Until Covid

WPA poster

WPA poster
New Deal posters promoted public health
Photo Credit: Courtesy LOC

Until Covid-19 made its murderous debut in the U.S., the withering of the nation’s public health care system had gone largely unnoticed. The response to the epidemic has been so ineffectual as to call into question the U.S.’s status as a “developed” nation.  

Progressive reformers who established the nation’s public health system at the turn of the 20th century understood that the effort was not only a humanitarian pursuit but a bulwark against the spread of disease that does not distinguish between rich and poor. Many New Deal administrators influenced by the Progressive movement held a holistic vision of public health. Hence, their stress on architecturally attractive hospitals often brightened by WPA artworks, as well as the New Deal’s vast expenditures on water treatment, nutritional classes, community clinics and child care. Today, that vision is as scarce as the PPE stockpile was when the coronavirus arrived on our shores. 

Hospital closures

Hospital closures
Rural hospitals are closing nationwide.
Photo Credit: Courtesy CNN

Two maps tell the story. One produced by the University of North Carolina shows at least 170 rural hospitals that have closed in the last 15 years, half of them in Southern states where the virus is now making rapid inroads. The other map displays the 822 hospitals built, repaired or improved between 1933 and 1939 by the Public Works Administration (PWA). When work by other New Deal agencies like the WPA, FERA and NYA is added, the national inventory of rural hospitals leapt to 5,304. 

PWA Administrator Harold Ickes noted in 1939 that “There was, and there still is, a great need for small but modern general hospitals in rural areas all through the country,” while pointing to the hundreds of general hospitals built with PWA funds. 

"America Builds: The Record of PWA”, 1939

"America Builds: The Record of PWA”, 1939
New Deal work programs built and improved thousands of hospitals and clinics.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, National Archives

October 31, 2020, marked an important milestone in American public health: the 80th anniversary of the dedication of the campus of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), located in Bethesda, Maryland at which FDR spoke to the NIH’s role in the “conservation of life,” and using the power of science “to do infinitely more” for the health of all people with “no distinctions of race, of creed, or of color.”

Yet, today fully 25 percent of U.S. rural hospitals are at a high risk of closing, unless their financial situations improve, says an analysis by consulting firm, Guidehouse. It reports that rural hospitals and their communities are facing a crisis that has been lingering for decades.

Movable TB isolation unit, 1937

Movable TB isolation unit, 1937
WPA-built huts, delivered to the patient’s own backyard, protected the family from infection.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, National Archives

Data published recently in The Guardian reveals the cost that tax cuts and the Great Recession have taken on the U.S.’s pandemic preparedness. “There are 2.9 hospital beds for every 1,000 people in the United States. That’s fewer than Turkmenistan (7.4 beds per 1,000), Mongolia (7.0), Argentina (5.0) and Libya (3.7). This lack of hospital beds is forcing doctors across the country to ration care under Covid-19, pushing up the number of preventable deaths.”

During the New Deal, legions of jobless were trained and hired to administer to the sick, prevent illness, both physical and mental, and construct public health infrastructure from hospitals and clinics to parks and playgrounds. As author and activist Naomi Klein explains, the New Deal’s investment in public health extended to delivering portable “isolation huts” for those afflicted with tuberculosis, enabling their families to safely and affordably care for them. The backyard huts were built by young men working for the National Youth Administration. State Boards of Health, which arranged regular visits by health workers, distributed the huts. Unlike testing for Covid, these lifeline services were federally funded, widely available and offered free of charge. 

Mobile clinic

Mobile clinic
The Farm Security Administration brought health care to agricultural workers.
Photo Credit: Klamath County, Oregon. Photo courtesy LOC

Health was a very personal issue for Franklin Roosevelt after polio paralyzed him in 1921. Among the economic rights to which he insisted all Americans are entitled was “The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.” Unwelcome as it is, the current pandemic provides us with insight into a public health system we should have built upon but instead forgot we ever had. 

