Art Review: “Parting Shots: Minor White’s Images of Portland, 1938-1942”


Minor White’s images of New Deal Portland, on display until December 23. (Credit: Nina Johnson)

The Architectural Heritage Center’s current major exhibit, “Parting Shots: Minor White’s Images of Portland, 1938-1942,” should draw those interested in photography, architectural history, Portland’s history, and the contributions of New Deal-supported work. This beautifully and carefully considered exhibit brings together materials from the Portland Art Museum’s and Oregon Historical Society’s photographic collections and architectural artifacts from the Bosco-Milligan Foundation/Architectural Heritage Center’s collection to celebrate Minor White’s early work as a photographer and the buildings he “preserved” on film.

During the fall of 1938, soon after arriving in Portland from his home in the Midwest, Minor White noted in his journal that, thanks to the Works Progress Administration, he was finally able to pursue in earnest his own camera work. By finding a position as a “creative photographer” with the WPA-funded Oregon Art Project, White launched a forty-year career that established him as one of the leading photographers of the twentieth century. His Portland commissions involved photographing historic buildings prior to their demolition. White’s good fortune with this beginning, arguably, is matched by Portland’s, given the legacy his architectural photographic collection provides to the city. White documented the late-nineteenth-century cast iron buildings of Portland’s downtown just as they were slated for demolition as part of the construction of Front Avenue, a public works project also made possible by New Deal funds. In his use of texture and his contrasts in light and darkness, Minor White’s photographs lend dignity to buildings considered outdated, impediments to Portland’s progress. His collection of architectural photographs traveled to a number of WPA Art Centers until 1942. They are currently archived at the Oregon Historical Society.

“Parting Shots” also includes White’s work commissioned by the Portland Art Museum to document two of the city’s nineteenth-century mansions in the early 1940s. The Knapp and Jacob Dolph houses, although ranked among the best of the city’s residential architecture, were demolished relatively soon afterwards (1953 and 1942, respectively).

While the exhibit will be open through December 23, 2017, two lectures will be given this week that are worthy of immediate notice. Dr. Kenneth Hawkins, who compiled the first inventory of White’s WPA negatives at the Oregon Historical Society in 1978 and assisted in compiling the Princeton University Art Museum catalog of White’s work, will present two lectures at the Architectural Heritage Center on May 18th and 20th. For further details on the lectures and exhibit, please visit the AHC website.

 

Judith Kenny is a retired professor of Geography and Urban Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and a Living New Deal Research Associate, now based in Portland, Oregon. She is also a member of Portland’s Architectural Heritage Center (AHC) Education Committee.

The Forest Theatre, Expressive Landscape, and the New Deal at UNC Chapel Hill


Forest Amphitheatre, UNC. Creative Commons.

The New Deal, more than any other federal infrastructure or works project in the history of the United States, provided national support for the development of new work in the arts. The New Deal was also unique to the extent that it focused on localized projects, showcasing the particularities of funded sites, and produced new connections between various local sites within a broader, national network.

Ashley Mattheis and Ryan Brownlow, two scholars at the University of North Carolina, have produced “The Forest Theatre, Expressive Landscape, and the New Deal at UNC Chapel Hill: A Bibliographic Essay,” exploring the development of the Forest Theatre as part of a New Deal project in North Carolina, and tracing its connection to the New Deal’s Federal Theatre Project (FTP). Mattheis and Brownlow have compiled archival materials (including photographs from local collections, an annotated bibliography, and two topic biographies) to suggest potential avenues for further research into the New Deal, emphasizing the politics of place and site, the arts, and the social and cultural contexts of the New Deal era.

This invaluable resource helps to tell a story of culture- and place-making and the role of government in promoting the intersection of vernacular and national cultures–one that politicians and everyday people alike might heed. You can read the full text here.

