Roosevelt, NJ Entire Town A National Treasure

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By Pam Tell

What makes Roosevelt so unique? For one, it is the only town in the State of New Jersey where the entire town is listed on the New Jersey and National Register of Historic Places. Once a part of Millstone Town- ship, the Borough was established as the Jersey Homestead by an act of the New Jersey Legislature in 1937. The name was changed in 1945 in honor of Franklin D. Roosevelt who died early the same year.

The town was organized as an agro-industrial Jewish community after Benjamin Brown (1885-1939) presented a proposal for relocating Jewish garment workers living in tenement apartments in NY and Philadelphia to live in rural industrial villages away from the cities. Brown set up the Provisional Commission for Jewish Farm settlements in the United States, which included prominent Jews like Albert Einstein and representatives of various Jewish charitable and labor organizations. Brown purchased land in then, Mill- stone Township, and began taking applications for 200 settlers at $500.00 each in order to raise more money.

In July 1936, during a massive thunderstorm, the first eight families took possession of their new homes. Ads ran in union publications and Yiddish newspapers, and the screening process to “buy in” was stringent. Families that were accepted 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.

After some of the original prefab cement homes collapsed, Alfred Kastner, who was known for his designs for low cost housing, was hired. He in turn hired architect, Louis I. Kahn, as his assistant. Together they designed the housing for the town. Kastner was influenced by both the English Garden City idea and by the German Bauhaus style. Jersey Homestead buildings are characterized by their spare geometric forms and the use of modern materials including cinder blocks. The houses are integrated with communal areas and surrounded by a green belt. By January 1937, most of the other 192 houses were built.

The beauty of the Roosevelt houses was their stark simplicity. Kastner and Kahn’s houses, set in what would become gardens, were the simplest possible containers for rooms designed for efficient, comfortable and gracious living. They were equipped with modern conveniences unknown in even the better class tenements. All had electricity, heat, and modern bathrooms. And there were elegant details: parquet 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.

The land was to be divided into sections. Some was to be used for farming, some for the building of 200 houses, where each would have a plot of half an acre to provide a garden space. Many homes were side by side duplexes but some were two story. The town was set up as a triple cooperative; farm, retail stores, and factory. The factory produced suits and coats. There was also a community school, a poultry yard and dairy units, a grocery and meat market, a tea room and modern water and sewer plants.

The middle years of the twenty century saw an influx of artists’ to the area. In 1936 Alfred Kastner invited artist Ben Kahn to paint a mural on the wall of the school depicting the founding of the Jersey Homesteads. Ben Shahn and his wife settled in Roosevelt permanently and attracted other artists. It was Ben Shahn who had the original idea to build a monument to Franklin Roosevelt in 1945. In 1960, Ben Shahn’s son, Jonathon, sculpted a bust of President Roosevelt, while landscape architect, Marvin Feld, designed the amphitheater and park which it sits to the left of the school property in Roosevelt. By the 1970’s the town became suburbanized and less de- pendent on the community to satisfy their needs. In 1983, Roosevelt was listed on both the National and state Registers of Historic Places.

Famed architect Louis Kahn died of a heart attack in 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 that was to be built at the southern tip of New York City’s Roosevelt Island. 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 Kahn’s earlier work on the Jersey Homesteads.

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. Although they served different populations, they 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), to the Roosevelt Jersey Homesteads.

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.

If you drive through Roosevelt, you can still see the original Kastner-Kahn homes. Park at the Roosevelt Post Office and walk across the street to the left of the school and you will come upon the amphitheatre and the bust of President Roosevelt.

Check out The Roosevelt Arts Project (RAP) – a collaborative venture of friends and neighbors in and around Roosevelt, New Jersey. Bringing together artists and presenting their work to the public. Founded in 1986 by the nationally known artists, Bernarda Bryson Shahn and Jacob Landau, and others including writers and musicians, the Roosevelt Arts Project presents a series of annual programs. This varied series premieres new works by Roosevelt playwrights, painters and potters, folk singers, poets, and composers, as well as experimental collaborations.

To read up more about the history of Roosevelt visit the Roosevelt Historical Collection at the Rutgers Archives: evelthistoricalcollectionf.html