 25 years, we will be celebrating the city’s 100th anniversary and the museum’s 50th. I hope to see you there.”
Ann Denkler was a graduate student at the University of Maryland, College Park when she served as the first salaried curator of the museum from 1995 to 1997. She went on the receive her doctorate in American Studies and is now an Associate Professor of History at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Virginia.
Denkler tells that she was “an inexperienced, poor graduate student” when the Museum Board “took a chance” on her. It was her job as a curator to bring the museum up to professional standards and she recalls on the phone “sometimes on the verge of tears” asking for help with preservation needs such as how to clean a molded baseball miff. (Her first office was in the house’s humid garage.) She applied for grants and went on house visits to pick up artifacts, “one of the best parts of the job.” “I think I owe an apology to my successor because I accepted four large wooden ironing boards, and I think one was quite enough.” She also tells the exhibits she organized as a curator including one on domestic technology in the 1930s and one to celebrate the city’s 60th anniversary in 1997. She also mentions the Virtual Museum project completed jointly with the University of Maryland.
Denkler shows an item in the museum’s collection which she says that she did not know at the time and asked Lee Shields, “the master of the collection,” about it. It is a sock darner.
Katie Scott-Childress, Denkler’s successor as curator, looks at the slideshow.
A member of the audience records audio.
Katie Scott-Childress succeeded Ann Denkler as curator of the Greenbelt Museum and served from 1997 to 2005. In the late 1990s the curator position, jointly funded by the city and the Friends of the Greenbelt Museum (FOGM), became a full time job. She tells about the opening of an auxiliary room in the Community Center for exhibits and several exhibits organized by her including photographs of the Farm Security Administration (FSA), childhood in New Deal communities, sports, health and fitness (with New Deal propaganda works), and drawings by Izzy Parker, long-time cartoonist for the Greenbelt News Review. One of the exhibits was shown at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial in Washington, D.C. The museum also started a bi-monthly lecture series and walking tour panels were set up, with maps and brochures. Much of this work was done with Jill Parsons St. John who came to the museum as an intern and later shared the full time curator position with Scott-Childress and eventually succeeded her.
Lee and Bonnie Shields have worked with the museum since its founding and still lead tours. Lee Shields moved with his family to Greenbelt in November 1937 when he was three months old.
Walter Atwood is on the Board of the National New Deal Preservation Association and was a member of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), a New Deal agency. Mayor Davis introduces him as 90 years old and came from Jacksonville, Florida for this symposium.
Megan Searing Young has been with the Greenbelt Museum since 2007 and succeeded Jill Parsons St. John as curator. (St. John currently lives in Belgium and cannot make to the symposium.) She tells that it is her responsibility to move the museum into the 21st century. She reorganized the museum’s website using WordPress, a blogging software, where updates can be made easily, and she also added an online contribution option. She has ventured into social media, setting up Facebook, Twitter, and Flickr accounts for the museum. She also tells of the re-made orientation film, the “Green from the Start” exhibit, and museum lectures on “How to Can Food” and “Home Energy Efficiency.” For the 75th anniversary celebration, Young and St. John have co-authored a book on Greenbelt in the Images of America series by Arcadia Publishing which was just release last November, and she is collaborating with Alight Dance Theater for a site-specific dance work which will be performed at the museum in June during Greenbelt Day weekend. The dance piece is titled “Hometown Heroes: 75 Years of Extraordinary Greenbelt Women.”
From right are Mayor Judith Davis, Sandra Lange, and Greenbelt News Review editor Mary Lou Williamson.
Shield Maffay-Tuthill is the museum’s Education and Volunteer Coordinator. Her grandparents John and Linda Maffay were Greenbelt pioneers and her father moved here when he was three. She opens by saying that her part-time position is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and $100,000 matching funds raised from the community. Katie Scott-Childress and Jill Parsons St. John, two former curators, wrote the grant and worked hard to get the matching fund. She tells about activities she has organized including a docent training session this past January, walking tours, many for international visitors, and hands-on history days, recently for girl scouts. She recounts an event for camp kids which recreated the Drop Inn (Drop Inn was Greenbelt’s youth activity center before the current Youth Center). There was a spinning disco ball, dance lessons, old fashioned decorations, and Coke and pretzels. The event was so well received that Maffay-Tuthill recalls one little girl coming up to her afterward and telling her: “This is the greatest day of my life.” Maffay-Tuthill also says that she has arranged for the translation of the museum pamphlet into Spanish, French, Japanese, Chinese, and German, and this fall at the annual Labor Day Festival, a Retro Town Fair is to replicate the 1939 Town Fair.