Ashley Mattheis and Ryan Brownlow

The Freedom From Fear/Yellow Bowl Project: Remembering America’s Concentration Camps


At Manazanar, CA in December 2015. The tea bowls are arranged in blocks, the way those incarcerated lived in barracks surrounded by barbed wire and watched over by soldiers in guard towers. © Setsuko Winchester 2015

In December 2015 I saw Donald Trump on CNN invoke FDR’s use of “internment” for the Japanese as a possible solution for the “Muslim problem”. At the time, I was on my way to Manzanar, CA, one of ten US internment camps created in 1942 to hold 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry (eventually more than 120,000). Over the next five months, my husband and I traveled across America twice – more than 16,000 miles in total – to visit all ten of the World War II camps where Japanese Americans had been held.

With us were 120 hand-pinched yellow tea bowls, each representing 1000 individuals held in the camps. The idea was to photograph the yellow bowls at each site to document what had occurred there more than 70 years ago. For me, an American of Japanese ancestry and former journalist, this was the culminating act of three years of travel, reading and research. I had never really known nor ever asked about what had really happened at that time. It was my attempt, a lone ceramicist, to say to those incarcerated: you are not forgotten.

In a perverse way, the camps were part of FDR’s promise to the American people in his Third Inaugural address. This immensely popular President, who had authored the New Deal to help America dig out of the Great Depression, made a new promise as the country stood on the brink of war, the promise of Four Freedoms: Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Religion, Freedom from Want and Freedom from Fear. The mass incarceration of Japanese was FDR’s attempt to ensure Americans of that last freedom, Freedom from Fear.

When President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, all those of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast were removed from their homes and sent to camps in the interior of the west. The problem was that two-thirds of those incarcerated were American citizens and a third were children, and none of them was ever proved to be a security threat. In fact, thousands of them would go on to fight for their country – the United States – during the war, despite having lost their freedom and their homes, and in the face of continued incarceration for their families.

Pearl Harbor is often cited as the justification for this act, but in fact much of the plan pre-existed that event because of growing military tensions between the US and Japan in the Pacific. Even more important was a widespread enmity toward those of Japanese ancestry – immigrants and citizens alike – in this country. After all, nothing like the mass internment of Japanese Americans happened to German Americans and Italian Americans, despite the war in Europe.

This has to do with the level of racism that existed before the start of WWII. Anti-Asian hostility had long been an integral part of American history. Legislation banning and curbing Asian immigration, rights of citizenship, voting, landownership, etc., had been on and off the books since 1875. Laws targeting people of Japanese ancestry date from the early 1900s, including the draconian Alien Land Laws in California. Japanese Americans looked different, had different cultural practices and were competitors to white farmers and workers.


At Heart Mountain on a very windy day in May of 2016. It was hard to remain standing at times. A major fire in Alberta, Canada obscured the silhouette of the famous Heart Mountain Peak. In the background is the hospital smokestack, one of the few original structures still standing. © Simon Winchester 2015.

This was a part of US history I didn’t learn in school and took many decades to face up to. (Editor’s note: Although famed FSA photographer Dorothea Lange was commissioned to photograph interned Japanese Americans, the Army censored the images.) Thus was born my “Freedom from Fear Project.” I wanted to show that those who were incarcerated were just as American and just as scared as those who feared them. I knew going in that this would not be an easy task. After all, FDR is a hero to many Americans and my fellow citizens would probably rather forget that their country once engaged in mass violation of civil rights to create concentration camps for its own citizens.

Yet, as a series of WWII anniversaries were approaching, and as the nation in the wake of the recent election felt more divided racially, spiritually and economically than ever, I wanted to go back to consider FDR’s Four Freedoms, to see where we are as a nation today. It’s easy to honor the fine words of FDR’s great speech in times of prosperity and peace, but how does today’s multicultural nation manage fear of ‘The Other’? If 75 years ago, it was Japanese, Germans and Italians who were to be feared, today it is Muslims, Mexicans and Chinese. The initial reaction to my project was an uneven mix ranging from shock to admiration, with a lot of stony silence in between. In some sense, it mirrored the mood of the nation.