Life expectancy vs. health expenditure

Life expectancy vs. health expenditure
Americans pay more for healthcare per capita and live shorter lives than do citizens in any other advanced economy
Photo Credit: Ourworlddata.org. With thanks to: richardbrenneman.wordpress.com

Water treatment plant, Michigan City, Indiana

Water treatment plant, Michigan City, Indiana
PWA projects brought clean water to millions of households.
Photo Credit: Courtesy, National Archives, 1933-1943

 

Watch: FDR dedicating the new NIH campus, October 31, 1940 

Evictions Revisited

“California Industrial Scenes,” Coit Tower, San Francisco, CA

“California Industrial Scenes,” Coit Tower, San Francisco, CA
Social and political messages emerge from Langley’s mix of visual images: demonstrating workers, homeless, a strip mining operation, and Shasta Dam.  Source
Photo Credit: Courtesy Coit Tower

Detail, “California Industrial Scenes,” Fresco mural by John Langley Howard, 1934

Detail, “California Industrial Scenes”
Fresco mural by John Langley Howard, 1934
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

The blank and pitiless eyes of unemployed workers in John Langley Howard’s mural, “California Industry Scenes,” have stared out at visitors to San Francisco’s Coit Tower ever since the New Deal artist painted them in 1934. They are a burning reminder of the hunger, illness and eviction countless Americans faced during the Great Depression.

President Franklin Roosevelt addressed their suffering when he accepted his renomination in 1936, declaring, “Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the consistent omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference.”

The icy indifference to which Roosevelt referred was that of his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, while the eyes are those of the potential revolution that Hoover’s inaction aroused and the New Deal largely averted. Current events reprise that history.

Pandemic-driven shutdowns in 2020 have spiked unemployment to levels not seen since the 1930s, but the immediate effect on the U.S. economy was hidden by an early bipartisan infusion of $3 trillion. So great were the needs of suddenly jobless workers, however, that even that immense sum was quickly exhausted. With Congress in deadlock and the Senate on vacation, that buffer against destitution has disappeared. Princeton’s Eviction Lab estimates that 40 million people face expulsion from their homes.

The U.S. actually faced an eviction epidemic even before the pandemic, a crisis that dwarfed that of the Depression. With flagging help from the federal government as Pandemic Summer wore on, tactics adopted in the 30s have returned. Rent strikes and neighborly defense of those evicted from their homes are taking place across the country.

Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60, 1939, New Madrid County, MO

Evicted sharecroppers along Highway 60, 1939
New Madrid County, MO
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein

Courtesy LOC, Homeless encampment, 2020

Courtesy LOC
Homeless encampment, 2020
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

An interactive map shows over 700 rent and unemployment actions that took place from 1930-1932. In January, 1932, the largely Communist Upper Bronx Unemployed Council initiated a rent strike that spread to other boroughs, provoking rent riots against the police that at times involved thousands of participants. It served as a model for other cities.

Rural areas were not immune to uprisings against property law. In Iowa, desperate farmers blocked highways, resisted marshals evicting families and, in one notorious event garnering national attention, not only hauled District Court Judge Charles C. Bradley from his Le Mars courtroom to prevent him from signing foreclosure papers on local farmers, but then beat, stripped and nearly lynched him.

Roosevelt confronted this state of near-insurrection upon taking office in 1933. Infusions of federal money into home and farm relief bureaus as well as New Deal work relief programs — including public housing projects — released much of the pressure one can still feel in the angry eyes staring out from the walls of Coit Tower. Those men stand for the desperation of our own time as much as their own.

Just Scratching the Surface

WPA concrete bridge

WPA concrete bridge
Escambia County, Alabama, 1939
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives

The work of the Living New Deal is a lot like an archaeological dig.  Archeologists discover lost civilizations with the benefit of new Lidar technology, but we come upon exciting new finds digging through old journals, newspapers and archives.

I recently exhumed an obscure 1939 WPA report from the UC Berkeley library. Far more than dry statistics, the report illustrates how the New Deal transformed the lives of small town and rural residents alike.

The report, Progress of the WPA Program, contains everything the Works Progress Administration accomplished in two rural counties—Mahaska, Iowa and Escambia, Alabama, and two cities—Erie, Pennsylvania and Portsmouth, Ohio. In all four places, government put hundreds of men, women and youth to work providing needed infrastructure and services to their communities in order to combat unemployment during the Great Depression.

