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

Erasing Art and History

Lobby at Rincon Annex Post Office, San Francisco, Site of the last public murals created under the New Deal

Lobby at Rincon Annex Post Office, San Francisco
Site of the last public murals created under the New Deal
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

While the nation is transfixed by pitched battles over the removal of artworks representing white supremacy, New Deal murals in San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office graphically demonstrate that such cultural melees are nothing new.

Just before World War II, the Treasury Department commissioned Anton Refregier of Woodstock, New York to paint a cycle of murals for the lobby of what was then the San Francisco main post office. “Ref,” as his friends called him, did extensive research for the project before the war but completed the 27 panels after it. They were the last public murals created under the New Deal.

With their vast narrative sweep, the murals are among the largest and arguably greatest New Deal artworks—and they were nearly destroyed for their creator’s audacity.

Raising the Bear Flag, Mural by Anton Refregier, Two American settlers proclaim California’s independence from Mexico

Raising the Bear Flag, Mural by Anton Refregier
Two American settlers proclaim California’s independence from Mexico

Instead of the customary triumphal march from heroic pioneers to productive industries that Americans expected to see on their post office walls, Ref chose to paint California’s history as a series of class and racial contests. In one corner of the lobby, Ref depicted Union and Confederate partisans violently duking it out in San Francisco’s Union Square during the Civil War, in a scene not different from recent events in Charlottesville, San Francisco, and Berkeley,

Next to it, Irish workers are shown viciously beating Chinese immigrants they accused of taking jobs such as building the transcontinental railroad, which Ref painted on a facing wall. To show that humane voices speak for common decencies at all times, Ref added at the bottom an 1875 statement by Irish labor leader Frank Roney: “Attacks upon the Chinese I consider unreasonable and antagonistic to the principles of American Liberty.”

Beating the Chinese, Mural by Anton Refregier, Workers are portrayed beating Chinese immigrants whom they blamed for taking jobs

Beating the Chinese, Mural by Anton Refregier
Workers are portrayed beating Chinese immigrants whom they blamed for taking jobs

Elsewhere in the immense lobby, Ref painted two American settlers raising the Bear Flag proclaiming California’s independence from Mexico. When the Mexican consul objected that the rebels were depicted standing on the Mexican flag they had just lowered, Ref obligingly covered over it in whitewash thin enough that the flag’s colors still dimly show through.

As for the California natives displaced, enslaved, and exterminated in turn by the Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans, Ref showed the Indians as dignified and intelligent individuals and foregrounded them as the workers who had created the wealth of Mission Dolores.

Ref painted a smiling portrait of the man who had made so much art in public places possible—FDR. But his new bosses in the Truman administration ordered him to remove it. He fought the order for seven months but eventually capitulated, writing that even as early as 1947 “the climate was changing. It was necessary to erase the image of Roosevelt and his plans for coexistence, peace, and hope of friendship with the Soviet Union in order to see the American people on to the Cold War.”

Finding Gold at Sutter’s Mill, Mural by Anton Refregier, An argonaut flaunts his find

Finding Gold at Sutter’s Mill, Mural by Anton Refregier
An argonaut flaunts his find

Conservative critics remained unmollified. William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, savaged Ref’s unorthodox murals for their impiety even before he’d finished them so that, he said, he feared for his safety. When the singer and actor Paul Robeson complimented Ref for including an African-American in his panel of wartime shipyard workers, the artist showed Robeson a clipping from the Hearst press captioned “Refregier paints his favorite subject — the Negro.”

Congressman Richard Nixon wrote that as soon as Republicans had taken over the White House and Congress, a committee would be formed to assure “the removal of all that is found to be inconsistent with American ideals and principles.”

On May 1, 1953, with a Congressional majority and Vice President Nixon in office, the House Committee on Public Works held a dramatic day-long trial of both history and art with Refregier’s murals in the dock. San Francisco leaders of both parties defended Ref’s post office murals, as did others around the world. At home in Woodstock, Ref worried that his masterpiece would be removed and that the lobby would then be like what it was when he started: “White walls, without colors, without ideas, ideas that make some people so mad, and so afraid.”