In August 2016, as the presidential campaign heated up and the rhetoric of fear rose like a toxic plume, I decided to slightly amend the name of my work to the “Freedom From Fear/Yellow Bowl Project”. By adding a brief description of the project to the title I could somewhat dilute the notion of fear as its dominant message, and at the same time promote what I feel is essentially a message of hope and optimism, rather than of recrimination and blame. As a new President and a new administration takes over and the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066 approaches, I hope to put my message out there – since this, too, is a part of the American story, whether we like it or not. If we choose to ignore our history, are we doomed to repeat it?

 

Setsuko Winchester, born in New York City of Japanese immigrant parents, worked as a journalist, editor and producer at NPR on shows like Morning Edition and Talk of the Nation before moving to Western Massachusetts in 2006 to pursue a life-long interest in the ceramics and the visual arts. Photographs from her latest project go on display at FDR’s former home and Museum in Hyde Park, NY, in February.

On Restoring a New Deal Mural

Frank W. Long, "The Rural Free Mail," recently restored for new generations. © The United States Postal Service, All Rights Reserved.


Frank W. Long, “The Rural Free Mail,” recently restored for new generations. © The United States Postal Service, All Rights Reserved.

For more than seventy years, the murals of Frank W. Long have been hanging in post offices and other public buildings in the South and Midwest. “It was almost by accident that I became a painter of murals,” Long writes in Confessions of a Depression Muralist. In Confessions, Long blends history and personal anecdotes to paint a picture of what it meant to be a young artist struggling to make a living during the Depression. The Section of Fine Arts, for which Long painted, was established in 1932 under the Department of the Treasury. Unlike the Works Progress Administration, which paid artists a living wage to practice their own art, The Section was founded upon the ideal of establishing a truly American School of Painting. For almost ten years, Long was one of the most prolific muralists that this new School had to offer. Confessions opens a window onto the thoughts and reflections of a government artist that are as relevant now as they were then.

Preserving our cultural heritage has long been a passion for many of us at McKinney Graves Art Restorations. We have worked on statues and public art works in the past; but when we were asked to help restore “The Rural Free Delivery,” a Frank W. Long mural in the old post office of our hometown of Morehead, Kentucky, I had no idea how much I would gain in understanding and insight into the mind of this artist. Like us, Long was from Eastern Kentucky—a difficult area for an artist to make a living in during even the best of times. When people are hungry and sick, it is hard to convince them to spend money on preserving our cultural heritage. Yet during the Great Depression, New Dealers did.

The technical aspects of a restoration such as this are time consuming and difficult. The mural was painted in egg tempera on linen, a non-traditional method since egg tempera is very brittle and usually painted on a solid substrate. The sketch for this mural was sent to The Section’s Ed Rowan and although he approved the mural, he suggested some changes that he thought would be appropriate. Rowan thought the older of the two women in the mural were too unattractive and the younger women too alluring. Long responded in a letter, saying that Rowan should visit Morehead and “see for yourself the types of womenfolk we have,” and that the difference between youth and age was due to the “hellish existence most of these women had to endure.” As would many of us when trying to make a living, Mr. Long made the changes. But in his writings of later years, he was deeply ashamed of capitulating in the face of criticism and felt like he had sacrificed the aesthetic truth of what he saw for the sake of material reward.

“The Rural Free Delivery” is a symbol and one of the many artifacts that helps us all to imagine our shared lives. Our similarities are far greater than our differences, and it is very important to come from a common ground when standing up against the trials of a stressed world. For generations, we have sought communication with others by writing a letter, taking it to a common depository, and having faith that it will be safely delivered to the recipient. Our ancestors have stood beneath these murals in line to trust in the workings of our society. Frank Weathers Long’s “The Rural Free Delivery” is one such symbol of our common faith as citizens—to believe and trust in the workings of our shared social foundations and to say “Hello” to the folks in line with us.

 

 

Steven Rogers Graves is a writer, artist, and preservation specialist from Morehead, Kentucky. Along with his partner, Sam McKinney, they operate McKinney Graves Art Restorations in the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern Kentucky. They restore public statues, memorials, and works of art. They both have been practicing for over forty years and have commissions throughout the United States. They are members of the AIC.

