To promote the general welfare? Garden.


In roaming my new neighborhood, one of my favorite stops is our Community Center, built in a simplified Art Deco style with five bas relief sculptures along its front facade.  (They’re sometimes called friezes but friezes are generally higher up,  just under the roof line.)

This building, like the whole town of Greenbelt, was built in the ’30s and the sculptor chosen to embellish it was Lenore Thomas, who won quite a few commissions from the Resettlement Administration during the Depression.  She was given complete freedom in her choice of subjects for the sculptures and chose the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.  She used the workers building this new town as models for the faces and clothing shown on the sculptures.

“To form a more perfect union.”

“Establish justice.”

“Insure domestic tranquility,”  using images of a wheat gatherer and a factory worker.

“Provide for the common defense.”

Finally,  my excuse for writing about this here on a garden blog.  “To promote the general welfare” depicts construction workers and people growing and holding flowers.  Not just gardeners, but ornamentalists!  Gotta say, growing gorgeous plants sure promotes MY general welfare.

From plaques near the bas-reliefs I learned that it took Thomas and an assistant a year to build the five sculptures.  And I noticed this politically incorrect quote from the sculptor herself:

We want to keep the designs bold and simple and sufficiently obvious so that, with the lettering beneath each panel, any workman or child can understand them.

Which makes me thankful that we’ve moved beyond assuming that “workers” are stupid.  Or at least admitting as much for the record.

Click here for close-ups of these and other sculptures by Thomas here, including of her Mother and Child, the centerpiece of Greenbelt’s little town center.


  1. Pretty amazing how times have changed,huh? In the ’30s my dad was encouraged by teachers to drop out of hs because of the type of work he’d likely obtain on graduation (Italians typically wnt for labor jobs). It parallels some of the arguments (classism) re college today.

  2. I really like this post. I am thinking though, that many people were illiterate and many more spoke other languages, having just emigrated here. So I think the artist wasn’t speaking about intelligence with the last quote, but rather trying to achieve a universality that transcended language. Thanks for this blog, I enjoy it.

  3. I agree w/lisab – so many workers had recently emigrated to the US (including my grandparents) that reading English was not a common skill.
    Thanks for sharing your exploration of this historic art – and please share any other gems you find in your new town.

  4. The comment about workmen is certainly out of date. I was just r eading an article in the NYT about the way factory worksers need high level and computer training to work todays machinery to make a good living. The article also said that factories need to invest in that training and pay those wages here in the US. I loved the bas reliefs.

  5. I have loved those friezes all my life. That was my elementary school. 🙂 Perhaps the spade theme explains my obsessesion with my own fave garden tool. Absorbed tool covetousness from an early age.

    Funny to think that the span of time between the original creation of that art and the time I learned to count within those walls is now shorter than the time that’s passed since I “graduated” from 3rd grade and moved to the other side of town. Thanks for the great memories, Susan!

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