Greendale Historical Society

Preserving appreciation of Greendale, Wisconsin, one of only three American Greenbelt communities.

A Brief History of Greendale

Greendale was originally developed in 1936 as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the wake of the Great Depression. With the purchase of 3,400 acres of farmland southwest of Milwaukee’s city limits, the federal government’s Resettlement Administration had three main objectives: to demonstrate a new kind of suburban community which combined both city and country life, to provide good housing at reasonable rents, and to provide jobs to unemployed workers.

The site of the development, adjacent to beautiful Whitnall Park, was chosen for its gentle hills, thick wooded areas, and scenic ponds. One of three “Greenbelt” communities in the country, the historic village of Greendale was built on the “garden city” model, in which housing was situated within easy walking access of gardens, employment and a town center.

The original downtown area included the Village Hall, several businesses and 366 homes which included 572 living units. Single family homes, multi-family homes and rowhouses made of cincrete, a type of cinder block, were built to accommodate a mix of family sizes and income levels. Uniquely designed, the homes were positioned close to the street with the living room at the back of the house to allow residents a better view of their picturesque backyards. These quaint homes were often referred to as “Greendale Originals.” In 1949, the Public Housing Administration gave occupants of Greendale homes the first right to purchase them from the government and in many cases, the residents exercised this option. The transfer of ownership from the federal government was largely completed by the end of 1952.

Today, Greendale’s village center area is listed in the Nation and State Registers of Historic Places, with many buildings considered historically significant.

Who and Why

The project was administered by Resettlement Administration established under Rexford Tugwell by F.D.R to carry out experiments in land reform and population resettlement during the Great Depression.

Greendale was primarily a project to employ laborers during the Depression. But they also aimed to build on the "garden city" model, in which housing was situated within easy access of gardens, employment, and a town center.

The project was designed to demonstrate a new kind of suburban community, combining both city and country life and provide good housing, at reasonable rents, for moderate income families.

May 1, 1938

When Greendale opened on May 1, 1938, there were 572 units in 366 buildings. Most were two-story homes, except for the one-floor “honeymooners.” All homes had concrete foundations, cincrete (a type of cinder) block walls, and either tile or slate shingle roofs.

1938 Greendale Timeline

February 1, 1938: First tenant applications are filed.

April 17, 1938: First Greendale tenant application accepted from Mr. and Mrs. Allen Koschin

April 30, 1938: First tenants move into Greendale. Among the fist tenants were: Art Wilkums, Ken Getters, Fabian W. Strongs, Ernest Knudsen and Otto Rathmans.

May 1, 1938: Greendale officially opens.

July 13, 1938: Greendale Co-Op Association forms.

July 31, 1938: St. Alphonsus Catholic Church holds its first mass.

August 4, 1938: Greendale files to incorporate as a “Village.”

August 7, 1938: St. Luke’s Lutheran Church holds its first service.

August 24, 1938: First newspaper printed.

September 6, 1938: First day of classes for Greendale children at the Community Building. John R. Ambruster is the principal.

September 15, 1938: Volunteer Fire Department is established.

September 25, 1938: Co-Op Food Store opens. The first manager is Douglas McClure.

October 17, 1938: Public library opens.

October 29, 1938: First “Fireman’s Ball” is held.

November 1, 1938: Greendale is incorporated.

November 1, 1938: Greendle Co-Op Gas and Service Station opens. Roy Almquist is the first manager.

December 1, 1938: Greendale Barber Shop opens. Archie McCosh is the manager.

December 12, 1938: First Village Board is elected.

December 16, 1938: Greendale Post Office opens. Ed Bengs is the first postmaster.

No Basements?

Village designers viewed basements as “old fashioned, unnecessary and expensive.”

One Village planner stated, “We have the furnace in a utility room on the first floor with the laundry. The housewife has to do most of the coal shoveling and is is more convenient to have it handy. She can tend the furnace, do the washing, keep an eye on the cooking and watch the children without going up or down stairs.”

