From Bauhaus to Our House

Roosevelt, NJ, has a rich artistic heritage. It is, of course, home to the mural, pictured at left, painted by Ben Shahn, in what was then a town known as Jersey Homesteads. A studio sale at the Assifa Space, 40 Tamara Drive, Dec. 12 from noon to 5 p.m. is only one reason to visit (read my story in the Dec. 4 edition of TIMEOFF). Another is to see one of the greatest jewels of architecture and planning.

The flat-roofed Bauhaus homes, designed by Alfred Kastner and Louis Kahn, in the town once known as Jersey Homesteads, were part of an experiment to move immigrants from inner cities to the countryside.

In Jersey Homesteads: In the Architectural Vanguard, Rooseveltian Ben Johnson has documented the events surrounding the development of the town that is today listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Mr. Johnson, who retired from a career in market research, has been making photographs, prints and assemblages for a quarter century. During the 26 years he lived on Clarksville Road in West Windsor, he used the pingpong table in his basement as an art studio.

He first visited Roosevelt when offering a ride to friends Jacob Landau (1917-2001) and Bernarda Bryson Shahn (1903-2004). These well-known artists were part of the reason Roosevelt, in recent times, became known as an arts community.

“I liked the architecture,” Mr. Johnson recounts from that first visit, from where he was to drive Landau and Shahn to the Printmaking Council of New Jersey in Branchburg. “To my untrained eyes it looked contemporary and modern.”

Seven years ago Mr. Johnson moved to Roosevelt, where he built an art studio with skylights behind his garage. As a member of the Roosevelt Arts Project, he became interested in the history of the architecture and began researching it at Rutgers Special Collections. The RAP funded In The Architectural Vanguard.

Understanding how Jersey Homesteads developed requires understanding the Garden City approach to urban planning founded in England 1898 by Ebenezer Howard, begins the film. “Garden cities” were to have a grand boulevard and a central park with museum, shops, housing and communal gardens, and surrounded by farm land. The concept developed as a reaction to industrialization and urban decay.

Jersey Homesteads was established in 1937 as part of FDR’s New Deal, to relocate New York City garment workers to the fresh country air. It was a cooperative experiment in farming and manufacturing.

As depicted in the famous Ben Shahn mural, still a fixture at Roosevelt Public School, the Russian pogroms forced many Jews to emigrate to New York, where they toiled in sweatshops. Under the leadership of Benjamin Brown, himself a Russian-born Jew, and with the blessing of Albert Einstein, who lived in nearby Princeton, they left behind the crowded, impoverished conditions of the city to establish farms and a garment factory on 1,275 acres of farmland nine miles southeast of Hightstown. It was a cooperative community, and each household had to contribute money toward the factory. The prospect of a better life away from the crowded tenements was worth what was then a small fortune.

The film includes interviews with current and past Roosevelt residents, with voice-over narration by Mr. Johnson and music by Rooseveltians Allan Mallach and David Brahinsky. There are archival images, as well as contemporary photographs by Mr. Johnson, who has compiled a photographic database of the original 200 houses, showing what they look like today.

“Roosevelt is a good example of early suburban modernism, and there are not too many in this country,” says Mr. Johnson. “An entire community of Bauhaus homes was very special. Only one of the 99 New Deal homesteads is in this style.”

Bauhaus was a German school of art and design that operated from 1919 to 1933. The philosophy was to create modern houses and furniture for modern people, and it was a reaction against ornamental elitist 19th century architecture, according to the film, which includes Mr. Johnson’s photographs of the “painted ladies” – Victorian houses – in Hightstown. Walter Gropius was the founder of this movement that influenced everything from typography to graphic and industrial design. In Roosevelt, Bauhaus took shape with concrete and steel construction materials.

“Their compositions of juxtaposed rectilinear forms with horizontal massing, open plans and smooth exterior surfaces painted white follow the stark functional unadorned modernist aesthetic,” says resident and architectural historian Gail Hunton in the film.

All the houses were built with garages – this was unusual in the 1930s, when few people had cars. It was a statement more than a necessity, according to the film; these were houses for the automobile age. They were built with closets in what the film refers to as a “pre-consumer era,” and a work/storage area that was used for canned vegetables from the garden. Each had complete indoor plumbing, which was not necessarily a given in homes built at the time.

From a social and economic standpoint, the houses were egalitarian, and there was an underlying socialist philosophy behind this utopian vision. The cooperative nature continued with garment workers dividing their time between factory and farm work.

The flat-roof style of Kastner and Kahn set Jersey Homestead architecture apart from the typical bungalow architecture of the day. The families selected for the experiment were stable and working class with limited finances but rich intellectual interests, according to the narration. Their dream was to have a house, fresh air, and a place to raise their children, as well as land to grow vegetables. Housing was distributed by lottery, as well as number of children.

By 1947, the government divested itself of the property, and renters were given the opportunity to purchase the houses for about $4,200, says Mr. Johnson. “Most of the families chose to buy, although they were not happy – they’d been renting for no more than $24/month. They had no history of owning property – they came from Russia or Poland, and renting was all they knew.”

But the original dream of a manufacturing and farming community fizzled two years after it began. The farmers wanted to make a profit, and the manufacturers wanted to buy produce at a discounted price. The factory failed, and the farm cooperative could not make a profit feeding so few families. And all is not perfect in paradise – the flat roofs developed leaks, and many residents rebuilt their homes with peaked roofs. Only less than half still have the flat roof, says Mr. Johnson, as does his house. If the roof is properly maintained, it will last, he says.

Others have added on to the houses, which some consider small by today’s standards, but many still retain the Bauhaus style. Even though the entire town is listed on the historic register, there are no restrictions on reconstruction and remodeling. “You can only build so far toward the property line, but that doesn’t stop people from adding a second story,” says Mr. Johnson. “A family with four kids may need another bedroom, and it’s cheaper to go up.”

Jersey Homesteads may have failed as an economic venture, but it was a social success, says Mr. Johnson, who has no plans to make part two, about how Roosevelt morphed into an artists colony of sorts. He says most people already know that story.

Today, Roosevelt offers affordable housing, and is home to professors and commuters to New York (it is a 12-minute drive to the bus in Twin Rivers). “Even today there is a disproportionate number of people with an artistic bent, although it’s not an artists colony,” says Mr. Johnson. “There are just plain people, from all walks of life.”

The film can be purchased through the Roosevelt Arts Project: http://music.columbia.edu/roosevelt/

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One Response to From Bauhaus to Our House

  1. How wonderful that someone has documented this community. I was curious to see Bauhaus in America. There are few examples in my area.

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