CCC Stone Hut Rebuilt After Fire

Forest ranger's hut also used by skiers in the winter, near the top of Mount Mansfield, Smuggler's Notch, Vermont, 1939. © Library of Congress


Forest ranger’s hut also used by skiers in the winter, near the top of Mount Mansfield, Smuggler’s Notch, Vermont, 1939. © Library of Congress

The work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in Vermont had a lasting impact on the state and its recreational infrastructure. Under the guidance of State Forester Perry Merrill, more than 40,000 individuals worked in Vermont’s 30 CCC camps, building new state parks, planting forests and, most notably, developing downhill ski areas in Stowe. This small mountain town benefitted from numerous CCC projects, including the first downhill ski trails cut on Mount Mansfield, new base lodges, and related infrastructure such as access roads and parking areas. As a result, Stowe quickly became known as the “Ski Capital of the East” and remains a popular skiing destination today.

One of the most well-known and beloved CCC projects in Stowe is the Stone Hut, built on the top of Mount Mansfield during the winter of 1935-36. With its sturdy stone walls, large fireplace and wooden interior, the cozy Stone Hut quickly became a popular overnight camping destination for the public after the CCC work crews were done using it. It is so popular that the owner, the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, operates an annual lottery to award reservations for overnight stays. In recognition of its historic and architectural significance, the Stone Hut was listed in the State Register of Historic Places in 1989.

Stone Hut Interior After Fire. © 2016, Mary Jo Llewellyn, All Rights Reserved


Stone Hut Interior After Fire. © 2016, Mary Jo Llewellyn, All Rights Reserved

Disaster struck last year when, on Christmas Eve, the Stone Hut accidentally caught fire and all of the wood components, including the roof, interior, and floor system, were completely destroyed. The stone walls, although blackened with soot, remained structurally sound. There was an immediate outpouring of grief and offers of support as news of the fire spread amongst the skiing and camping communities. Thanks to a vigorous fundraising campaign and generous donations, enough money was raised to rebuild the Stone Hut based on the original 1935 CCC plans. The Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation; the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation; the Mount Mansfield Company; and the Vermont Parks Forever Foundation, were all instrumental in getting the Stone Hut rebuilt, and it will open to the public again on December 1, 2016, less than one year after the fire. Visit here for more information.

 

Devin Colman is the State Architectural Historian at the Vermont Division for Historic Preservation. His interests include New Deal arts and architecture. 

 

A Cosmopolitan New Deal

Piero della Francesca, The Queen of Sheba Adoring the Holy Wood, c. 1458, mural (part of the Cycle of the True Cross), Arezzo, Tuscany


Piero della Francesca, The Queen of Sheba Adoring the Holy Wood, c. 1458, mural (part of the Cycle of the True Cross), Arezzo, Tuscany

The muralists of the New Deal are often perceived as being provincial and isolationist because their works celebrate “American values,” and depict a nation that is often rural, in a figurative style. Yet, many artists were internationally-minded and their realism was far from prosaic. They sought inspiration from various pictorial traditions: 19th century French art, the Mexican muralist movement, and, least well known, Renaissance frescoes.

Ethel Magafan, Cotton Pickers, 1940. Oil on canvas, Post Office, Wynne Arkansas. Commissioned through the Section of Fine Arts, 1934-143. Fine Arts Collection, U.S. General Services Administration.


Ethel Magafan, Cotton Pickers, 1940. Oil on canvas, Post Office, Wynne Arkansas. Commissioned through the Section of Fine Arts, 1934-143. Fine Arts Collection, U.S. General Services Administration.

