“Roosevelt has been home to many prominent artists, including Ben Shahn, who painted a mural in the elementary school depicting scenes of Jewish immigration to America, the garment industry, the labor movement, and the organization of Jersey Homesteads as a planned community for working people.”
So the Jewish American Society for Historic Preservation sign tells visitors traveling to the historic village in rural Monmouth County.
But for the next several months those wanting to experience Roosevelt won’t have to make the trek, thanks to Morven Museum & Garden’s exhibition “Dreaming of Utopia: Roosevelt, New Jersey” opening with a reception on Thursday, November 14, and continuing through May 10, 2020.
Arguably one of New Jersey’s most singular communities, Roosevelt was a New Deal-era planned community.
Originally called Jersey Homesteads, its name was changed in 1946 in honor of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, whose administration initiated the project that created it.
While the nature of its creation is a historic distinction in itself, several other factors contribute to 1.92-square-mile planned community’s legacy:
Its design used two modernist and progressive approaches. The English Garden City design attempted to mix urban living with a nature environment. And architects Alfred Kastner and Louis Kahn used the modern or international style developed by the innovative Bauhaus in Germany.
Its initial population consisted of mainly New York-based Jewish garment workers who came to build a community supported by a cooperative industry — a clothing factory that employed 100 — and farming.
It was supported by prominent international, national, and state figures, including Albert Einstein.
And, as the above mentioned sign notes, its population became — and continues to be — a community of artists.
No wonder that the entire town of 900 is on the National Registry of Historic Places.
“Dreaming of Utopia” curator Ilene Dube says that “for a variety of reasons, the Homesteads factory failed within two years of its 1936 opening and the dream for this New Jersey utopia was quickly abandoned. What remained from the $3.4 million experiment were 200 modern homes, a factory building, a school, and a community determined to stay.”
The town then took on new life after the New York City-based Shahn (1898 to 1969) arrived in 1937 to create a federally commissioned mural in the town’s public school.
Born in Lithuania, Shahn came to the U.S. in 1906 and began as a lithographer in Brooklyn. Shahn was a Lithuania-born American artist committed to realism and social issues but was celebrated for using cutting-edge abstract and modern art techniques to do so.
Shahn had been also been involved with new movements. That includes working with innovative and controversial Mexican painter and muralist Diego Rivera on the politically wrought Rockefeller Center mural, “Man at the Crossroads.” He also created murals for the federal government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) and served as a photographer for the Farm Security Program.
After Shahn and his wife, fellow WPA artist Bernarda Bryson, decided to stay in Jersey Homesteads, other New York City and nationally known artists took note of the community’s close proximity to New York (55 miles) and also relocated.
That includes painter, illustrator, and chair of the Pratt Institute’s fine arts department Jacob Landau; New York City-born artist, illustrator, and McDowell Colony director Gregorio Prestopino; WPA artist and later Princeton University photography instructor Sol Libsohn; and noted married documentary photographers Edwin and Louise Rosskam.
A second generation of artists includes those born in Roosevelt: the late graphic artist Stefen Martin (1936-1994), son of artist David Stone Martin; accomplished sculptor and creator of the town’s Roosevelt Memorial, Jonathan Shahn, son of Bernarda and Ben Shahn; painter and architectural artist Ani Rosskam; and others.
Dube — a regular contributor to U.S. 1 — says she became fascinated with Roosevelt when as the former editor of the Princeton Packet’s Time Off section she visited an artist’s studio there to conduct an interview.
That led to the creation of her short 2017 documentary, “Generations of Artists: Roosevelt, NJ,” shown at the New Jersey Film Festival and at the West Windsor Arts Council.
In a previous interview, Dube calls Roosevelt “an alternate universe where everyone got along, the streets were rural and pleasant, and the arts and architecture made it rich.”
She says she was also attracted by something personal. “I’ve always been interested in utopias. Also, my paternal grandfather lived on a farm in New Jersey. I never was able to get much information about it — he died before I was born — but I imagined he lived in a farming community like Roosevelt, one with Jewish immigrants who weren’t especially good farmers.”
But according to Ben Shahn in a 1968 interview, it wasn’t just the farmers. “The factory particularly was a disaster. Cooperative meant that everybody had a share in running it and too much time was wasted in those discussions, and there were questions of union and so on and so forth,” he said.
The problem was because “the reality became a different thing, you see, from the various ideas they had of distributing their product and everything else.”
That may also have been true of the federal government, whose involvement shifted from supportive optimism to walking away from the project. As Shahn said, “The rents were very, very low. So that I could come out here and have to think very little about rent. I was paying $16 a month for a house then. I was paying $100 a month in New York.
“It was totally government. And then after the war around 1946 the government wanted to pull out of the whole situation. There were a hundred such towns around the country, you know.
“And they gave us six months in which to make up our minds whether we wanted to buy the house or get out. They sold the houses very, very inexpensively. It was fantastic. But the government wanted out. You know the whole philosophy of the government sociology or socially had changed, you know, during the war and then they went off in a different direction.”
To tell and show the Roosevelt story Dube has assembled more than 100 objects from 25 collections and art works that constitute a Who’s Who of Roosevelt-related artists. That includes Ben Shahn, Bernarda Bryson Shahn, Jonathan Shahn, Abby Shahn, Jacob Landau, Gregorio Prestopino, Liz Dauber, Rex Goreleigh, Louise and Edwin Rosskam, Sol Libsohn, David Stone Martin, Stefan Martin, Louis Kahn, and others, including Trenton artist Mel Leipzig, whose painting of Bernarda Bryson Shahn in her studio is on view.
Several live Roosevelt-related events are also part of the project. They start on Sunday, November 17, at 2 p.m., with the Roosevelt String Band’s presentation of “The Pete Seeger Songbook.” The band features guitarist and vocalist David Brahinsky, bassist Joe Pepitone, vocalist Nancy Wilson, and the Roosevelt vocalist and string musician Paul Prestopino. Tickets are $10.
The schedule continues as follows:
Wednesday, January 22: “‘The Prophetic Quest’: Stained Glass Art of Jacob Landau,” a lecture by David Herrstrom, Roosevelt-based poet and president of the Jacob Landau Institute.
Wednesday, March 18: “Utopia, New Jersey: Travels in the Nearest Eden,” a talk featuring New Jersey-based writer Perdita Buchan, author of a book on Roosevelt, “Utopia, New Jersey”;
Sunday, April 5: “Walking Roosevelt: Architecture, Murals, and More” an on-site tour with Roosevelt resident and urban planner Alan Mallach.
Dreaming of Utopia: Roosevelt, New Jersey, Morven Museum, 55 Stockton Street, Princeton. Opening reception Thursday, November 14, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. On view through May 10. Wednesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. $8 to $10. 609-924-8144 or www.morven.org.