Greendale began as a New Deal “greenbelt town,” an experimental 1930s suburb built by the federal government. Greenbelt towns reflected the idealism of British reformer and urban planner Ebenezer Howard and his Garden City movement, which influenced Rexford G. Tugwell, head of the federal Resettlement Administration (RA), who wanted to move working-class families from urban slums to healthful, suburban environments. There, Tugwell believed, self-worth, community spirit, and grassroots democracy would flourish. Moreover, building the towns would put the unemployed to work. The RA would plan and build the suburbs, surrounding each one with a greenbelt of farms and parks to prevent sprawl and provide land for destitute farmers. Originally, Tugwell hoped to build greenbelt towns outside many of the nation’s major cities, but only Greendale, Greenbelt, Maryland, and Greenhills, Ohio, materialized.
In 1935 planners chose a rural area of 3,410 acres eight miles southwest of downtown Milwaukee, near several major industrial locations. Landscape architect Elbert Peets (who helped design Kohler, Wisconsin [SB8], under Werner Hegemann in 1916, and laid out the street plan for Greenbelt in 1933) and city planner Jacob Crane drew plans for a town square, surrounded by a zone of houses, parks, and communal gardens, and all ringed by a 2,000-acre greenbelt. The original plans also called for light manufacturing to employ women primarily and a zone for larger houses on 1- or 2-acre lots, but the U.S. Congress did not fund those proposals.
Greendale’s town square, clustered houses, and communal land took inspiration from a nostalgic vision of New England towns, with their attendant ideals of community and democracy. But it also drew from the latest planning innovations, especially from Radburn, New Jersey, a suburb that Henry Wright and Clarence Stein laid out in 1928. At Radburn and Greendale, cul-de-sacs feed into narrow residential lanes, leading to wider collector streets and then to major arteries. The plan kept traffic flowing while diverting it from neighborhood streets.
In 1938, when architect Walter Thomas designed the village hall, he looked to Colonial Williamsburg, then under reconstruction. This one-story, red brick hall expresses a Georgian formality with three segmental-arched windows, a hipped roof with a balustrade, and a clock tower. Side-gabled hyphens reach from either side of the core, ending in hipped-roofed ells. Balancing the formality of Greendale’s central square are Harry Bentley’s cozy houses. The first 366 dwellings, containing 572 living units, came in fourteen models, including detached houses, duplexes, and row houses, but they all had cinder-block walls, gabled roofs, and a stripped-down English-cottage look. (Many are now sided in vinyl or aluminum.) The houses were oriented toward private back yards rather than the street. Typically there was a kitchen, dining alcove, and living room on the first floor, and two or three bedrooms upstairs, but the RA also built some four-bedroom dwellings and one-story, one-bedroom “honeymooners.” Interiors were appointed plainly with pine-beamed living room ceilings, oak floors, and modern kitchen appliances. Most houses had garages, since most residents drove to their jobs.
In town, though, no cars were needed. Greendale, like Radburn, catered to pedestrians, with pathways linking all parts of town. A ten- or fifteen-minute walk, at most, took residents to the village hall, the school, or the police station. Businesses—a tavern, a movie theater, a grocery store, and a drugstore—stretched along the west side of Broad Street. A resident-controlled cooperative owned most of these early enterprises. Near these shops, in the green at the southwest corner of Broad Street and Schoolway, Milwaukee artist Alonzo Hauser created a flagpole-bench sculpture in 1938 celebrating the mothers, youths, workers, and farmers who in the utopian New Deal vision would anchor the new suburban social order.
Construction of Greendale began in spring 1936. In early 1938, social workers began screening applicants for admission, assessing each family’s moral character, cleanliness, need for housing, and ability to pay rent. But Greendale ultimately fell short of Tugwell’s vision. High construction costs priced rents out of range for poorer families. Grassroots democracy thrived in the resident-owned cooperative, town council, and civic committees (the last staffed mostly by housewives), but the federally appointed village manager assumed a paternalistic rule. By the time families began moving into Greendale, Congress began to reject the New Deal, labeling it socialistic. Of the three neighborhood units originally planned, the RA managed to build just one, totaling 155 acres.
After World War II, Congress sold the greenbelt towns. Greendale residents held first option to buy the houses they had been renting; those living in multifamily dwellings had to compete in a lottery for their units. The Milwaukee Community Development Corporation purchased Greendale’s civic buildings, the greenbelt, and the shops. Most of the greenbelt gave way to residential and commercial development, including the Southridge Shopping Center (1970). Greendale even lost some of the green space in the heart of the village, where a strip mall went up in the 1960s across from the original stores. Even by the 1950s, masonry buildings had filled in the gaps between the first shops, to form a single row; the older stores, however, remain recognizable. In 1981, Reiman Publications, headquartered in Greendale, initiated a transformation of the downtown’s landscape to reflect its own “country garden” aesthetic. Nonetheless, Greendale remains a community of some 15,000 people, with cottages, green spaces, winding streets, and a Village Center suggesting the area’s unusual past.