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When Louis Kahn and Roosevelt Created a New Jersey Utopia

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One of Kahn's sketches for Jersey Homesteads. Image courtesy of the Louis I. Kahn Collection, The University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
One of Kahn's sketches for Jersey Homesteads. Image courtesy of the Louis I. Kahn Collection, The University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

When famed architect Louis Kahn died of a heart attack in the men's room of New York's Pennsylvania Station in 1974, he was carrying a drawing of his final commission. Four Freedoms Park, a memorial to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to be built at the southern tip of New York City's Roosevelt Island.

In 1973, in a lecture at Pratt Institute, Kahn had said of his design:

I had thought that a memorial should be a room and a garden…The garden is somehow a personal nature, a personal kind of control of nature. And the room was the beginning of architecture.

Kahn's garden at Four Freedoms Park is really a secret garden, appearing only after the visitor has climbed the broad steps of a granite pyramid. Its long sloping lawn, a green V that mimics the narrowing point of the island, is flanked by double rows of linden trees.

Photo of Four Freedoms Park by Nathan Kensinger for Curbed NY.

Where the garden ends, a bust of Roosevelt by the sculptor Jo Davidson is set in a wall between two "doorways" into a "room" open to the sky and the river. Huge panels of North Carolina granite form the walls and are polished to reflect light. On one of these, the Four Freedoms, as outlined in Roosevelt's 1941 speech, are inscribed.

The park celebrates Roosevelt's vision of a free world, and Kahn's design abstracts his vision of the garden and the room. These two visions were the essence of one of Kahn's earliest and least known works: the New Deal town of Jersey Homesteads, New Jersey.

The New Deal Resettlement Administration translated FDR's four freedoms—freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear—into some 99 communities. All, though they served different populations, had the same goal: to counteract the effects of the Great Depression by creating opportunities for the poorest Americans to achieve a better standard of living. They ranged from the Weedpatch Camp for migrant workers in California (made famous by John Steinbeck's 1939 novel The Grapes Of Wrath) to the garden suburbs built to provide affordable housing near big cities (Washington, D.C., Milwaukee, Cincinnati).

Jersey Homesteads (now called Roosevelt) was unusual among the resettlement communities in being a three-part cooperative: it included factory, farm, and retail. The factory would make clothing. The farm would raise livestock and crops. The retail included a showroom to sell the factory's output, a grocery store, and a tearoom.

Jersey Homesteads was created to resettle Jewish garment workers living in tenements in New York and Philadelphia. Ads ran in union publications and Yiddish newspapers, and the screening process was stringent. Once accepted, each homesteading family had to put up $500 to "buy in." Families used savings, cashed in life insurance plans, borrowed from family and friends. The commitment made, they would come out in groups from the city to picnic on the empty land.

Besides the farm, factory, and stores, the town would provide two hundred houses surrounded by a green belt of woods and farmland. Houses would be sited to take advantage of their natural surroundings. Each would have a plot of half an acre, to provide the garden space that Kahn shows clearly in his perspective drawings.

Concern for the incorporation of the natural world was a hallmark of the New Deal settlements, inherited from an earlier progressive movement, the Garden City Movement, begun in England during the last years of the nineteenth century. Generally credited to Ebenezer Howard, it was an attempt to counteract the grim, crowded cities spawned by the Industrial Revolution. In his outline for his first Garden City, Howard recommended "that a ring of agricultural land five times the area of the center should lie around it." Houses were also turned on their lots to have the sunniest prospect rather than rigidly aligned with streets, and the streets themselves were curvilinear.

The plan for Jersey Homesteads was approved in December 1933. In 1935, Alfred Kastner, a German-born architect with public housing experience, was hired to design the factory, a community building (later the school), and the two hundred houses. He, in turn, hired the young Louis Kahn as his principal assistant.

Kahn was at the very beginning of his career, and, like Kastner, had been influenced by Bauhaus architecture and also by the work of Le Corbusier. A young architect on the project, Hugh McClellan, recalled seeing Kahn "sitting at his drafting table with Le Corbusier's architecture book propped in front of him as he worked on the projected designs."

A Kahn sketch for Jersey Homesteads. Image courtesy the Louis I. Kahn Collection, The University of Pennsylvania and the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

In the 1920s, Le Corbusier's response to urban housing problems in the Parisian slums had been the Immeuble Villas, large stacked boxes of apartments, each with a garden terrace. Like Le Corbusier, Kahn believed from the beginning that architecture could change people's lives. He also rejected the glass and steel of the popular "modern" style, preferring more earthbound materials: brick, stone, wood, cement, and cinder block.

Roosevelt's houses are cinder block rectangles, originally painted white, with flat Bauhaus roofs. They are attached and detached, mostly one story; some are two. Each had a garage, though few residents would have had cars. The floorplans allowed for two, three, or four bedrooms. Roosevelt's streets curve around little islands of parks with trees and benches.