Instead of basements, Greendale Originals have crawl spaces. Crawl spaces have dirt floors. They were built with a hatch type door (usually in a closet) leading to the crawl space. There are no stairs and a ladder is usually lowered into the crawl space for access.

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was no fan of the placement of the coal bins. She first visited Greendale while it was under construction on November 11, 1936. During the tour she is famously reported to have commented that the coal bin had been placed next to the laundry tubs and persauded architects to change the plan.

“I visited the Greendale Resettlement project which has a delightful site and is I think a really good development,” Roosevelt later wrote. “I wish, however, that every group of architects would have a woman sit at their elbow to advise on such minor details as the proper placing of things which she uses daily in her work. These details seem insignificant but they make all the difference in the ease with which work is accomplished and therefore in the happiness of the woman in the family.”

What Did Downtown Greendale Look Like in 1939?

What did the Broad Street businesses look like when the Village opened in 1939? Below is a picture of the Village shops and locations in 1939. Click thumbnail to enlarge or click here to download as PDF. It is interesting to note that originally parking was allowed on Broad Street. When the Village opened, the parking lot we use today was paved for pedestrian traffic and cars parked on Broad Street.

Village Shops 1939_Layout 1

The Police Station and Hose Tower

1938: Police /fire building completed; Police department established 
May, 1938: Village of Greendale officially opened.
August, 1938: 1st organized fire department meets.
September, 1938: Volunteer fire department is established.
August, 1939: Hose Tower Building (annex) is completed.
December, 1967: New Fire Department. is opened on Loomis Road.
November, 1998: New Police Department is opened on Grange Avenue.

To serve the new community, the Village constructed a building that served as the original Police Station, Fire Station and Municipal Court (6600 Schoolway), as well as the Annex located behind the building in the Municipal Parking Lot that served as the Hose Tower for the Fire Department to dry their hoses and provide additional storage for other municipal equipment.

In 1972, the Fire Department moved to its own Station located at 6200 W. Loomis Road. The Old Police Station continued to house the Police Department and Municipal Court until 1998 when the Village constructed the new Safety Center at 5911 W. Grange Avenue. The Annex has remained in used by the Village and Village Community organizations for storage.

Since 1998 and the move to the Safety Center, the Old Police Station has remained vacant.

The Model Home

A model house, with furnishings designed especially for the project, opened in Greendale at 5503 Acorn Court on February 7, 1937. Over a twelve-month period, some 650,000 visitors streamed to the site, including many design professionals, builders, housing officials and realtors, some from as far away as Moscow.

Greendale Village Seal

The Official Seal of the Village of Greendale was designed by Marshall Bartos. The gear in the seal represents the industrial worker; the grain sheaf represents the agricultural worker; the book represents cultural life; and the United States eagle represents "under government guidance." Click the thumbnail above for larger version.

Greenbelt Communities

The three greenbelt communities are Greenbelt, Maryland, out-side Washington, D.C.; Greenhills, Ohio, north of Cincinnati; and Greendale, Wisconsin.

The greenbelt communities received widespread praise for their innovative designs, but because influential private real estate interests strongly opposed such development, no others were built. Following World War II, Congress ordered the U.S. Housing Administration to sell the towns. Many residents of Greenhills and Greendale purchased their dwellings. The greenbelt lands, nearly all of which lay outside the village boundaries, were bought by real estate developers, who covered them with more expensive houses.

Today, Greendale is the oldest and wealthiest of the three Greendbelt towns. Greenhills remains the smallest town, and many of its original homes are deteriorating and being razed. The largest of the towns, Greenbelt, has evolved into a more diverse area than its sisters, with African Americans representing 63 percent of the population.

