Greenbelt Museum Lecture: Housing in Greenbelt
On April 17, two Greenbelt residents and University of Maryland professors spoke at the Friends of the Greenbelt Museum lecture. Isabelle Gournay lives in GHI and is an associate professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and Mary Corbin Sies lives in the Lakeside Drive neighborhood and is an associate professor of American Studies. The title of the lecture is “Housing in Greenbelt: Beyond the New Deal Legacy,” and the two professors spoke about the city’s “residential landscape” beyond the original townhouses and garden apartments.
The lecture is held in the Greenbelt Community Center and about fifty people are in attendance. This event is on the Greenbelt 75th Anniversary Committee’s official calendar and is a teaser for the two-day 75th Anniversary Symposium that is chaired by Isabelle Gournay and will be held on April 27 and 28.
Isabelle Gournay speaks first. She introduces the “Greenbelt principles” expounded in Cathy Knepper’s book “Greenbelt, Maryland: A Living Legacy of the New Deal” that include open space, pedestrian pathways, recreational facilities, and landscaping as design elements in housing developments. She then speaks about additions to the original GHI townhouses and garden apartments in the center part of the city: five detached houses on Woodland Way that are now part of GHI; ten modern Parkbelt homes on Forestway; 21 houses in the Woodland Hills neighborhood that were first planned in 1941 and completed in 1957; modern houses on Lakeside Drive first opened in 1954; 104 three-bedroom single family homes in the Lakewood neighborhood opened in 1958 by W. Evans Buchanan; and typical suburban single family homes in Boxwood Village (1965-8) developed by Charles Bresler.
Mary Corbin Sies continues the lecture by speaking about later developments. She starts by saying that from 1957 to 1967, citizens of Greenbelt who desired low-scale developments in accordance with the “Greenbelt principles” battled with developers who wanted higher-density housing. She talks about Charlestowne Village (1965), Lakeside North Apartments (1965), the eight-story Charlestowne North high rise (“tower in the park”), the 2,900-unit Springhill Lake Apartments in Greenbelt West (the largest apartment complex on the East Coast), and condominiums built in the 1970s and 80s in Greenbelt East such as Greenbriar, Windsor Green, Glen Ora, and Greenwood Village. She says in many of these developments, developers observed the “Greenbelt principles” by providing “an abundance of open space, pedestrian pathways, family-oriented outdoor recreational facilities, landscaping, and community buildings.” She concludes by mentioning plans for the Greenbelt Station project which include a high density town center and a complex for a federal agency such as the FBI. She asks whether such a town center will serve the residents of Greenbelt as well as Roosevelt Center has for the past 75 years.
After the lecture, Karen Yoho asks the first question. She wants to know more about the cooperatives at Woodland Hills and Lakeside Drive. Sies answers that these cooperatives were formed by people who lived in the GHI houses and wanted larger homes because their families were growing. They pulled resources together and financed designs. The Woodlands Hills houses were of the same design and completed as a group whereas those on Lakeside Drive were built independently.
Yoho asks what happened to those co-ops, and Gournay says they have turned into home owner associations. Here Betty Timer, who lives at Woodland Hills, tells that the home owners used to buy oil together to heat their houses and they still meet to manage a parcel of property between the development and Crescent Road.
Edith Beauchamp says that she has lived in three types of Greenbelt housing: GHI co-op, Lakeside Drive single-family houses, and Windsor Green condominiums in Greenbelt East. She asks why the speakers did not consider the newer five-bedroom single-family houses in Greenbelt East. She also tells a mixture of identities in her part of Greenbelt where students go to Lanham schools and neighbors are served the Bowie police department.
Gournay answers that they are only trying to sample the different housing types in Greenbelt. Sies says that in their studies of Greenbelt East, they have found that developers have in general observed the “Greenbelt principles” of design although she has not found evidence of the city pressuring them to do so.
A member of the audience says that he is a visitor and is currently living in a house on Lakeside Drive built by Dorothy Sucher. He says that Sucher, as a staff member of the Greenbelt News Review, was involved in a Supreme Court legal case with a developer named Bresler. He asks whether the Bresler mentioned in the lecture is the same Bresler in the Supreme Court case. The answer is yes.
In the October 14, 1965 issue of the Greenbelt News Review, Dorothy Sucher reported a city council meeting where citizens called Bresler’s negotiating position as “blackmail.” Bresler sued the paper for libel, and the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court which decided in favor of the paper on First Amendment considerations. The court decision and the News Review articles by Sucher and others can be found here.
Mayor J Davis asks whether the speakers are aware of efforts by a group who wanted to turn Charlestowne North high rise into senior housing as it already has elevators.
City Councilmember Leta Mach adds that it was Jim Cassels who led that effort. She says that some people put down money for the co-op however it was not enough to make it a go. Jim Cassels is the founder of the Greenbelt Consumer Cooperative which operates the Co-op Supermarket and Pharmacy and the Green Ridge House for seniors and disabled adults.
Sies says that after WWII, people in America feared communism and were suspicious of activities of cooperatives whereas there are many large and successful co-ops in Scandinavian countries. She says that in their research they were fascinated by these little-known co-ops (at Woodland Hills and Lakeside Drive) beyond the well-know GHI.
Lauren Silberman asks whether the speakers have studied the custom houses at Ridge Road and Research Road. Gournay says that they have not and adds that many of the issues with the developers came about because GHI could not afford to keep the land for tax reasons. Sies says due to activism by Greenbelt residents opposing the developers’ high density plans (the master plan for Greenbelt once projected a population of 50,000 in the city—it is 28,000 in 2010), the city has been able to re-acquire land and set it aside as part of the cherished green belt.
Mayor Davis tells that in Greenbelt East there is a parcel of woodland by the dog park. A developer wanted to put in a green-glass high rise but because of opposition from residents, the developer was thwarted and the city was able to acquire the land and leave it as woodland.
Sies concludes the lecture by speaking highly of civic activism in Greenbelt. She believes that the tradition began when the Federal government screened the original residents for their willingness to be involved in civic activities. Generations of Greenbelters have passed it down and she believes that this is why the New Deal environment is still intact here. She invites people to continue the conversation at the Greenbelt 75th Anniversary Symposium.
From right Mary Corbin Sies, Isabelle Gournay, John Henry Jones, and Mayor Davis speak after the lecture.
From right are Dave Mills, Chair of the 75th Anniversary Committee, Lois Rosado, a member of the 75th Anniversary Committee, and Bill Jones. The Committee has a table of 75th anniversary memorabilia.
From right are Mayor Davis, Isabelle Gournay, Sylvia Lewis, and the visitor who asked about the Supreme Court case.
From left are John Henry Jones, Greenbelt Museum curator Megan Searing Young, and Greenbelt Museum treasurer Lauren Silberman.
From left are Mary Corbin Sies, Edith Beauchamp, Virginia Beauchamp (long-time staff member of the Greenbelt News Review), and John Downs.