In fact, New Deal artists were particularly interested in the Renaissance. This should not surprise us considering that the originator of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) and the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, and the programs’ leading administrators, were enthusiastic admirers of the Italian masters and strongly promoted them. George Biddle, who suggested the very idea of a government-sponsored mural program to President Roosevelt, had resided in Italy from the summer of 1931 until November 1932, during which period he acquainted himself with the fresco technique. The technical Director of the program, Forbes Watson (editor of The Arts magazine and an outspoken supporter of Modernism), celebrated the frescoes of Giotto, Masaccio and Piero della Francesca in the introduction to his volume Art in Federal Buildings (1936), which offered a survey of the murals that were being realized with the support of the Treasury Department. The Assistant Technical Director of the PWAP, Edward Rowan (a graduate student at Harvard’s School of Fine Arts) planned a trip to Tuscany in 1936 for the Section’s officials to see the frescoes and learn from them. The director of the arts programs, Edward Bruce, who had sojourned in Italy from 1922 to 1929, also urged artists to emulate Renaissance murals.

Piero della Francesca, Resurrection, c. 1460, mural, Museo Civico (formerly Town Hall), Borgo Sansepolcro, Tuscany


Piero della Francesca, Resurrection, c. 1460, mural, Museo Civico (formerly Town Hall), Borgo Sansepolcro, Tuscany

 
Tom Lea, Pass of the North, mural, 1938. Oil on canvas, 11 x 54 feet, U.S. Courthouse, El Paso, Texas. Commissioned through the Section of Fine Arts, 1934-1943. Fine Arts Collection, U.S. General Services Administration. Image courtesy of the Tom Lea Institute.


Tom Lea, Pass of the North, mural, 1938. Oil on canvas, 11 x 54 feet, U.S. Courthouse, El Paso, Texas. Commissioned through the Section of Fine Arts, 1934-1943. Fine Arts Collection, U.S. General Services Administration. Image courtesy of the Tom Lea Institute.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The administrators of the New Deal set the Italian muralists as examples to imitate because these older artists also painted for the community, rather than for private patrons, and extolled ethical and civic ideals. The frescoes of the early Renaissance were esteemed visually on account of their freshness and strong sense of composition, which helped make the stories immediately intelligible to the masses. Piero della Francesca was the most imitated of the Renaissance masters. He appealed to a number of New Deal artists, such as Grant Wood, Philip Guston, Ethel Magafan, and Tom Lea, for the serenity and the solemnity of his figures, and for his near-abstract style, namely his reduction of forms into simple geometric shapes—a feature that made him a cult figure among modernists. These questions are discussed in Luciano Cheles, “A Century-Old Passion: Piero della Francesca in America,” in idem ed., Milton Glaser nella città di Piero, Sansepolcro, 2007, pp. 5-21 [click here to read], and Luciano Cheles, “The Italian Renaissance in American Gothic: Grant Wood and Piero della Francesca,” American Art, vol. 30, 1, Spring 2016, pp. 106-124 [click here to read].

 

–Luciano Cheles, [email protected]

 

 

Luciano Cheles (Université de Grenoble- Alpes, France), previously taught at the universities of Lancaster (Great Britain), Lyon and Poitiers. His research has focused on Renaissance art, on the use of images for social and political ends in contemporary Italy and France, and on the impact of Piero della Francesca on European and North American visual cultures. His publications include The Studiolo of Urbino: An Iconographic Investigation (Penn State Press, 1986); Grafica Utile (Médiathèque Mitterrand, Poitiers, 2000); The Art of Persuasion, co-edited with L. Sponza (Manchester University Press, 2001); and L’Image recyclée, co-edited with G. Roque (PUPPA, 2013). The award of a Terra Foundation Senior Fellowship has enabled him to research on Piero della Francesca in America from the late 19th century to the present, at the Smithsonian Museum for American Art. He is preparing a monograph on the subject.

New Life for a WPA Building

Indianapolis' Naval Armory, soon to reopen as a school.Featured in my 1980 publication, Art Deco in Indianapolis, the stunning WPA-built Naval Armory, the work of architect Ben H. Bacon, has graced the bank of the non-navigable White River since before its dedication in October 1938.