In the question and answer period, Ulker Copur, Professor of Architecture at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, asks whether there is linkage among the New Deal cities and whether the curators consider themselves town historians. She says that Jersey Homesteads, a New Deal community now called Roosevelt, New Jersey, does have a town historian.
Megan Searing Young answers that there have been exchanges among three Green Towns. Just recently a group came by bus from Greendale, Wisconsin and the Greenbelt Museum sponsored a luncheon. She tells that some of those visitors walked into Greenbelt’s gym and exclaimed that it was just like their own in Greendale. She says that the museum has also shown a film on Jersey Homesteads, and yes, she considers herself a community historian. She enjoys answering questions from community members such as what kind of light switches are period appropriate.
Chris Logan is a member of the Friends of the New Deal Café Arts, and he asks whether the museum updates its collections and what it collects for the future from current activities. He has in mind posters from events at the Café. Megan Searing Young says that the traditional focus of the museum is the government years between 1937 to 1952, but she does collect recent objects such as post cards announcing the library ribbon cutting. She says that digitizing these collections may be necessary because of space limitation.
Isabelle Gournay says that many of the Greenbelt’s homes such as the Parkbelt Homes and churches have interesting architecture and history. She asks whether the museum has considered extended walking tours to interpret the larger town. Young says that she is always happy to hop on tour buses, and she is thinking about developing cellphone walking tours. The walking tour guides are also being reprinted.
Joe Sucher, husband of Dorothy Sucher, tells about his late wife: “I just want to say that her involvement with the museum was one of the great satisfactions of her life. She would have been gratified to know how much progress the museum has made.”
In 1972 Dorothy Sucher (1933-2010) wrote a letter to the Greenbelt News Review proposing a museum, and in later years she helped the museum in many ways. Sucher was also the News Review reporter who in 1965 wrote about discussions at city council meetings on Charles Bresler, a powerful developer. That was the beginning of a four-year legal battle between the developer and the paper which ended when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the News Review.
Cathy Knepper, author of “Greenbelt, Maryland: A Living Legacy of the New Deal”, tells that when she was doing her book talks in 2001, she was often attacked by people saying that Greenbelt was segregated. She says that everything was segregated and mentions Aberdeen Gardens which was a New Deal community for African Americans in Newport News, Virginia.
The moderator Sandra Lange adds that the architect for Aberdeen Gardens was Hillyard Robertson who was African American, a rarity at the time. Ann Denkler says that when she was a curator, the museum hosted Barr Weissmann for a showing of his film on the Langston Terrace Dwellings, another New Deal settlement for African Americans in Washington, D.C. Young adds that mentions of Langston Terrace are now in the museum’s orientation film.
Edith Beauchamp tells of a Finnish town outside of Helsinki which looked very much like Greenbelt but she does not remember its name. Many members of the audience immediately tell her it is Tapiola.
Angella Foster is the artistic director of the Greenbelt-base Alight Dance Theater. She says that she has recently spent much time in the museum office with Young in preparation for her group’s performance on Greenbelt’s women and she wants to ask Young to tell about an encounter which she witnessed.
Young says that she was in her office with Angella Foster when Marion Benson Hastings, a pioneer child who has given many artifacts to the museum over the years, came in and presented her with a portrait of herself. The portrait was done by a woman in her court, and Young plans to hang it in the museum.
The moderator asks the panel to speak about the biggest challenge each faced or is facing. Katie Scott-Childress says that funding was a huge problem and suggests that the museum consider planned giving. She says that the transition from the founding Board of Directors to a new board was also challenging.
Barbara Havekost says that the physical aspect of establishing the museum was tough but the thing that really bothered her was the opposition they faced at the beginning from a lot of people. “I felt that we spent a lot of time in choosing people and trying to get them to come on board with us and trying to remember that there are two sides to every story and be nice to people who don’t want it. That took a little effort on my part.” Young says that time and resources are her biggest challenges: “Expanding the Education/Volunteer Coordinator to full time will be immensely helpful. “ Maffay-Tuthill: “I’ll just have to say ditto to that.” Denkler: “I think the hardest part was actually saying no to people who did want to drop off things with me.” She says that being the first curator she was not sure what years should be included and saying no was difficult for her.
Di Quynn-Reno, Community Center Supervisor, gives instructions about lunch. Some people ordered box lunch from the symposium, and here in her hand is a list of food establishments in the nearby Roosevelt Center.
From left, Frank DeBernardo, Mary Clarke, and Leta Mach pick up boxed lunch. There are several choices of sandwiches.
From left are Virginia Beauchamp, Edith Beauchamp, Mary Lou Williamson, and Sandra Lange.
Lee and Bonnie Shields share a laugh with others.
Session 3 of the symposium is titled “Towards Inclusion: Diversity in Greenbelt,” and it will start at 2 p.m.