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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Greendale's Unique History

Most Wisconsin communities grew up accidentally. An entrepreneur bought the land near rapids on a river or the junction of two well-travelled roads and sold lots to newcomers. If the town boomed, new blocks were laid out helter-skelter as the landscape, opportunity, or a developer's whim suggested. On 19th-centurybirds'-eye views, Wisconsin cities and towns spread out like six-legged insects or overfed amoebas.

But not Greendale, in Milwaukee County. Greendale is unique among Wisconsin towns for having been carefully planned by government officials.

Only Three in the Nation

One of the most creative New Deal experiments of the 1930s was to build three "greenbelt" towns -- Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin. The idea was to resettle the rural poor hit hard by the Great Depression in new suburban communities that maximized comfort, efficiency, and access to jobs. Between 1935 and 1938, this vision put 25,000 unemployed laborers to work building 2,100 modern homes. Designers hoped these models would evolve into a nationwide program to revitalize cities and stabilize farming communities across the country.

Greendale was built expressly for working-class families, in order to put them within easy commuting distance of urban jobs. Completed in 1938, it resembled a traditional midwestern town in both its physical character and social organization. Ordinary citizens lived in a safe, attractive, economical community that harmonized with the surrounding farmland. Homes were constructed facing common green spaces, through streets were minimized, and residents had easy access to gardens, jobs, shops, a library, and other amenities.

Wins Historic District Status

This week the U.S. Department of the Interior designated Greendale a national historic landmark. "The village represents a pivotal point in the evolution of the American suburb," the Department said, "when the talents and ideas of the nation's foremost designers, social theorists and economists coalesced to demonstrate a new strategy for decentralized community development."

How Greendale Grew

Construction began in July 1936, and the first families moved in on April 30, 1938. The original downtown included a village hall, several businesses, and 572 living units in 366 buildings, with an average of 5,000 square feet each for lawns and gardens. The village also included a tavern, movie theater, volunteer fire station, newspaper office (The Greendale Review), schools, cooperative market, and public sculptures.

Private real estate interests and opponents of the New Deal prevented the program from expanding beyond the three pilot communities. After World War Two, most Greendale dwellings transitioned to private ownership and the common green spaces were sold to developers who filled them with large private homes. By the year 2000, Greendale had grown from 572 to 6,011 dwellings and was home to 14,405 residents.

Discover More

More than 200 photos of Greendale as it was being built and in its formative years are available at Wisconsin Historical Images.

More than 400 property records, most with photographs, are available in our Architecture and History Inventory (type Greendale in the search box there to see them).

For more on the history of Greendale, see our WHI Gallery page and Arnold R. Alanen and Joseph A. Eden classic book, Main Street Ready-Made: The New Deal Community of Greendale, Wisconsin.

:: Posted in Curiosities on October 18, 2012
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