Devotees of Art Deco architecture, the memory of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the planned community of Greenbelt are rallying against a plan by the Prince George's Board of Education to raze the 46-year-old Greenbelt Center Elementary School, a centerpiece of New Deal-planned community.
About 50 persons urged the school board at a meeting Monday to retain the building, which was designed by Douglas Ellington and Reginald D. Wadsworth, who also drew the blueprints for Greenbelt itself at President Roosevelt's bidding. It was a community planned to meet a need for affordable housing as well as to provide employment during the Depression.
Greenbelt residents consider their town's legacy a shining reflection of FDR's dream: A series of bas-relief sculptures on the school's whitewashed facade illustrate for students, teachers and visitors the meaning of the preamble to the Constitution, carved in foot-high letters below.
"In a way it's a symbol. It is a community, not something that just came out of suburban sprawl," said Elizabeth F. Allen, who lived in Greenbelt for 17 years and is a librarian in the Greenbelt branch of the county library.
Allen pointed out that the building, known in Greenbelt simply as "Center School," was intended and served as the city's hub. It was used as a social hall, dance hall, gymnasium, church and for the many meetings that stamped the community as a center of democratic activism. "It's almost a joke to say, 'If Greenbelt has a problem, call a meeting,' " Allen said. A system of paths and underpasses that made it easy to get the school without crossing a street are still in use today.
The school is not only a synthesis of New Deal philosophy, but the art and architecture of the period. Richard Striner, president of the Art Deco Society of Washington, told the board that the school was voted one of the 10 best examples of the Art Deco style of the 1920's and 1930's at a recent convocation of Art Deco societies. Striner said that architecturally the school is akin to the Chrysler Building and Radio City Music Hall in New York City and as the Hecht Co. warehouse on New York Avenue NE, all exponents of the streamline style of late Deco structures.
Representatives of the American Institute of Architects and the Prince George's Historical and Cultural Trust, and the dean of the University of Maryland School of Architecture, also testified in behalf of preserving the building.
Nevertheless, the president of the school's PTA, Leta Mach, told the board that the school is in urgent need of renovation. The classrooms are about one-third the size of those in newer elementary schools; exposed radiators pose a safety threat to children, and plumbing and electrical system may violate code restrictions, according to school officials.
"I knew about the Chrysler Building," said Assistant Superintendent Edward M. Felegy. "We knew about Greenbelt too, but the architectural significance was not evident until it was drawn to our attention," Felegy said.
Felegy stressed that school officials are not wedded to the destruction of the building, although the capital improvement budget, to be voted on by the board tomorrow night, calls for a $5 million appropriation to replace the building with a new one. He said that in light of the concerns expressed Monday, an architect will be asked to develop plans to renovate the school without destroying its exterior.
State Del. Gerard Devlin (D-Bowie), supporting the preservation, told the board that often in the cultural history of a place, "yesterday's monstrosity becomes today's monument."