Sidewalk construction in Atmore, Alabama

Sidewalk construction in Atmore, Alabama
The WPA laid 15,000 feet of sidewalk to this city.
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives

With the help of a nationwide network of volunteers, the Living New Deal’s growing website now documents more than 16,000 sites nationwide—parks, airports, city halls, stadiums, sewers, schools and more. The WPA report reveals that we have just scratched the surface, however. But since New Deal projects are rarely marked or mentioned in local histories, few, if any, of the New Deal’s improvements to their towns and counties are known to today’s residents.

The result is that many Americans mistakenly believe that the federal government does little or nothing for them or their communities, as Paul Krugman writes, even though the evidence of what good government can do is literally right under their tires and feet.

Dedication of WPA swimming pool in Edmundson Park

Dedication of WPA swimming pool in Edmundson Park
Oskaloosa, Iowa, 1937
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives

A map of Mahaska County, Iowa, for example, shows hundreds of miles of rural roads that the WPA graded and paved, enabling farmers to get their produce to market in all weather. Another map of Portsmouth, Ohio, shows the levees and five new pumping stations that saved the town from frequent flooding of the Ohio River. New storm drains did the same for Erie, PA.

During this time, 400 Erie women—many of them heads of households—sewed more than 200,000 garments to be given to the poor, while some 700 people were engaged in sixty-five orchestra and choral groups. Workers for the Federal Writers Project compiled historical information on a played-out coal region near Oscaloosa, Iowa, whose largely Welsh residents were given music classes. Oscaloosa’s Edmundson Park has so many WPA features, it qualified for the National Register of Historic Places.

Between 1935 and 1939, WPA expenditures in Iowa’s Mahaska County alone totaled $1,150,434—$20,595,724 in today’s dollars.

As extensive as the information in this report is on the WPA, it does not include the work of the PWA, CCC, or other New Deal agencies that benefitted rural as well as urban economies and ultimately lifted the country out of the Great Depression. Much of what government built through local labor still benefits millions of people today, some 80 years on.

With more digging, reports like Progress of the WPA Program as well as unpublished manuscripts, can be unearthed at libraries, town archives and historical societies across America. The Living New Deal is uncovering some of the best evidence anywhere of what a true government for the people once achieved—and could again—and making it freely available. Your support makes our work possible.

All in This Together

Illustration credit:

Illustration credit:
rawpixel.com

It is an old trope, but true, that disasters often bring out the best in people. That, I think, is the case in the midst of a global pandemic as neighbors too harried to know one another a week ago stop to ask how they and their families are doing and what they can do to help.

But disasters can also bring out the worst; witness the current administration’s response to corona virus, a catastrophe long in the making as the entire public sector largely stitched together by FDR’s New Deal to fight the Great Depression has been starved of the funds needed to protect the public.

In that sense, the coronavirus disaster is analogous to the decades-long neglect of the nation’s physical infrastructure. Much of it was built during the 1930s not just to put millions to work but to vastly improve the physical and mental well-being of U.S. citizens. That long-range investment gave the U.S. the First World status that it subsequently forfeited as it allowed those public works — and entire cities — to fall into ruin.

Like the levees built by WPA, CCC and PWA workers along its rivers, the nation’s matrix of public health facilities and their dedicated staffs have been progressively undermined so that a long-predicted rogue disease could easily breach them, endangering the lives and livelihood of millions.  As always, the poor will suffer first and most, but no one will be immune to a viral onslaught against which a collective absence of forethought provides scant defense.   

Our task at the Living New Deal is to remind Americans that we do not have to live in a dystopia promoted as its opposite. We do not have to tolerate millions of our fellow citizens living in hunger, on the streets and in abject despair — tinder for the match of a new virus. We once had a federal administration that sought security for all as an enduring bulwark against fear itself. As the adjective “Living” in our name implies, the New Deal continues to embellish all of our lives. But we must first learn to see it as well as to learn the lost ethical language in which its relics are trying to speak to us of an alternate reality we once had.  

In the meantime, as you shelter in place, reevaluate what you thought important just a month or even a week ago. Get to know your loved ones — but at a safe distance for a while. As you take hikes in the woods, think of the vast oxygen-producing, wildlife-sheltering forests that an international Civilian Conservation Corps could be planting to fight climate change and to promote peace among competing people just as Roosevelt dreamt his United Nations would someday do.

Listen to music, read books again, organize your long-neglected papers, and stop to pet your neighbor’s dog. Together, we will get through this, coming out the other side far greater for it.