Dock Strike, Mural by Anton Refregier, Bloody Thursday, 1934

Dock Strike, Mural by Anton Refregier
Bloody Thursday, 1934

However blasphemous his paintings may have seemed to the self-styled patriots at the time, Ref’s brilliant colors and ideas remain on the walls and are now widely recognized as among San Francisco’s greatest—and most truthful — works of public art.

Playing Through: Recreation and the New Deal
By Gray Brechin

The Pelham Club House, Bronx, New York Pelham Bay Golf Course was renovated in 1936 as part of a WPA–funded project.

The Pelham Club House, Bronx, New York
Pelham Bay Golf Course was renovated in 1936 as part of a WPA–funded project.
Photo Credit: Frank Da Cruz

The Works Progress Administration (WPA)-built Pelham Bay Golf Course clubhouse in the Bronx is a knockout, but not so unusual in the exceptional quality it offered to the public. David Owen, in a 2005 article on public golf courses in the New Yorker, described the clubhouse as looking “a little like Monticello without the dome,” although its circular foyer and expansive salon are more Art Deco Hollywood than Jeffersonian Palladian. When Living New Deal Director Dick Walker and I visited it in June with local resident and New Deal researcher Frank da Cruz, I mistook it for one of the private clubs in the tonier suburbs of New York City rather than the still working-class Bronx.

Renovated concession stand at Pelham Club House, 2017

Renovated concession stand at Pelham Club House, 2017
The Club House serves the Pelham Bay and Split Rock Golf Courses
Photo Credit: Frank da Cruz

Pelham Bay and adjacent Split Rock Golf Courses share the clubhouse and both were, Owens writes, designed by noted golf architect John R. Van Kleck as two among many outstanding public courses commissioned by parks czar Robert Moses in four of the city’s five boroughs. Owen’s article also describes Brooklyn’s WPA-built Dyker Beach clubhouse as “a French-inspired gentleman’s house” but with a membership including “carpenters, cops, lawyers, firefighters, accountants, masons, city employees—a typical mix for a New York City golf course,” by which he means a public golf course open to all.

Original concession stand. The concession stand as it appeared in 1940

Original concession stand
The concession stand as it appeared in 1940
Photo Credit: Courtesy New York City Parks

By building ski lodges, tennis courts, equestrian facilities, archery ranges, swimming pools, innumerable baseball fields as well as golf courses, New Deal agencies like the WPA democratized sports previously available only to the wealthy while realizing what Franklin Roosevelt called for at a 1943 press conference: “We must plan for, and help to bring about, an expanded economy which will result in more security, in more employment, in more recreation.” New York Mayor Fiorello La Guardia also saw the need to plan for the greater leisure time that would result from automation once the Depression was over. In his recent book, City of Ambition, Mason Williams writes,  “The core of La Guardia’s “economic readjustment’ . . . was the reduction of working hours (and the retention of existing wage levels) to create what he called a “spread of employment” which in turn would “create an opportunity for education, for recreation, for travel, for enjoyment of life.” At the same time, recreational facilities would provide numerous jobs for those who staffed them. 

Club room Décor is Art Deco-style with an ocean-wave motif

Club Room
Décor is Art Deco-style with an ocean-wave motif
Photo Credit: Frank da Cruz

FDR doubtless thought a lot about the benefits of physical activity since they were largely denied the once-athletic man after he contracted polio in 1921. But, like La Guardia, he also knew that Americans in the near future would have much more spare time, and that recreational and educational opportunities should be available to them to productively fill it.

The New Deal encouraged public health in its broadest dimension: the development of a full human being and a healthy society of citizens, not consumers. Though few remember who built them and why, public golf courses continue to deliver on that promise by building the community of which David Owens writes many decades after WPA workers traded their shovels for four irons.   

Uncovering California’s New Deal Art

Catalogue from 1976 Exhibition on New Deal Art in California

Catalogue
1976 Exhibition on New Deal Art in California

A daring exhibition at the University of Santa Clara in 1976 began the rediscovery of a buried civilization then itself only forty years in the past.