At the time I first wrote about it, the glorious Art Moderne building still somewhat served its original function and was gloriously intact outside and in, including the over-the-top nautical decor of the Officers’ Mess. The interior was originally fitted with a simulated navigation bridge and many other accoutrements of a naval vessel. Inside the drill room–essentially a large gymnasium–are four huge murals of famous naval battles by WPA artist Charles Bauerle.

The building was renamed the Heslar Naval Armory in 1964 to honor its first commanding officer, Capt. O.F. Heslar. In 1985, a humanities grant afforded me the opportunity to invite the public into the drill room for an illustrated talk on the WPA in Indiana in its 50th anniversary year. The building was functioning as a headquarters for both the Navy and Marine Reserve, and security grew much tighter, the public no longer able to enter so easily. The beautiful dining room became just another classroom, its adjacent curving barroom with the glass block counter abandoned. Seeing the interior a few years ago was disheartening, to say the least. The building was decommissioned last year and its fate was uncertain.

Enter Indiana Landmarks and the charter Herron High School (headquartered in the former Herron School of Art north of downtown Indianapolis), who have partnered to save the structure, rehabilitate it, and transform it into Riverside High School, another charter school that will follow Herron’s classical education model. It will open next year. Huzzah!

 

 

Glory-June Greiff is a public historian, writer of numerous books, and preservation activist based in Indianapolis. She began her research on the New Deal in Indiana over thirty years ago and continues to make new discoveries every year. In the early 1990s she served as statewide director of Indiana’s Save Outdoor Sculpture! (SOS!) survey, which provided the foundation for her book, Remembrance, Faith and Fancy: Outdoor Public Sculpture in Indiana (Indiana Historical Society, 2005). 

Notes from the Field: A Look at the New Deal in Stevens Point, WI

WPA-worker building toboggan slide.


WPA-worker building toboggan slide.  SourceTruthout, 2015

Sheila Collins, a New Deal scholar on our Research Advisory Board, has shared with us an article she recently published on Truthout, detailing the New Deal’s impressive imprint on just one town in central Wisconsin:

 

“Over the Thanksgiving holiday, my husband and I visited our daughter, who teaches at a branch of the University of Wisconsin in Stevens Point, and I decided to use the occasion to investigate the legacy of the New Deal in this small college city in central Wisconsin….

 

“What I found in Stevens Point, ranked seventh among the ‘best small cities’ in the United States, was astounding. In this one small city, whose population in 1934 was only 13,622 (currently 26,717), the federal government during the Great Depression had left a permanent legacy of public works that continue to contribute to the quality of life in Stevens Point. At the height of the Depression, when 10 percent of the town’s population was on relief, the Works Projects Administration (WPA) employed more than 400 Stevens Point residents in the building of dozens of amenities. P.J. Jacobs, the junior high school my granddaughter attends, was built between 1936-1938 with funds supplied partly by the Public Works Administration (PWA) and by workers employed bythe WPA, two of the several alphabet soup employment programs funded by the Roosevelt administration. It opened in 1938 as the town’s only high school until the 1970s when, by then, the population had grown too large. Workmanship in this school, as in all of the other WPA projects I observed, was of the highest quality. Reflecting the labor-intensive nature of New Deal employment programs, these were infrastructures that were not only meant to last, but to add beauty and elegance to their surroundings.” Read more.

 

 

Sheila D. Collins is professor emerita at William Paterson University and editor and author, with Gertrude Schaffner Goldberg, of When Government Helped: Learning from the Successes and Failures of the New Deal (Oxford University Press, 2013). She is the author of six books and numerous book chapters and articles on American politics and public policy. Her blogs have appeared in the Huffington Post, Truthout, Oxford University Press and New Politics.

Come Visit a Lost Civilization (New Deal Los Angeles)

Tour a portion on New Deal Los Angeles.


