Architecture and Recreation: Transformations in Pre- and Post-War America
Clemency Anderson kicks off our first post for our themed set of articles on Leisure and Play in History.
The human pursuit of fun and games is not just built into our genes but, throughout history, has been built into our communities too. A study of the architecture of communities uncovers fascinating artefacts of historical leisure and recreation patterns; whether it be the 1980s swing-set in your local park or the 1940s movie theatre across town. The study of the physical design of two archetypal suburbs reveals how leisure patterns changed in pre- and post-war America.
Greenbelt, Maryland was built in 1937 as one of President Roosevelt’s housing solutions in the New Deal, and went on to house 1,885 families by the 1940s. Greenbelt was strategically planned in the wake of the Garden City movement, born from the dust and smoke of the industrial revolution. The planners saw the vices of society as stemming from a cramped, dirty environment and a lack of connection with nature. Thus, central to the design of Greenbelt was a large, man-made lake with a walking track and a surrounding ‘green belt’ of farmland. The town centre was a cluster of community buildings, located together within walking distance, and all roads were complemented by separate and external pedestrian paths and underpasses. Many houses were designed as super blocks with internal courtyards and shared access to the road. This architecture encouraged and enabled many forms of entertainment which were connected to the outdoors, such as exercise, picnics and swimming. The Centre School functioned as meeting place for a vast range of cultural groups, including a band, theatre team, book club, and several varieties of scouts.
The economic downturn in this period meant that Depression-era values of preservation, frugality and thrift were held high above the temptation of consumerism. This could be seen in the formation of groups such as the Garden Club, which gave half of all families who settled in 1938 a plot of land on the edge of town upon which to grow their own supplies. The town centre did include various shops, but they were run as Cooperative businesses. This began with the opening of a Co-Op grocer followed, within the first year, by a Co-Op gas station, drug store, barbers, theatre and even the introduction of a town-wide credit union. This style of consumerism was emblematic of recreation in Greenbelt, which was communal and democratic and often focused on self-improvement and health.
Levittown, New York was built in 1947 by Levitt & Sons on the site of the Long Island potato fields, holding 17,447 nearly identical homes within five years. Levittown was in essence a commercial product, marketed in the post-war boom to the new middle classes seeking a suburban escape from their busy city-dwelling lives. The Levitt brothers designed the homes to be mass-produced and price-efficient, resulting in simple designs. According to historian Barbara Kelly, renovated homes show that residents were transitioning from pre-war conceptions of formal ‘ritualised’ entertaining into new, flexible styles of socializing, as they enlarged their kitchens and created transformable spaces through swinging partitions and screens.
Levittown society in the 1950s was characterised by the informal leisure often associated with Long Island summers – outdoor barbecues, discussions on the front lawn and group expeditions into town. According to a Newsday article, this was the time when ‘porch society gave way to patio society, where the formal dining room gave way to the barbecue and the TV dinner, where the white gloves gave way to pedal pushers’. Any excursions outside the home required a car, as there were no suburban footpaths and shopping areas were widely dispersed. In this environment, the concept of the shopping mall was born. Two new malls were opened in Levittown’s county in 1950 and 1951, the second of which included a carpark area of over 26,000 feet. The growth of malls in Levittown made the original main streets obsolete and continued to change the physical geography of the town, as architecture polarised the home and commercial spheres.
Lifestyle, Architecture and History
From streetscape to house design, architecture is a fascinating lens through which to view the past. Human interaction with architecture is dynamic, as we consider the development of a town from its original planned intentions, to the actions of the first inhabitants and then the ongoing transformation and renovation of the space through generations. The artefacts of our environment can be read in many layers to see how our values, habits and lifestyles have changed over time. In the case of these two towns, certain pre-war values can be seen in Greenbelt, a town that bred a highly organised social life which was necessarily communal and inclusive. The contrast is clear when we look at Levittown, as post-war fluidity and informality was emphasized, leaving structured forms of recreation in the past. As we examine the design of homes, infrastructure, commercial areas and roads, we can see the way that physical environments have predicted and defined the meaning of leisure in different communities through history.
Clemency Anderson has recently completed an Honours research year at Melbourne University (Australia) and will begin an M.Phil in American History at Cambridge in October 2016.