This Bauhaus progeny set down in rolling farmland near Hightstown, New Jersey, was immediately controversial. The Saturday Evening Post described the houses as "so many, well lighted commodious garages." The Asbury Park Press was even harsher:

On the outside, the houses look like a mathematician's nightmare. They resemble whitewashed problems in geometry…This impression arises from the many angles, the flat roofs.

Outraged by the amount of money spent by the Resettlement Administration on plans for a cooperative colony that seemed socialist if not communist, people complained that the houses looked like something out of Soviet Russia.

But the beauty of those houses was their stark simplicity. Kastner and Kahn's houses, set in what would become gardens, were the simplest possible containers for rooms, "designed", as 1938 WPA publications put it, "for efficient, comfortable and gracious living…equipped with modern conveniences unknown in even the better class tenements." All had electricity, heat, and modern bathrooms. And there were elegant details: parquetry floors and floor-to-ceiling windows to fill Kahn's boxes with natural light. More than anything, Kahn's rooms provided actual space, something of which Roosevelt's settlers had small experience.

In July 1936, during a massive thunderstorm, the first eight families took possession of their new homes. By January 1937, most of the other 192 houses had been built. As each group of houses was completed, they were assigned by lottery. Journalist George Weller described the town in 1937:

On both sides of the roads, set well back to allow for future lawns, were rows of highly modernized one story houses and a few two stories, separated from each other by some fifty yards of broken ground. Beyond the houses lay uninhabited country in every direction, wide fields with cornstalks piled high, slender gray trees and thickets, marsh and brook and hill. As a cooperative industrial/agricultural experiment, however, Roosevelt was a failure. The basic plan—that homesteaders could work on the farm during slow times in the factory—was doomed from the start. Construction delays had plagued the project. The government practice of asking for bids before buying supplies often took weeks. On top of that, the WPA's rule was to employ a man for only 130 hours per month. So it was possible that all the carpenters would have finished their allotted hours just as a batch of lumber arrived. The delay with the houses meant a labor shortage when the factory opened. Some of the workers even blamed themselves. As one recalled: "You know when there is two hundred bosses, you know what happens." Besides, urbanites had little interest in doing agricultural work for less money than they normally made in the factory.

Finally, despite a lot of government aid and a last-ditch attempt at leasing the premises to an outside millinery company, the factory closed in 1940. In the same year, the farm was dismantled and the land leased to individual farmers. Even the tearoom, the most successful of Roosevelt's retail elements, closed in 1945.

Through the hard times that followed the failure of the cooperative, most of Roosevelt's homesteaders hung on. They took jobs where they could get them, enduring long, difficult commutes to New York, Philadelphia, Perth Amboy, or New Brunswick. The dream of a community lived on in Kahn's boxes of rooms and in the garden, the landscape surrounding them.

An early settler, Israel Weisman, poignantly described his daughter's first morning at Roosevelt.

"Mama come here! Come a light!". We run in and she's running after the sun. "I got this sun for myself." And she was running, catching the sun. So this alone could give you the idea of the difference between New York at 2nd Avenue and 21st Street…you find here open space." Few wanted to go back.

By 1947, the government had washed its hands of Roosevelt and begun selling the houses, first to their residents, then to outsiders. The artist Ben Shahn, who had been hired by Kastner to paint a mural in the community building, settled there with his artist wife, Bernarda. Soon they had attracted other artists like painter Jacob Landau and photographers Edwin and Louise Rosskam, and the town became known for its commitment to the arts.

In 1983, Roosevelt was listed on both the National and state Registers of Historic Places. But New Jersey's rapid development began to threaten Roosevelt's green belt. On the south side, the state Green Acres Program created the Assunpink Wildlife Management Area. Then, in 1999, concerned residents banded together to create The Fund For Roosevelt. Between then and now, the Fund has managed to buy and preserve the surrounding farmland, maintaining the town's original plan.

Roosevelt has its own presidential memorial, a scrap of land near the school, which looks today much as it did in one of Kahn's 1936 drawings. The large bust of Roosevelt by Ben Shahn's sculptor son, Jonathan, is set on a marble plinth inscribed, simply, "Franklin Delano Roosevelt In Homage." Behind it are woods, in front of it a small amphitheater. Although not designed by Kahn, it is still a room and a garden.

As the little town of Roosevelt adapted to changing times, Louis Kahn went on to design on a grander scale. Yet in the years between Roosevelt and Four Freedoms Park, Kahn remained remarkably consistent. The houses he built for individuals used the same geometry and similar materials. Without the constraints of a Federal budget, those materials could be upgraded to brick, wood, and stone. In all his work, the play of light and the natural setting remained paramount. The same is true for his public buildings. One of his last works, the National Parliament House in Bangladesh, a monolithic structure in brick and concrete, still seems to float above an artificial lake.

Go to Roosevelt now, and you will find the Kahn/Kastner houses nestled in bowers of green, the gardens that have grown up around them. Some have been modified, mostly with pitched roofs, more practical for ice and snow, and cladding to provide insulation the original houses lacked. But their lines and angles are still clean, uncluttered, like the room at the tip of an island with the same name.
· Louis Kahn coverage [Curbed]
· Curbed Features archive [Curbed]