Tour a portion on New Deal Los Angeles.  Source Andrew Laverdiere, 2015

Do you live in Los Angeles, or are you planning to visit? If so, Andrew Laverdiere invites you to investigate the legacy of the most interesting period in modern history in the remains of stone walls, roads, golf courses, bridges, and other physical remains of the work programs that kept Americans alive during the terrible period of the 1930’s economic depression. In Griffith Park in Los Angeles, 4,300 acres of the largest urban park in the United States represents a showcase of president Franklin Roosevelt’s commitment to “put people to work!” It is pretty doubtful that the 3 million people that visit the park every year have an inkling about how the area was transformed from an a barren wilderness to the family mecca it is today.

 

In showcasing the New Deal, Andrew gives tours that comprise two different means, depending on the person’s ability and time available, areas that are accessible by car and areas that are only accessible by bike or by foot. The golf courses, the Greek Theater, Griffith Observatory, the CCC memorial statue, and the tennis courts are examples of Federal projects that are easily reached by car. Other aspects, such as numerous check dams, certain roads, hiking trails, and elaborate rubble wall water channels can only be reached by bike or by hiking on both graded trails and non-graded foot paths. In any case, come and let Andrew give you a glimpse historically into a section of the metropolis of LA and the example of what happens when proper leadership creates something beautiful and lasting. Contact him at [email protected]

See America By Rail Through These RFC Photos

Berle Clay writes us from Kentucky:

 

John Barriger photographs the observation car of the eastbound, C&O George Washington at Winchester, Kentucky, in the fall of 1939.


John Barriger photographs the observation car of the eastbound, C&O George Washington at Winchester, Kentucky, in the fall of 1939. Berle Clay, 2015

The Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), established by the Hoover administration in 1932, acted throughout the New Deal as a financial engine, creatively funding agencies as diverse as the Commodity Credit Corporation and the Defense Plant Corporation, construction projects like Knickerbocker Village in New York and the Pennsylvania Turnpike, and the reorganization of financially strapped industries and banks. It only closed its doors in the 1950s—long after the New Deal ended. It was generally regarded as the conservative side of the New Deal, reflecting the politics of its dynamic head, Texas banker Jesse H. Jones, who felt that Harry Hopkins and Harold Ickes gave away money (through the PWA, WPA, CCC, etc.) while the RFC invested money…at interest, and generally by buying up the bonded debt of the corporations it aided.

 

An agency of over 14,000 lawyers at its peak, the RFC lacked a dedicated photographic unit to publicize its work. However in one mid-level administrator it had an individual unique for the New Deal, one who documented his work with his own photographs numbering in the thousands. John Walker Barriger, III, a railroader, headed the railroad division of the RFC from 1934 to 1941. During his tenure the agency financially aided 89 railroads collectively owning two thirds of the country’s rails. One of his jobs was to survey the companies, assessing their condition and potentials as the basis for RFC aid. Barriger’s papers – and photos – have survived at the St. Louis Mercantile Library. The photographs are now online (including photographs taken later in his railroad career, after he left the RFC).

 

Barriger was not a professional photographer, but he used professional gear (a medium-format single-lens reflex Graflex) and had a clear idea of what he wished to depict; namely, the state of the railroads largely as he saw them from the observation platform of the business cars he rode while on duty, as well as the administrators and workers who served them. In doing so he provided an amazing record of what landscape historian John Stilgoe has called the “Metropolitan Corridor,” the built environment of the country’s rails which reached its peak just prior to the market crash in 1929. Furthermore, like the celebrated professional photographers of the Farm Security Administration for society at large, he caught the scene at a moment of transition, soon to be dramatically altered by streamlining and dieselization, abandonments and consolidation, and the World War II effort. Post-war America was never the same.

 

 

 

Berle Clay is literally a product of the New Deal. His father, Cassius Clay, was General Counsel to the Railroad Division of the RFC (he and John Barriger were close friends). Brains Truster Adolf A. Berle, Jr. worked briefly in the Railroad Division, after the 100 Days, on bankruptcy matters. One day he introduced his younger sister, Berle’s mother, around the office, where she hit it off with Berle’s father. Berle is a farmer in Kentucky and a retired archaeologist, as well as an avid fan of the rail scene and an unabashed fan of the New Deal.

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