Plummer Park Landmark Remains at Risk [UPDATE]

[UPDATE] The City Council of West Hollywood, on Dec. 2 voted 3-2 to immediately  demolish the Great Hall/Long Hall at Plummer Park. Community activists are scrambling to stop this, but fear that the minute the final vote is taken the wreaking ball will roll in on the morning of January 22, and demolish West Hollywood’s only WPA structure.

They are working to hire an attorney and must raise $15,000 by January 30. Contact [email protected] for more information.

West Hollywood, California

Plummer Park Community Clubhouse
West Hollywood, California

The City Council in West Hollywood, California is pushing an ill-conceived plan to demolish the Plummer Park Community Clubhouse, built by the WPA in 1938. It is the only WPA building remaining in West Hollywood.

Preservationists nominated the building for the National Register of Historic Places, but the Council opposed the nomination. One councilmember went so far as to say they should tear the building down right away.

Preservationists rushed to get the issue on the agenda of the California Historic Resources Commission. On May 1, the commission voted unanimously to approve the 75-year-old structure to the National Register of Historic Places.  However, the City Council can take a vote of “overriding consideration” and move forward with demolition.

It’s highly unusual for a city to oppose a National Register nomination, but the Council is pushing a controversial plan to overhaul Plummer Park that calls for an underground parking garage where the historic clubhouse stands. The Living New Deal and National New Deal Preservation Association sent letters protesting the plan.

The Plummer Park Community Clubhouse, originally called the Great Hall-Long Hall buildings, was intended to be the centerpiece of the park. Edward C.M. Brett, who was chief architect of Los Angeles County for three decades, designed the Spanish Colonial Revival structure. It has a long, north-facing courtyard and three distinct parts: a Great Hall, a Long Hall, and a small east wing that houses the building’s utilities and restrooms.

Meetings to incorporate the city were held here in 1984. The building also is considered historic as the meeting place for ACT UP, which pushed for government action on AIDS.

The City’s plans to raze the clubhouse have been stalled by cuts to redevelopment funds and community opposition. Though the building is now vacant and unused, it stands as a reminder of a time when the federal government supported infrastructure and employment projects, and reflects the concern government once had for the cultural and recreational needs of local communities.

Take Action

To object to the plan to demolish the Plummer Park Community Clubhouse, contact Mayor Abbe Land and the City Council.

8300 Santa Monica Blvd., West Hollywood, CA 90069

(323) 848-6460

Book Review
Archie Green: The Making of a Working-Class Hero

By Sean Burns
University of Illinois Press, 2011

Archie Green Book Cover

Like many others, I made the pilgrimage to Casilli Street in San Francisco to interview the American folklorist Archie Green.  As usual, he was sitting in the front window of his home watching the street.

Although we were a generation apart, there were several parallels in our lives – moving to Los Angeles in our youth, graduating from UC Berkeley, love of the outdoors, working as a union carpenter, an admiration for the New Deal.

Archie personified my ideal of the worker/intellectual. His involvement with the New Deal began with a National Youth Administration (NYA) job while a student at UC Berkeley. Upon graduation, he enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)—rare for someone with a college education—and worked as a firefighter and road builder along the Klamath River in Northern California. Soon after he began working as a shipwright in San Francisco and was drawn into the city’s lively cultural scene, including the favorite watering hole of New Deal artists—the Black Cat Bar in North Beach.

Later Archie developed an interest in labor folklore and began documenting the culture and traditions of American workers. He gathered and commented upon the speech, stories, songs, emblems, rituals, art, artifacts, memorials, and landmarks that constitute “laborlore.” He not only collected material from laborers but also encouraged workers to preserve their own stories.

Documenting and honoring working-class culture became Archie’s focus for the remainder of his life. After many years lobbying Congress, Archie succeeded in getting a bill passed that established the American Folklife Center within the Library of Congress to preserve, support, revitalize, and disseminate American folk traditions. The Center’s archive, which includes Archie’s work, is open to researchers and the general public.

Author Sean Burns spent considerably more time with Archie that I did. His interviews and research into Archie’s remarkable life for this book make it more than simply a biography. Burns himself calls it  “a discussion of Green’s political and intellectual formation”–what pushed Green into a life of activism. It is a tribute to a man who was deeply committed to cultural pluralism and a path of work, scholarship, and action.

