500 Massachusetts Sites

A contemporaneous photo of Bourne Bridge, which spans the Cape Cod Canal
C.W. Short and R. Stanley-Brown. “Public Buildings: A Survey of Architecture of Projects Constructed by Federal and Other Governmental Bodies Between the Years 1933 and 1939 with the Assistance of the Public Works Administration.” (1939).

On January 23rd, The Living New Deal mapped its 500th New Deal site for Massachusetts: WPA repairs to Oread Place in Worcester. The Bay State now joins California, New York, and Texas as states where we’ve located 500 or more construction projects and repairs, murals and sculptures, parks, and more–all brought to you by a government that was invested in building bridges, literal and metaphorical.

Many thanks to Research Associate Evan Kalish, who has dug through WPA Bulletins to find not just sites, but stories such as the one below:

LUNENBURG— … WPA Foreman F. W. Cleveland and his crew working on Youngs Road Bridge, saved two police dogs from drowning in Baker’s pond, March 4. The Massachusetts Humane Society and the Fitchburg Humane Education Society have been told how the WPA workers by nailing planks end to end formed a path to the dogs who had broken through thin ice 150 feet from shore.

With your help, The Living New Deal can chronicle 500 more sites–for Massachusetts, California, Texas, New York, and elsewhere.

The Fate of the New Deal

Will the New Deal fare a Trump presidency? © 1996-2016 Scholastic Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Will the New Deal fare a Trump presidency? © 1996-2016 Scholastic Inc. All Rights Reserved.  Source

One of the many unknowns of Donald Trump’s impending presidency is the fate of America’s New Deal legacy. Last Tuesday, Newt Gingrich spoke before the Heritage Foundation in a wide-ranging speech celebrating Trump’s victory and the social, economic, and cultural changes it seemed to auger.

Gingrich’s speech centered on his vision of an America gutted of New Deal programs, not to mention ideals. As Ian Millhiser writes for ThinkProgress, the former Speaker of the House exclaimed, “this is the third great effort to break out of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt model.” He pontificated that if a Trump presidency is followed by another Republican administration, the “FDR model” would be done for. Ambitious infrastructural projects promised by the president-elect may resemble New Deal efforts, but would likely have little in common with the mass job generating, civic minded public works of the New Deal.  And, no doubt, the liberal social programs that went along with them will have little place in any new iteration of government stimulus projects.

Gingrich may be more of a spiritual advisor to Trump than anything else. Still, as Millhiser notes, “Early signs suggest that Gingrich’s predictions that Roosevelt’s legacy could be undone should be taken seriously. Republicans in the House hope to cut Social Security benefits by 20–50 percent. [House] Speaker Paul Ryan’s plan to voucherize Medicare would drive up out-of-pocket costs for seniors by about 40 percent. Then he’d cut Medicaid by between a third and a half.” And despite Trump’s campaign promises to protect the social safety net, his recent cabinet choices suggest that his agenda will align with that of Speaker Ryan.

America appears to be far, far away from the kind of new New Deal that those who remember President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s legacy have envisioned for the country


Gene Fischer, 1952-2016

Gene Fischer, © 2016 BH Media Group, Inc.

Gene Fischer, © 2016 BH Media Group, Inc.

On October 18, 2016, Gene Fischer passed away at the age of 64. While we knew him as our Nebraska-based Research Associate, the Iowa-born teacher and columnist was a beloved member of his adopted town of Fairmount. As a long-time special education teacher in the York County Public Schools, he won the Golden Apple Award for Teacher of the Year for 2012-13. Gene was a regular contributor to the York News-Times, where his thoughtful editorials on politics, the media, and social justice, all inflected with an understanding of historical context, infused a bit of liberal rabble-rousing into his conservative community. Take a look at his writing.  Gene was compelled to explore how we still grapple with the legacy of the past and how we can learn from it. The York News-Times has a lengthy obituary. We’ll miss you, Gene.

Discover a Forgotten New Deal Photographer in SF

Grant at Natural BridgesAn unknown elder of American landscape photography, George Alexander Grant (pictured) was the first Chief Photographer of the National Park Service. Though his iconic images inspired millions of Americans to visit their national parks, Grant is largely unknown because his images were simply credited “National Park Service.”

Ren and Helen Davis’s award-winning Landscapes for the People: George Alexander Grant, First Chief Photographer of the National Park Service, has finally brought Grant the attention he deserves. Join the Davises on Thursday, November 3, from 6-8 pm, when they will be the featured guests at the Presidio of San Francisco Officer’s Club.