Democratizing Beauty

Berkeley, California Rose Garden

Berkeley, California Rose Garden
The garden, featuring 1,500 varieties of roses, was one of the first of the New Deal’s Civil Works Progress projects. Conceived in 1933, it was dedicated for public use in 1937.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

I had to think hard when a reporter recently asked me what most surprised me about what I’ve learned about the New Deal. After a pause, I replied “The importance of aesthetics.” My response was primed by the first sentence of a list of goals set forth by the National Resources Planning Board [NPRB] for what the Roosevelt Administration sought to achieve after the war:

“The fullest possible development of the human personality, in relation to the common good, in a framework of freedoms and rights, of justice, liberty, equality, and the consent of the governed.”

I marveled at how alien such a high and holistic aspiration seemed not only in the present but in all the administrations of my lifetime. It was especially so in light of the time it was written— January, 1943 at the nadir of the Second World War when Americans were still under food rationing. But, in fact, it succinctly summarizes much of what the New Deal set out to accomplish.

Central Court, Main Library, Toledo, Ohio

Central Court, Main Library, Toledo, Ohio
This public library was constructed in 1939 with the aid of Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). A multi-color glass mosaic crowns the lobby.
Photo Credit: Evan Kalish

Although Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt had all of the advantages that inherited wealth and status gave them—spending three months on the Grand Tour of Europe for their honeymoon, for example—they both came to believe that access to beauty should not be the exclusive prerogative of their own class. In 1941, in his dedication of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., President Roosevelt declared that great works of art such as those in the Gallery belong to all men everywhere, but that the government furthermore had a duty to create new art and take it to where there had been none before.

The WPA’s Federal Music, Theatre, Writing, and Art Projects and the Treasury Section of Fine Arts did just that, so that Roosevelt could deftly leap in his speech from Andrew Mellon’s gift of Old Masters in the Gallery to what FDR felt all Americans were entitled to: “Recently… they have seen in their own towns, in their own villages and schoolhouses and post offices, in the backrooms of shops and stores, pictures painted by their sons, their neighbors, people they’ve known and lived beside and talked to.” Both FDR and Eleanor believed that access to beauty was essential for “the full development of the human personality” not only for healthy individuals, but also for a healthy democracy. Even in the absence—or obverse—of such goals at the federal level today, New Deal projects such as Central Park’s Conservatory Gardens, Mt Hood’s Timberline Lodge, and Denver’s Red Rock Amphitheatre have enabled millions to nourish their spirits just as the NPRB hoped they would in the midst of war.

 

Sunshine School for Crippled Children, San Francisco
The richly detailed interior and exterior of the school, built in 1937, was meant to provide a cheerful atmosphere for the disabled children.
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

Sculptor Wheeler Williams created this relief for the Canal Street Station Post Office in Manhattan in 1938.

Indian Bowman
Sculptor Wheeler Williams created this relief for the Canal Street Station Post Office in Manhattan in 1938.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

From FDR’s speech at the National Gallery dedication:

“Great works of art belong to all men everywhere. Art was foreign to Americans, they were taught. Recently, they have discovered that they have a part. They have seen their own towns, in their own villages and schoolhouses and Post Offices, in the backrooms of shops and stores, pictures painted by their sons, their neighbors, people they’ve known and lived beside and talked to. They have seen across these last few years rooms full of painting and sculptures by Americans. Walls covered with the paintings by Americans. Some of it good, some of it not so good. But all of it native and human and eager and alive; all of it painted by their own kind in this country. And painted about things they know and look at often and have touched and loved.” 

Dedicated in conviction that the freedom of the human spirit shall go on too.

New Deal Murals Spur Controversy

Victor Arnautoff at work, George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936

Victor Arnautoff at work
George Washington High School, San Francisco, 1936
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Hot on the heels of widespread demands to remove Confederate monuments come calls to remove or destroy New Deal works of art believed by some to be racist.

WPA murals in the lobby of San Francisco’s George Washington High School have recently come under fire. Painted by renowned Russian-born artist Victor Arnautoff in 1935, one of the mural panels shows Washington with his slaves at Mount Vernon; another depicts Washington pointing pioneers westward over the body of a dead Indian. African Americans and Native Americans have complained to the school district, which has appointed a special committee to decide what to do about the offending art works. Destruction is one serious option.