Movie Review: Hyde Park on Hudson

Hyde-Park-on-HudsonAs if to reassure Depression-weary audiences, Hollywood in the 1930s and 40s produced a crop of films celebrating Americans’ resilience and pluck. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and the Plow That Broke the Plains come to mind. But today, when so many in America (including members of Congress) could use a reminder of how our bootstrap country rose from grinding poverty to middle-class prosperity, we get Hyde Park on Hudson, a film that manages to ignore the remarkable achievements of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency.

With vision and resolve, FDR reassured a nation struggling through hard times. His Administration wasted no time putting millions to work building infrastructure that would modernize America. His landmark legislative achievements included insuring bank deposits; reining in Wall Street; establishing Social Security, and ensuring rights for workers. But Hyde Park on Hudson instead centers on FDR’s sex life, in particular his rumored dalliance with his distant cousin, Daisy Suckley.

Bill Murray as a jaunty FDR is more believable than I had expected, but it’s a shame that he didn’t have much of a script to work with. Olivia Williams’ portrayal of Eleanor Roosevelt as a witty and prim wife fails to recognize the First Lady as a powerhouse in her own right, a champion of the poor, and FDR’s emissary on how his New Deal policies were playing out in the lives of ordinary Americans.

Given the parallels between FDR’s time and our own, a popular film about one of our greatest presidents could have been relevant. Instead, Hyde Park represents a lost opportunity for popular entertainment and education.

Communities Resist Post Office Closures

San Francisco, California, January. 4th, 2012.

Citizens protest the sale of post offices.
San Francisco, California, January. 4th, 2012.

For years, conservative think tanks have pushed privatization schemes and Republicans in Congress have followed along. In 2006 Congress approved a bill requiring the U.S. Postal Service to prepay 75 years of postal workers benefits within a 10-year period. No other public or private enterprise is subject to this onerous requirement. Unable to come up with the billions of dollars it needs, the USPS is downsizing, potentially closing up to 15,000 post offices and distribution centers. See the map of post office closures.

Our Post Office Is Not For Sale Poster by Jos Sances and Art Hazelwood

Our Post Office Is Not For Sale
Poster by Jos Sances and Art Hazelwood

Congress has yet to act to address this manufactured crisis. Meanwhile, communities nationwide are taking action to stave off a fire sale of post office properties, many of which are historic buildings, some housing New Deal art. In California, citizens in La Jolla, Palo Alto, and Redlands are working to save their post offices. In Berkeley, activists are working hand-in-hand with the city council to prevent the proposed sale of the downtown post office, which was built in 1914 and contains two New Deal artworks. In Martinez, locals are seeking protection for their post office and its Western-themed New Deal mural by Maynard Dixon by nominating it to National Register of Historic Places. In La Jolla, preservationists are seeking protection for their 77-year-old post office, an effort that has been endorsed by the California State Office of Historic Preservation.  In Santa Monica, Congressman Henry Waxman, the Santa Monica Conservancy, and local residents have fought the sale of the downtown post office. Historic post offices in Ukiah and Venice, California were recently lost; the Venice post office was sold to a movie mogul for his private offices.

Bronx Post Office, New York

New Deal murals by Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson Shahn
Bronx Post Office, New York.

In New York, officials in Northport, Long Island, heard testimony from community members and postal union workers opposed to the closure of their post office. Also slated for sale is the massive Bronx Post Office. The borough president has questioned the methodology the USPS used in selecting it for sale. According to The New York Times, there is no plan to protect its thirteen New Deal murals by Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson, but citizens in New York and New Jersey are mobilizing to save the murals.

There’s more: In Northfield, Minnesota, citizens formed the Save Our Post Office Task Force. In Maryland, the governor called on state lawmakers to purchase the Annapolis Post Office. The city of Boone, North Carolina purchased its post office several years ago, leasing it back to the postal service. But it, too, is now slated to close.

In South Carolina, the mayor of Cheraw called a special meeting to rally support for the town’s post office. On the other side of the country, the local historical society in Eugene, Oregon is considering buying the downtown post office for a museum.

Officials in Lakewood, New Jersey passed a resolution that declared the sale of their post office to be “extremely inappropriate.” Residents of Princeton have resisted the sale of their post office, which holds a New Deal mural.

To learn more go to

A National Day of Action will be held Sunday, March 24, to mobilize public support for the post office and to preserve Saturday delivery service. Learn More

UPDATE: Public comments are needed ASAP to oppose the sale of Berkeley’s Downtown Post Office.