This event, brought to you by The Presidio Trust and The Living New Deal, is free and open to the public. Click here to register.

“It Can’t Happen Here” – Revival of a New Deal Play

Poster for Detroit Federal Theatre Project presentation of ''It Can't Happen Here'' by Sinclair Lewis at the Lafayette Theatre, showing a stylized Adolf Hitler carrying a rifle standing behing a map of the United States and a fist in a raised-arm salute.

Poster for Detroit Federal Theatre Project presentation of ”It Can’t Happen Here”–now adapted for 2016. Help tell this story.© 2016, Creative Commons

David Kelly plays Buzz Windrip, homegrown dictator, in It Can't Happen Here.

David Kelly plays Buzz Windrip, homegrown dictator, in It Can’t Happen Here.  Source© 2016, Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here, tells the story of a demagogic, racist politician who wins the presidency and transforms the US into a brutal dictatorship. Within a year of its publication, the New Deal Federal Theatre Project adapted Lewis’s work for the stage, with opening nights synchronized in theaters nationwide on the eve of the 1936 elections.

Though timely, the play was not a great artistic success; as Susan Medak, managing director of the Berkeley Repertory Theater, puts it, the original was “ghastly.”  So Artistic Director Tony Taccone and collaborators set out to improve and update the play for the regional theater in Berkeley, California, noted for introducing such successful productions as “Angels in America” and “American Idiot”.  In Taccone’s view, the story’s themes present parallels with today’s political climate that are too close to ignore.

With approval from the Lewis estate, the Berkeley Rep is mounting a new stage version of It Can’t Happen Here, timed to coincide with this year’s election. As you can imagine, the 2016 version has generated lots of buzz, and Berkeley Rep hopes to bring that momentum to America at large through free public readings around the country.

Click here to find theaters already signed up to participate in the reading or to get your community theater involved.

Douglas Brinkley on FDR’s Environmentalism

Civilian Conservation Corps recruitment posterWe’re very excited about all the buzz surrounding Douglas Brinkley’s Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America. (In fact, Gray Brechin is reviewing it for our Fall 2016 newsletter.) In a recent edition of the Saturday Evening Post, Brinkley provided a refresher on FDR’s conservationism and environmentalism, centering on the president’s ambitious—and realized—vision for the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). It worth’s reading, even if you’re familiar with the CCC and with FDR’s environmentalist bent.

Without shying away from its various failings—including following local politics so as to not alienate Southern supporters, which led to segregated CCC camps in the Jim Crow South—Brinkley showcases Roosevelt as an architect of America’s landscapes, hearts, and minds: “Forests, like people, must be constantly productive,” FDR once asserted. “The problems of the future of both are interlocked. American forestry efforts must be consolidated, and advanced.” And, as Brinkley notes, this was more than idle talk: “Surrounded by maps of America, the president studied rivers and streams, deserts and forestlands. ‘I want,’ Roosevelt declared, ‘to personally check the location and scope of the camps.’ Roosevelt’s ‘tree army’ became a legend from the start, and he became a forester-in-chief hero to many conservation groups.”

We tend to think of the marriage of environmentalism and patriotism as something new. But as Brinkley asserts, “Roosevelt viewed his ‘boys’ not merely as temporary relief workers, but as makers of a permanent, greener new America.”



Help Commemorate–and Circulate–WPA Art

Help commemorate "Grape Pickers" (WPA, 1942)Heartening news from St. Helena, California: Rep. Mike Thompson (D) is leading the charge for a stamp memorializing Lew Keller’s “Grape Pickers,” a WPA mural installed at the St. Helena Post Office in 1942.

Thompson and four other Congressmembers recently drafted a letter to the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee (yes, there’s a CSAC) proposing stamps of WPA post office murals in St. Helena; Safford, Arizona; Long Prairie, Minnesota; Waurika, Oklahoma; and Greybull, Wyoming. As quoted in the St. Helena Star, the letter argued that “The WPA mural is a precious visual reminder to our citizens of all ages of our rich history…. This stamp would honor the time and dedication of the families and individuals who devoted their time and energy to develop the land and agriculture of Northern California. Without them, the Napa Valley’s legendary wine industry would not be what it is today.”

Letters of support can be sent to the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee, 475 L’Enfant Plaza SW, Room 3300, Washington, D.C. 20260-3501.

When New Deal Art Doesn’t Age Well

Where does this mural belong?The Living New Deal is dedicated to preserving public works of art under threat from the increasing privatization of our society. We value New Deal art for its public-spirited ambitions, celebrations of local scenes, and representations of the “common man.” But we cannot overlook the fact that artists are the product of their times and their artworks open windows on the past that are not always so pretty. (Consider just one example.) The country has come a long way in combatting racism, understanding the costs of continental conquest, and rethinking ideas of what constitutes “civilization” and “progress.”