“New Deal Art: California,” a six-month exhibition at the De Saisset Gallery, pulled out of storage surviving works of New Deal art while pointing to others long ignored in public spaces: a wealth of paintings, sculpture, photographs, and mosaics whose merit had been buried under the ascendant dominance of modernist abstraction after World War II.

The disinterest or actual contempt with which so much of the Art Establishment regarded the figurative art of the New Deal was not entirely accidental. It had much to do with the deliberate erasure of the New Deal ethos that had produced it, though few at that time were aware of it.

Victor Arnautoff, Metropolitan Life (detail), Coit Tower, San Francisco

Coit Tower Mural
Victor Arnautoff, Metropolitan Life (detail), Coit Tower, San Francisco
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

Much of the credit for the rediscovery of New Deal art belongs to Dr. Francis V. O’Connor who, in 1974, published Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s, written by those who worked for the WPA Federal Art Project, still an essential collection of source material. O’Connor served as a consultant for the De Saisset Gallery exhibition along with curators Lydia Modi Vitale and history professor Steven Gelber, who now lives in retirement in Santa Rosa, California. Gelber remembers the exhibition fondly and well.

Dorothea Lange, Tulelake, September 1939

Dorothea Lange, Tulelake, September 1939
Catalogue Number 147

Dr. Gelber recalls today that the artists he interviewed all spoke of the art programs with something akin to love. Government patronage gave them security while enabling them to create art for a broad public rather than wealthy collectors, galleries, and corporate lobbies, as was so often the case when the federal art projects ended.

Two years in the making, the exhibition produced a richly illustrated catalogue containing an extensive inventory of New Deal public artworks throughout California. More important to those now researching New Deal art projects was a unique program of video documentation made possible by an NEH grant that enabled Gelber and Vitale to outfit a van with equipment with which they recorded surviving administrators and artists in their homes and studios. The Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C. houses those interviews. Through them, those involved in the vast programs of government-sponsored art speak to us today.

Donal Hord, Guardian of the Water, Fountain Sculpture, San Diego County Administration Building

Donal Hord, Guardian of the Water, Fountain Sculpture
San Diego County Administtration Bldg

The art reproduced in the museum catalogue and in the February 4, 1976 issue of Francis Ford Coppola’s City magazine demonstrates the impressive range of works that emerged through federal patronage.

A cast stone relief on the exterior of the WPA-built Berkeley Community Theatre, for example, depicts people of all races brought together through acts of creation—an ideal that seemed attainable when government actively supported the arts.

Forgetting Decency

A 1937 painting by Edward Millman, Flop House depicts the despair that the New Deal sought to address.

Flop House
A 1937 painting by Edward Millman, Flop House depicts the despair that the New Deal sought to address.

Today’s San Francisco, even more so than other successful cities, is a study of jarring contrasts as sleek skyscrapers rise from streets on which ever-increasing legions of the desperate, destitute, and demented sleep, beg, and offend the sensibilities of tourists and residents alike. Poverty—with all its pathologies—has reached crisis proportions in tandem with pathological wealth.

President Roosevelt’s administration dealt with many of these same problems. By contrast, Washington today is ignoring or actively worsening the social ills that the New Deal tackled head on.

Based on what he witnessed in San Francisco, the 19th Century political economist Henry George explained in his bestseller Progress and Poverty how concentrated wealth produces widespread poverty.

Homeless: I used to be your neighbor

Homeless in San Francisco
Homeless: I used to be your neighbor  Source

Such social inequality is the subject of much of the art produced during the New Deal. The Federal Theatre Project’s widely seen play, One-Third of a Nation, was based on Roosevelt’s 1936 inaugural declaration in which he said he saw “one third of a nation ill-clad, ill-housed, and ill-fed”— and promised to use the federal government to do what the market could not do to alleviate that disgrace.