Alonzo Hauser Flagpole Sculpture

The flagpole sculpture is located in the Mall, the formal lawn south of Schoolway and west of Broad Street. Alonzo Hauser was commissioned by the Special Skills Division of the U. S. Resettlement Administration to design a flagpole sculpture for Greendale in 1938. Carved of limestone quarried at Currie Park on the north side of Milwaukee and dedicated in 1939, the sculpture displays six figures standing on a raised platform.

The figures represent the people who would build and live in Greendale, and include a laborer with a shovel and another with a sledgehammer, a mother and child, a young woman with a tennis racket, and man in a suit and tie. A bronze plaque on the east face of the sculpture commemorates Hauser and the symbolism of this piece.

Hauser (1909-1988) was born in Wisconsin and studied art at Wisconsin State College of La Crosse (now the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse), the Layton School of Art in Milwaukee, the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and the Art Student’s League of New York. Hauser enjoyed a long career as a culptor and was later an instructor in the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota.

Vintage Greendale Through the Lens of John Vachon

Photos used in the website by John Vachon, courtesy of the Library of Congress

By William Attewell

Using a keen eye and his camera John Vachon documented life in the early days of the Village of Greendale for the Farm Security Administration. His vivid black and white photographs provide us with an invaluable and unique insight to everyday life in Greendale in 1939.

It is a true treat to see Vachon’s historic visual images of the Village of Greendale and they are preserved by the Library of Congress. I encourage you to see them for yourself, simply Click Here and then enter “Greendale” into the search field.

Born in 1914 in St. Paul, Michigan Vachon originally worked as a filing clerk for the Farm Security Administration. There Roy Stryker, the head of the Information Division of the Farm Security Administration was ever evangelical about his agency’s photographs and urged Vachon: “When you do the filing, why don’t you look at the pictures.”

By 1937 Vachon had looked enough to want to make photographs himself. In October and November 1938, Vachon traveled to Nebraska on his first extensive solo trip. He photographed agricultural programs on behalf of the FSA’s regional office and pursued an extra assignment from Stryker: The city of Omaha.

In 1939 he traveled to Wisconsin where he took photographs of the iconic Greendale original homes and village life

The hallmark of his style of photography is the portrayal of people and places encountered on the street, unembellished by the beautifying contrivances used by calendar and public relations photographers.

Following his stint at the FSA, Vachon continued his photography career, working for the United Nations and magazines such as “Life” and “Look.” He died in 1975 in New York City.

History of the Greendale Municpal Court

The Greendale Municipal Court was created in 1938. The first judge to preside over the Greendale Municipal Court was Fabian Strong, who served from 1938-1949. Norbert Dobner, who served 28 years, from 1949-1976, followed Strong as Municipal Justice. Both Judge Strong and Judge Dobner were founding residents of Greendale.

Near the end of Judge Dobner’s term, the Board of Trustees amended the Village’s ordinances to require that the Municipal Judge be a licensed attorney. Judge John Spindler was the Village’s first judge who was a licensed attorney.

From 1949-1998, Greendale’s Municipal Court was located in the Greendale Police Station located in the Historic Village Center. In 1998, a new police station and courtroom were constructed on the corner of Grange Avenue and Loomis Road.

Six judges have presided over the Greendale Municipal Court since its inception.

This information courtesy of Judge Mark Kapocius and the Village of Greendale.

Greendale Fire Department

Did you know that the Fire Department and Police Department were located same building (the old Police Station) in the Village Center? A siren was located on the roof of the building and sounded for alarms to notify the volunteers. The two large garage doors were enclosed with glass in 1967, when the fire department moved to new quarters at 6200 West Loomis Road.

Greendale Cooperative Service Station

The former Greendale Cooperative Service Station stands at 6601 Northway, just west of Parking Street. Originally composed of an office section and five garage bays, the building was remodeled for offices in the early 1970s.

Construction of Greendale

Construction of Greendale began in April 1936 with a crew of 332 men. Greendale’s work force would peak at about 2,000 in October 1936.