The pitfalls of historical revision are readily apparent in a recent controversy over two murals at the University of Wisconsin-Stout, as reporteded in the online forum on art and culture, Hyperallergic. As Allison Meier writes, the murals in question, painted for the WPA in 1935 by Wisconite Cal Peters, have come under criticism for their depictions of “colonial views of Native Americans” and the “‘civilizing’ presence” of European settlers in the region where UW-Stout is located. Consequently, they were to be removed from public view and relocated to less accessible spots in a conference room and a library.


But that decision sparked a reaction of its own, including a protest  by the National Coalition Against Censorship, whose director of programs argued, “If you can’t see them, you can’t even talk about them.” As noted in the group’s letter to the chancellor, the removal of paintings “of historically oppressed groups from view will not change the facts of history.” They proposed, instead, that the artworks remain where they are, only paired with other paintings that “could counter the message.”

The university subsequently announced that the murals would be made available for viewing in “controlled circumstances,” but will be placed in storage for the time being. Without weighing in on the content of the paintings, we believe that such artworks are historical documents that need to be preserved. Our immediate concern is that once they are relegated to storage, they may be degraded by poor handling, damaged by damp conditions, or simply forgotten and ultimately lost. This is no idle concern, because it has happened many times before (including at our home campus, the University of California, Berkeley).

Restored WPA Sculptures in Ithaca, NY

Restored monkey sculpture“‘You need to crouch over to be at a child’s height, I think, to appreciate them fully,” Maroney said. ‘I love that the hospital has kept them that way and has resisted the temptation to put them up on outdoor pedestals.'”


Read more here about recent efforts to restore  the Cayuga Medical Center’s eight animal sculptures, created by WPA artists and representing “the only work from WPA Federal Arts Project in Tompkins County.”


A Closer Look at New Deal Muralist Wendell Jones

Wendell Jones, "Farmer Family" (Treasure Section, 1940)A fixture of the mid-century Woodstock arts scene, Wendell Jones painted four murals for the New Deal’s Section of Fine Arts. His works were admired by government officials and his peers alike, including Philip Guston.


From June to October 2014, the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum held the first major retrospective of Jones’s work since the 1950s. Rediscovering Wendell Jones, 1899-1956 showcased an artist conformable in a range of forms: His sunbaked Southwestern cityscapes, his cluttered and overcast Hudson Valley landscapes, abstract expressionist paintings from the 1950s. The exhibit also presented the four New Deal murals Jones was commissioned to paint in the Midwest and the South. The Living New Deal has previously marked Jones’s work on our map. But only recently did Peter Jones hear about us and reach out to let us know about this major exhibit of his father’s work. Peter Jones was generous enough to send us the accompanying catalogue. This slim volume beautifully captures the variety of Wendell Jones’s paintings, and features a foreword by Josephine Bloodgood, the Executive Director and Curator of the WAAM’s Permanent Collection, and an introduction by Peter Jones that draws together personal memories and extant scholarship. There is also a helpful chronology of the artist’s life, vivified through photographs from the family collection. The result is a sense of Wendell Jones’s work in the context of his own personal and creative development, as well as his devotion to New Deal civic-mindedness.


Indeed, Jones’s New Deal murals display a range of moods and circumstances. If Jones’s paintings for the Section of Fine Arts are unified by the theme of collective work, their subject matters traverse eras and moods. First Pulpit in Granville, painted for the Granville, Ohio, post office in 1938, is a lush, densely packed historical epic of community building through the religious revivals of a century earlier, its figures bathed in light. Indeed, Jones believed, according to art historian Karal Ann Marling, that depictions of local history “could stir up in local residents a feeling of pride in their present circumstances, because such events were a part of local consicousnes, in which the aspirations of forefathers and descendants met.” Farmer Family, painted for the Johnson City, Tennessee, post office in 1940, illustrates vigorous industrial and rural work among Johnson City’s inhabitants—train conductors, construction workers, dairy farmers, and lounging workers in overalls smoking, eating, debating. So much activity clustered together, with little room to breathe. One wonders, in this painting, if “family” is a word whose meaning is symbolic.


Jones’s work is currently housed in private collections, as well as the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth, and the de Young Museum in San Francisco. In order to purchase the catalogue to Rediscovering Wendell Jones, contact the Woodstock Artists Association and Museum.