“Life of Washington”

“Life of Washington”
The murals are painted on 12 panels, measuring 1600 square feet
Photo Credit: Richard Evans

Some New Deal art can be interpreted as demeaning or even racist, but Victor Arnautoff’s daring murals, I believe, fall into a more problematic category. They depict the father of our country as also being the father of a genocide later claimed by the victors as Manifest Destiny. It is a position so contrary to the national mythology of the time that I have often wondered how the artist got away with such criticism in a public space.

Even Arnautoff’s friend and fellow left-winger, Russian artist Anton Refregier, said that he knew what had happened to the California Indians but could only go so far in his great New Deal mural cycle of California history, which he completed in 1947 for San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office. Nonetheless, during the McCarthy era conservative Congressmen nearly destroyed Refregier’s murals for showing uncomfortable aspects of American history and for their implicit criticism.

Entrance to George Washington High School

Entrance to George Washington High School
The school was completed by the WPA in 1936
Photo Credit: National Archives and Records Administration

That is precisely what Arnautoff was doing in his murals at George Washington High, but his criticism went where Refregier feared to tread. Unlike all the other colorful figures in Arnautoff’s murals, he painted the westward-moving pioneers in ash-grey and armed them with rifles and a pickaxe with which to take the mineral wealth of the fallen Indian who, unlike them, he painted in full color. Arnautoff’s pioneers represent not heroes but a death march. They march to the far right of the painting toward the signing of a treaty that their armed progress will violate, just as so many treaties with Native Americans were broken. Arnautoff is saying that the U.S. was born and grew upon bad faith and over the body of a people that had lived for ages on their land until invaders violently took it from them.

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier
This panel depicts the Sir Francis Drake arriving in California. Notice the blood in the tip of Drakes’ sword

Refregier’s Rincon Annex murals were so controversial at the time he painted them that then-Representative Richard Nixon wrote to a constituent in 1949 that “I believe a committee should make a thorough investigation of this type of art in government buildings with the view to obtaining the removal of all that is found to be inconsistent with American ideals and principles.” On May 1, 1953, with Nixon as vice president, that committee met in Washington, D.C. to put on trial not only Refregier’s art but then-popular versions of history as well.

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier, "The Waterfront"

Mural, Rincon Annex Post Office by Anton Refregier, "The Waterfront"
This controversial mural depicts the longshoremen’s strike in 1934, when two strikers were killed.  Source

It is because San Franciscans of both parties rose up in defense of the murals, that Refregier’s works narrowly escaped destruction. Today they are regarded as masterpieces of New Deal art. San Francisco schools use them to teach about history and racial diversity, as well as conflict—themes that were hardly popular when Refregier painted them.

Victor Arnautoff, Self-portrait

Victor Arnautoff
Self-portraitWikimedia

Arnautoff’s murals, like Refregier’s, offer such an opportunity to teach the power of art to encourage critical thinking and to challenge conventional wisdom.

Shortly after completing his paintings, Refregier wrote of his fear that “some night, perhaps, men will come with buckets of white paint and it will take very little time to destroy that which took me so long to make. And in the morning it will be just like it was three years ago. White walls without colors, without ideas, ideas that make people so mad and so afraid.”

WPA Model of San Francisco Restored at Last

Author Gray Brechin restoring the model, 2018

Author Gray Brechin restoring the model, 2018
In 2010, Gray discovered the then 70-year-old WPA model of San Francisco was in storage at a UC warehouse and began advocating for its public display.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

As I was scanning photos of New Deal public works at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, I was startled to run across one that showed the dedication in 1940 of an enormous wooden model of San Francisco. WPA workers spent three years building the 37 X 41 square-foot, 3-D replica of the city for planning and educational purposes.

The New Deal wrought huge changes to the Bay Area—the Bay Bridge, Treasure Island, the airports, the East Shore Highway, and Caldecott Tunnel, (not to mention the locally financed Golden Gate Bridge). Planners understood that bigger changes were on the way to which the city’s hilly topography and constricted site presented unusual challenges. A model would also give scores of people jobs.