It is telling that the opulent San Francisco Museum of Modern Art occupies a site in a neighborhood once known for flophouses—the cheap housing that urban redevelopment cleared away to accommodate the city’s expanding financial and retail districts. Flophouses gave seasonal workers and those too old to work marginal shelter, but even as that housing was being eliminated by redevelopment, so were their jobs by automation, off-shoring, and market downturns.

Nowhere are the multiple dysfunctions associated with poverty more evident than at downtown San Francisco’s United Nations Plaza. A front-page article in the San Francisco Chronicle—“Complaints skyrocket over syringes on streets in S.F.”—accompanied a photo of a city worker collecting used needles in a long-neglected fountain commemorating the founding of the United Nations in 1945 just three blocks away.

FDR’s Second Bill of Rights: “The right of every family to a decent home.”

Homeless Man Sleeps on a Bench
FDR’s Second Bill of Rights: “The right of every family to a decent home.”

Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights laboriously shepherded through the UN by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1948 in hopes of ending future wars reads:

Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care and social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age, or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.

It codified much of what Franklin Roosevelt had succinctly enunciated as a Second Bill of Rights in his fourth inaugural address, including “The right to a useful and remunerative job” and “The right of every family to a decent home.

Labor Secretary Francis Perkins recalled that “”Decent’ was the word (Roosevelt) often used to express what he meant by a proper, adequate, and intelligent way of living.”

That we have opted for indecency as a way of life is evermore evident on our streets and battlegrounds as they become one and the same.

The New Deal at the Movies

The Plow that Broke the Plains, 1936

The Plow that Broke the Plains, 1936
The Plow That Broke the Plains, about the Dust Bowl, was the first U.S. Government-sponsored documentary.

Nothing brings to life the countless ways the New Deal saved millions from bleak poverty while catapulting the nation into the 20th century like the movies its agencies produced.

The Living New Deal’s Berkeley Associate John Elrick compiled a list of one hundred films at San Francisco’s Prelinger Archives, which helped Maryland Associate Brent McKee locate and digitize many held by the National Archives film division in College Park, Maryland. Then Chris Carlsson, a San Francisco historian and writer, entered the films into the Internet Archives where anyone can access them.

A few of the New Deal documentaries such as The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains directed by Pare Lorentz with musical scores by Virgil Thompson, are justifiably famous and classroom fare, but most New Deal films were more amateurish, using stock footage and martial music that has nothing to do with the visuals or narration, and little, if any, plot. Nonetheless, they provide a wealth of historical information including typical work days and camp life of CCC enrollees; how farm-to-market roads, enormous dams, and rural electrification improved the lives of farmers and stimulated productivity; productions by the Federal Theatre Project, which hired and entertained millions of Americans; and an array of public works projects and social programs. For example, Making Aviation Safer for America shows how the hundreds of municipal airports built by the WPA laid the foundation for the commercial airline industry, while stimulating local economies.

The River, 1938

The River, 1938
This film about flooding on the Mississippi was distributed by the Farm Security Administration

While most workers shown in the films are white, We Work Again displays the myriad skilled and unskilled jobs that the WPA provided African-Americans, whose unemployment rate during the Great Depression far exceeded the nation’s rate of 25 percent. Other movies show racially integrated WPA-run nursery schools and CCC camps.

A 1935 newsreel produced by Paramount Pictures —Three Billions to Use — opens with an emphatic address by WPA chief Harry Hopkins, insistent that the U.S. must find its own unique way to put its citizens to work to give them a decent standard of living. Hopkins uses the word decent three times in just two minutes, reiterating what Labor Secretary France Perkins recalled as Franklin Roosevelt’s self-imposed moral responsibility to improve the lives of ordinary Americans: “’Decent’ was the word he (FDR) often used to express what he meant by a proper, adequate, and intelligent way of living.”

The ephemeral movies demonstrate how the Roosevelt administration used an activist government to promote common decency. Unfortunately, many of the films have suffered from deterioration as well as from sequential copying to videotape and digital media. The Living New Deal is prioritizing films for repair so that we can make high-quality movies available to scholars, documentarians, and all interested in watching the New Deal in action. Donations for this work are most welcome!