A History of Greenbelt
Greenbelt is one of three "green towns" built during President Franklin
D. Roosevelt's Administration. Although the primary purpose of these
projects was to provide employment during the Great Depression, the green
towns were innovative planned communities, designed to provide low-income
families with economical housing in a pleasant, healthy surrounding.
In 1935, the U.S. Government assembled parcels of overworked farmland for approximately $97 an acre to become the site of a new community to be called Greenbelt. Groundbreaking was in October 1935 and the first residents arrived two years later. Complete town plans were drawn on paper before any construction began. The government created a community of 574 masonry townhouses, 5 prefabricated detached houses, and 306 garden apartments. A school, town center with shops and theater, underpasses, walkways, parks, playgrounds, swimming pool, and a 23 acre lake were also constructed.
During World War II, the frame houses were built to provide housing for defense workers. Greenbelt's 992 frame homes were one of 43 such housing projects throughout the country and were known as "defense" homes for quite some time.
In 1949, the U.S. Government decided to leave the housing business and sell the green towns, giving preference to the residents and nonprofit veterans' groups. The Greenbelt Veteran Housing Corporation (changed to GHI in 1957) bought the original and defense homes from the Government in late 1952.
A Cooperative Community
The social planners encouraged the formation of cooperatives to meet many
of the needs of the residents of the three green towns. Only in
Greenbelt did the cooperative movement successfully take hold. The
government had not been able to find merchants willing to move in and
invest in businesses to solve this experimental project. Edward A.
Filene, Boston department store entrepreneur and philanthropist, advanced
$50,000 to organize a cooperative, Greenbelt Consumer Services (GCS),
which would set up and operate the stores in trust for the consumer-owned
co-op which was expected to be organized. The whole town voted for
leaders to set up a cooperative organizing committee in April 1938, and
about 50 active workers in the community began selling stock with the
understanding that the consumer co-op would take over GCS when half the
town's residents became members.
The co-op took over the operation of the stores in January 1940, and it grew to be a large retail cooperative that operated supermarkets, gasoline stations, drug stores, and furniture stores. Greenbelt residents were shocked late in 1983 to learn that the Board of Directors, without membership input, had decided to sell off all stores and stations except for the furniture operation. Two citizens' groups formed, one to fight divestiture and the other to set up a new co-op to purchase the supermarket and drug store. The new co-op was successful in its membership and fundraising drives, and took over the stores in June, 1984.
The Actual Museum
The Greenbelt Museum is an actual house -- one of the original structures
in the planned town built under Roosevelt's Resettlement Administration.
There are no display cases. Instead, the house has been restored with furniture and objects of the simple life which characterized the Great Depression and the New Deal. Much of the furniture and artifacts in the collection were bought, used, and have now been donated to the Museum by Greenbelt citizens. Permanent exhibits are of historic and artistic interest. Temporary exhibits focus on specialized aspects of life during that time.