WPA Workers Putting together the scale model, 1938

WPA Workers
Putting together the scale model, 1938
Photo Credit: Courtesy the San Francisco Planning Department Archive at the San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library

Jointly sponsored by the federal government and the City of San Francisco, the model could be used for planning a subway down Market Street (later BART and MUNI lines) as well as freeways to connect the bridges and the city with the Peninsula (later blocked by the Freeway Revolt.) It was only briefly on display in a lightwell of City Hall before wartime activities evicted it, eventually finding its way to a warehouse at the University of California, Berkeley, where it remained, in 16 large wooden crates, until last summer.

Dedication of WPA model at City Hall

Dedication of WPA model at City Hall
The WPA formally presented the map to the city on April 16, 1940
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Archives and Records Administration. (Public Domain)

Deena Chalabi, the Curator of Public Dialogue at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, introduced me to the Dutch conceptual artists Liesbeth Bik and Jos van der Pol (collectively Bik Van Der Pol) who were intrigued by the possibility of returning the model to the public and using it for stimulating dialogue about the city’s past, present, and future. With the invaluable assistance of Stella Lochman, the museum’s Senior Program Associate of Public Dialogue, the model was transferred from the East Bay to a San Francisco Public Library facility with enough space to uncrate it. Over the summer, volunteers meticulously cleaned decades of dust from its dozens of component sections, marveling at the detail, technical ingenuity, and subtle coloration that emerged.

Restoring the WPA model

Restoring the WPA model
Volunteers carefully cataloged and cleaned the model, neighborhood by neighborhood.
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

Thanks to Bik Van Der Pol, SFMOMA, and the San Francisco Public Library system, the model will be back on display this winter at 29 branch libraries throughout the city where locals can view their own neighborhoods in miniature as they looked in 1940. After that, it will hopefully be reassembled in its entirety at the SFMOMA contemporaneous with a special exhibition of Diego Rivera’s Pan-American Unity mural that he created for the 1939-40 World’s Fair on San Francisco’s Treasure Island. The model will then need a permanent home. It would make a superb centerpiece for the New Deal museum that the Living New Deal hopes to build in the city that the model depicts.

Close up. The model of San Francisco reflects the city as it was in 1939-1940.

Close up
The model of San Francisco reflects the city as it was in 1939-1940.
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

St Anne of the Sunset Church

St Anne of the Sunset Church
Corner of Funston and Judah
Photo Credit: Susan Ives


Overlooking Playland-at-the-Beach

Overlooking Playland-at-the-Beach
The amusement park was demolished in 1972
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

War Memorial Opera House and Herbst Theatre

War Memorial Opera House and Herbst Theatre
Van Ness Avenue
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

A Firebreak Runs Through It

In the wake of the most catastrophic wildfires in California’s history, Donald Trump accused state officials of shoddy forest management and recommended that the state’s dying forests should be raked. “Very important,” he said, to take care of the forest floor. Oddly enough, the New Deal’s enemies accused WPA workers of raking the forest as a synonym for boondoggling the taxpayers’ hard-earned cash.

Popular Science Magazine, 1934

Popular Science Magazine, 1934
Black line on this map shows the location of the 800-mile fire break then being built to create the man-made barrier, which will be known as Ponderosa Way.

President Franklin Roosevelt knew a good deal more about forestry than his current successor. He described himself as a grower of trees, and historian Douglas Brinkley, who called him the Forester-in-Chief, ascribed the inception of the Ponderosa Way to him. FDR created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in 1933, and in 1934, CCC workers began to cut a north-south firebreak and access road—by some accounts up to 800 miles long—through the rugged foothills of California’s Sierra Nevada. The Ponderosa Way project employed 16,000 CCC men building bridges, laying culverts, and grading the road to create a barrier to keep wildfires in the scrubby lower elevations from reaching timber at mid-elevations. It was the CCC’s largest project in California.

CCC Enrollees Help to Control a Fire near Angeles National Forest, California

CCC enrollees work to control a fire, 1935
Angeles National Forest, California

FDR regretfully ended the CCC’s immense labor force in 1942 during the mobilization for World War II. The decline of the great California firebreak began almost immediately. In 1949, the federal government turned it over to the California Department of Forestry (CDF), which showed scant interest in maintaining it. At one point, the Ponderosa Way partially reverted back to federal jurisdiction, but no public agency much wanted the orphaned firebreak or remembered the purpose for which it had been so painstakingly built. It became discontinuous and, in many places, disappeared.

