Date of Degree

6-2021

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph.D.

Program

Art History

Advisor

Kevin D. Murphy

Committee Members

Romy Golan

Mona Hadler

Jennifer Wingate

Subject Categories

American Art and Architecture | Architectural History and Criticism | Arts and Humanities | Modern Art and Architecture

Keywords

Jersey Homesteads, Alfred Kastner, Louis Kahn, Ben Shahn, New Deal, Dorothea Lange

Abstract

During the New Deal, the United States government created the Jersey Homesteads co-operative in order to help a group of Jewish immigrant garment workers from New York City during the economic downturn of the Great Depression. This dissertation examines how a 1930s utopian enclave utilized modernist art and architecture to express the radical back-to-the-land agrarian idealism and socialist ideology of its settlers. The flat-roofed, concrete buildings that housed these Jewish garment workers were designed by German architect Alfred Kastner (1900-1975), with his then unknown assistant Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974). These unornamented, functionalist buildings adapted avant-garde European architectural forms into an American context in order to house the group in improved living conditions that suited their ambitious cooperative plans.

The artworks created for Jersey Homesteads articulated the settlers’ aspirations for a better future and are a testament to their artists’ firmly held belief that art could improve the world. Ben Shahn’s (1898-1969) mural for the town’s central Community Building depicted the group’s journey from immigration to New Deal collectivity through scenes of Jewish labor movement unionization. Farm Security Administration photographers’ documentation of the project’s construction, its collective farming operation, and the co-operatively run garment factory in the town sympathetically recorded their progress to share with skeptical audiences.

Drastic changes to the town’s architecture in the post-war period, like tract housing developments and homeowners’ alterations to their own buildings, were the result of this ambitious modern architectural project having been combined with short-lived government sponsorship and the rising tide of suburbanization. The series of vernacular modifications to the houses after New Deal sponsorship ended demonstrates how the community shed its utopianism and articulated their desire to assimilate into suburban America. These changes, and the historical significance of the artworks and buildings of Jersey Homesteads provide important insights into our understanding of American modernism and Jewish identity during the 1930s and beyond.

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