Write to Diana Alvarado, USPS, Facilities Implementation Pacific Area, 1300 Evans Ave, #200, San Francisco, CA 94188-8200.

Remembering Beth Danysh 1920-2012

Beth Danysh and Harvey Smith

Beth Danysh and Harvey Smith
Rancho de Taos, New Mexico

I had spoken to Beth Danysh many times over the phone but it was not until 2010 that I finally met her in person. Beth was an interior designer, a talent clearly in evidence at her beautiful home in Rancho de Taos, New Mexico.  It was my interest in Beth’s late husband, Joseph Danysh, that led me to her door.

Joe headed the New Deal’s Federal Art Project in the West, hired by Harry Hopkins, a close advisor to President Franklin Roosevelt and Holger Cahill, the National Director of the WPA’s Federal Art Project. For several years, before he went to supervise the arts program for the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Joe traveled by train through seven western states commissioning and supervising those who today are regarded among America’s finest artists.

Beth shared many wonderful memories about the New Deal artists she came to know through Joe—Beniamino Bufano, Ansel Adams, Stanton Macdonald-Wright, Lucien Labauldt and Bernard Zakheim, whom she described as a “wild man” who loved verbal sparring.

She told me that the sculptor Benny Bufano used black shoe polish on his hair. (He wanted to be sure people knew he was Italian). Bufano was a houseguest when the Danyshes lived in Carmel, California, but according to Beth, he would never sleep. She recalled that the frenetic Bufano had been commissioned to create 200-foot-high statue of Saint Francis that would overlook San Francisco from Twin Peaks, but the night before the work was to be approved, Bufano gave a talk espousing the joys of communism to the executives of U.S. Steel, from whom Joe had procured the steel for the work. “The project was cooked!” Beth recounted.

In 2010 I was co-curator of an exhibit of New Deal art at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek, California. Beth generously loaned Bufano’s maquette of the ill-fated Saint Francis sculpture. It was to become a focal point of the show.

Beth said Joe considered Oregon’s Timberline Lodge his crowning glory because it was all hand made. The project required that a temporary town be built on Mount Hood to house the workers. The convergence of fine woodwork, mosaics, glass and wrought iron make the Timberline a showcase of New Deal craftsmanship. The Civilian Conservation Corps did the stonework. Joe was there for the dedication, along with FDR.

Clearly, Beth and Joe had a wonderful life together. Her stories brought to life an era so different from today. I’ll miss her grace and openness, and her wonderful stories about those whose work has come to define the New Deal.

Berkeley Fights to Save Its Post Office

The Downtown Berkeley’s Main Post Office is widely recognized as not just a local treasure but also a national treasure. Completed in 1913, this strikingly handsome building is modeled on Brunelleschi’s Foundling Hospital in Florence, an architectural icon of the Italian Renaissance. Like hundreds of post offices around the country, Berkeley’s is adorned with art commissioned by the Treasury Department during the New Deal. It’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In June, the U.S. Postal Service notified the City of Berkeley of the impending sale of the downtown post office. Gray Brechin, Harvey Smith and Ying Lee of the Living New Deal quickly joined forces with labor and community organizers to form Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office. They began working with the City Council and Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s office to seek a solution and rallied public opposition to the sale.

Citizens protest at the Downtown Berkeley Main Post Office

Citizens protest at the Downtown Berkeley Main Post Office
Berkeley, California

In September, the City Council held a public meeting at City Hall with post office officials to discuss alternatives to selling the post office. At the standing-room-only meeting, several Berkeley residents spoke passionately about the loss of Berkeley’s main post office and dismantling of the Postal Service. The Postal Service is the second largest employer in the country after Walmart. Layoffs proposed by Postmaster General Patrick Donahoe threaten over 200,000 living wage jobs that can only worsen a lingering recession.

At the City Council’s request, Postal Service officials agreed to consider proposals offering alternatives to privatization. However, they declined to participate in any further Council meetings, insisting on a “more neutral” setting.

The USPS had scheduled its public meeting just two days before Thanksgiving, with scant public outreach. When Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office objected the USPS called off the meeting. The meeting date has not been set.

[Ed. Note: This post has been updated and is accurate as of 11/14/12; we will update again if a new meeting is scheduled.]

For more information, contact Harvey Smith.