In 2007, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) attempted to get some other agency to take responsibility for it. The CDF in Butte County told the BLM that what remained of the road might be useful for public access but it did not consider it vital for fire protection. Local resident Richard Faulkner, who at the time was living in the woods outside town, told a local newspaper, “For years now there hasn’t been any maintenance on this road of any kind. I want them to fix the road and maintain the bridge. I think it is very important from a fire standpoint.”

Ponderosa Way South over the North Fork of the Calaveras River

Ponderosa Way South over the North Fork of the Calaveras River
CCC bridge built in 1935. The deck was destroyed by the Butte Fire in 2015 and never repaired.
Photo Credit: Craig Philpott Courtesy Craig Philpott

When the Camp Fire, considered the worst wildfire in California in more than a century virtually erased the town of Paradise last month, few knew that the lengthy CCC firebreak transected the town. Like so many other public works bequeathed to us by the New Deal, it is a relic of a lost civilization that we neglect at our own peril. Whether the Ponderosa Way could have saved the town or offered an evacuation route may never be known.

 

Ponderosa Way, North fork of the Mokelumne River, Amador and Calaveras Counties, California.

Ponderosa Way, North fork of the Mokelumne River, Amador and Calaveras Counties, California.
After the road deck was destroyed by fire, Ponderosa Way leading up to it was abandoned. It fell into disrepair and was deemed unsafe.
Photo Credit: Craig Philpott Courtesy Craig Philpott

Ponderosa Way Bridge crossing the North Fork of the American River Placer County, California.

Ponderosa Way Bridge crossing the North Fork of the American River Placer County, California.
Pony truss bridge built in 1935. It is still open to traffic.
Photo Credit: Craig Philpott Courtesy Craig Philpott

 

Time for a 21st Century CCC

Camp Roosevelt, Virginia
The first Ccc camp.
Photo Credit: Courtesy FDR Library

Franklin Roosevelt was, among many other things, a knowledgeable forester. He frequently described himself as a “grower of trees.”

Long before his entrance on the political scene, he spent years reforesting his Hudson River estate at Hyde Park.

As governor of New York, Roosevelt established a “tree army” of unemployed young men to restore the state’s abused forestland. “Forests, like people, must be constantly productive,” Roosevelt told the Forestry News Digest.

After his presidential inauguration in 1933, at the depths of the Great Depression, with millions unemployed, he persuaded Congress to create a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) that, he said, would solve two crises by employing “wasted human resources to reclaim wasted natural resources.”

Planting trees, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky

Planting trees, Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky
The CCC planted a billion trees in parks, national forests, and on spent farmland
Photo Credit: Creative Commons Creative Commons

Scholars are still not sure whether FDR was aware of the William James 1906 speech at Stanford, “The Moral Equivalent of War,” in which the eminent psychologist and philosopher seeks to replace war with its moral equivalent. In lieu of the destructive outcome of wartime patriotism, James called for constructive civil service in the interests of the individual and the nation. That is precisely what the peacetime army of the CCC did.

During its decade-long run, the CCC employed three-and-a-half million young men to plant over three billion trees.

Racially integrated outside of the South fifteen years before President Truman desegregated the Armed Forces, the “Cs” recruited jobless, indigent, and often illiterate young men and gave them nutritious food, housing, health care, education, and hard work in some of the most rugged and beautiful places in the nation.

Fighting Fires, 1936

Fighting Fires, 1936
CCC enrollees battled wildfires and provided flood relief
Photo Credit: Idaho Department of Forestry

They fought beetle infestation and blister rust as well as forest fires, conserved soil, and were on call to help in the natural disasters—epic floods, hurricanes, and drought—that added to the hardships of the 1930s.

The CCC also left a vast legacy of superb rustic structures in national and state parks and wildlife refuges whose expansion and development during the 30s they were largely responsible for. Many CCC veterans recalled their service as among the happiest times of their lives and attributed it to success later in life.

Brass Button, Collar button from CCC uniform

Brass Button
Collar button from CCC uniform
Photo Credit: Creative Commons

After decades of tax cuts our national, state, and local jurisdictions are today incapable of dealing with the ever-growing danger of conflagrations such as those that recently devastated California, and the hurricanes from which Florida, Houston, and Puerto Rico are struggling to recover.

