County: Monmouth County
In response to The Great Depression, the Division of Subsistence Homesteads was created in 1933 to promote a “back to land” philosophy that would “relieve industrial workers and struggling farmers from complete dependence on factory or agricultural work”. Under this initiative, architects Louis I. Kahn and Alfred Kastner were commissioned to design the Jersey Homesteads community in what is now Roosevelt, NJ. Kahn came to international acclaim as a paradigm-shifting modernist architect, and Kastner was a German-born architect specializing in public housing.
The Jersey Homesteads was conceived to relocate the families of 200 Jewish garment workers from New York City to New Jersey. This community became a part of Am Olam — the Jewish social movement of reforming ties to the land as a means for the Jewish diaspora to support themselves. It included a cooperative clothing factory, a cooperative farm, and homes on larger properties to permit large-scale gardening to promote self-sustainability. Khan and Kastner used this commission as an opportunity to combine modernist design into American suburban ideals, using prefabricated construction techniques, and creating a forward-thinking community named after the President who supported its creation.
As a part of their design, the two architects began to plan a building intended as a school and community center in late 1936. They based their designs on the Le Corbusian vocabulary of Europe, with concrete slabs supported by slender metal columns and curvilinear walls. The painter Ben Shahn received his first major commission for a large mural in the school lobby. The murals depict themes of Jewish immigration, the garment industry, the labor movement, as well as the establishment of Jersey Homesteads as a model community for workers. The property also includes a bust of President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the front of an amphitheater near the school. The bust was designed by Ben Shahn and sculpted by his son, Jonathan Shahn. It was dedicated in 1962 in the presence of Eleanor Roosevelt, in what turned out to be her last public appearance. The school and bust are the central features of the Jersey Homesteads Historic District, which includes the entire Borough of Roosevelt.
The community of Roosevelt and its surroundings have been largely preserved through the efforts of New Jersey’s Green Acres Program and The Fund For Roosevelt, which was established by concerned residents to preserve the community and natural resources. Together, these two programs have preserved the surrounding farmland and open space, but the school itself provides a unique challenge.
Due to changing school funding formulas in the state, the Roosevelt Public School is under increasing fiscal uncertainty. While this challenging state of affairs for historic schools has been noted in the “10 Most” listings previously, there is more urgent need for the Roosevelt School. State aid to the school district has been reduced, necessitating transfers of students and increased taxes. Further cuts are anticipated over the next few years with the likely result that, if an alternative solution is not found, the school will have to close.
The 1938 deed transferring the historically significant school building from the U.S. government to the Jersey Homesteads Board of Education includes a reverter clause, which stipulates that if the building is no longer used as a school it will revert to Federal ownership once again. This would include the building, the mural and the FDR monument. Under federal control, it is unclear who would maintain the building, including maintaining the climate controls necessary for the preservation of the mural. While the murals and the building are included as a contributing resource in Roosevelt’s State and National Register of Historic Places listing, it is possible that the school could fall to benign neglect and deferred maintenance common to so many other surplus structures held by the Federal government. As times change, so too must long-outdated conditions which can cripple the ability of a significant resource like the Roosevelt School from adapting to a new use to serve its community.
With population shifts and the reallocation of State funding, this is a problem that we will continue to see statewide. While it may not be economically feasible to maintain these structures as schools, it is important that protections are in place to preserve them, and that forethought and planning occur for their eventual adaptive reuse. It is incumbent upon the State and localities to plan for the future of these structures of important architectural, cultural, and historic significance.
Roosevelt Borough Historian
Michael L. Ticktin