Representative Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) has introduced the 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps Act, HR 2206, reviving a proven model to address chronic unemployment, heal our forests, and meet the challenges and consequences of climate change. It deserves our support.

 

Highway maintenance project, 1933.

Highway maintenance project, 1933
Lassen National Park, California
Photo Credit: NPS

The president and key CCC staff, 1933

The president and key CCC staff, 1933
Big Meadows CCC camp, Shenandoah Valley, Virginia. Front row, left to right: Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, CCC Director Robert Fechner, FDR, Agriculture Secretary Henry Wallace.
Photo Credit: Courtesy FDR Library

 

Herbert Maier and the Parkitecture of the 1930s

Herbert C. Maier. 1893-1969

Herbert C. Maier. 1893-1969
Maier played a significant role in the National Park Service Rustic style of architecture in western national parks.

Arts & Crafts architecture—with its emphasis on native materials, skilled workmanship, sensitivity to nature, and indigenous motifs—fell out of fashion after World War I. Revival styles and the rising tide of modernism supplanted it, but so did economics: the craftsmanship it required was just too expensive in the post-war world.

So why was it revived twenty years later in the buildings and landscape design of our national and state parks in what became knows as “parkitecture?”

In two words: Herbert Maier.

Norris Museum in progress, Yellowstone NP

“Herb” Maier (above right)
Norris Museum in progress, Yellowstone National Park
Photo Credit: Courtesy National Park Service

Born into a German family and raised in Oakland, Maier was studying architecture at the University of California at the beginning of the First World War when Berkeley was a hotbed of Arts & Crafts design and thinking. The University and its alumni were also central in the founding of the National Park Service (NPS) in 1916. Among those alums was Maier’s friend Ansel F. Hall who quickly rose to the position of Chief Naturalist of the new NPS. An advocate of nature education and interpretation, Hall procured funding from the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial for Maier to design an interpretive museum for Yosemite Valley.

Maier’s museum at Yosemite National Park opened in 1926. It features exhibits about the park's geology, wildlife, and history.

Yosemite Museum
Maier’s museum at Yosemite National Park opened in 1926. It features exhibits about the park’s geology, wildlife, and history.
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

With its battered walls of massive local boulders supporting an upper story of rough logs and unpainted wooden shakes as well as its sensitive siting, the Yosemite Museum would have been right at home in the Berkeley hills, but it also apparently pleased the Rockefeller foundation enough to pay for Maier to design similar museums in Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon during the 1920s.

Private funding for such costly buildings dried up with the 1929 Crash. President Roosevelt’s creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps  (CCC) less than a month after his inauguration on March 4, 1933 gave them a new lease on life, however, when NPS Superintendent (and UC alum) Horace Albright put Maier in charge of the Rocky Mountain District based in Denver. At the same time he made Maier CCC regional officer for the Southwest. Although Maier’s administrative duties left little time to design, his roles straddling the rapidly expanding state and national park networks as well as the CCC put him in a unique position to implement design work on a scale unimaginable in the 1920s.

Yavapai Point Trailside Museum on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, 1929

Yavapai Point Trailside Museum on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, 1929
The building, designed by Herbert Maier, is now called the Yavapai Observation Station and is still in use.
Photo Credit: George A. Grant, Courtesy National Park Service

In 1935, Maier hired Ohio architect Albert H. Good to collaborate on the publication of a pattern book called Park Structures and Facilities. It featured plans and photos of hundreds of rustic structures, which CCC recruits erected on public lands throughout the U.S. 

With the end of the CCC in 1942 and Roosevelt’s death three years later, Maier lost the federal funding and work force needed to build the structures he believed best suited the nation’s parks. Tastes were changing as well with a shift to modern design in park visitor centers and museums. Maier remained with the NPS until 1962, but his retirement was unfortunately brief. He died in Oakland just seven years later. The handsome rustic structures enjoyed by millions throughout the nation are his enduring legacy.   

NPS logo, Maier's imprint on the Park Service includes the design of the arrowhead logo.

NPS logo
Maier imprint on the Park Service includes the design of the arrowhead logo.

The Norris Museum was conceived as a gateway to the overlooks and trails of the geyser basin.

Herbert Maier designed four museums for Yellowstone NP. Three survive.
The Norris Museum was conceived as a gateway to the overlooks and trails of the geyser basin.
Photo Credit: National Park Service