Fall 2017

FDR’s Labor Secretary, Frances Perkins, the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet, wrote: “What was the New Deal anyhow?  Was it a political plot? Was it just a name for a period in history?  Was it a revolution?  To all of those questions I answer, ‘No.’  It was something quite different . . . It was, I think, basically an attitude . . . An attitude that found voice in expressions like…’a government should aim to give all the people under its jurisdiction the best possible life.’”

In these times, it’s heartening that so many organizations, institutions, and individuals remain committed to preserving the legacy of the New Deal and advancing it as a model for solving our nation’s economic, social, and environmental problems today. We are grateful to be in their company in this important work, and to you for your continued support. 

In this Issue:

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.

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

Navigating the National Archives

National Archives Building

National Archives Building
National Archives and Records Administration
Photo Credit: Lenin Hurtado for the National Archives

The National Archives at St. Louis began service to the public as the St. Louis Federal Record Center in 1961 and is home to archival records of military and civil service personnel, including federal employees of the New Deal agencies. From Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) enrollees to Labor Secretary Francis Perkins, all federal New Deal employees’ records are accessible under one roof. In a nutshell, my job is to help researchers connect the dots and make the nation’s archives accessible to everyone.

Genealogy buffs contact us to learn about how the New Deal provided jobs to their relatives during difficult times. Academic researchers—from undergraduates to published authors—call on us to help them dig into the details of federal programs and how the New Deal impacted specific communities.

At work at the National Archives

Cara Moore
Cara Moore at work at the National Archives in St. Louis

The records from the New Deal vary in what they contain. Works Projects/Progress Administration (WPA), Federal Emergency Relief Act (FERA), Civil Works Administration (CWA) and CCC enrollee records were all put on microfilm in 1943— a final project of the WPA. None of these microfilmed records contain pictures, but they do detail the specific projects that every individual worked on, their pay, the type of work, and sometimes more.

Unfortunately, some employment records were destroyed before the National Archives could take possession of them. The CCC rosters, for example, are not here, but may be found in some museums and local institutions. The National Youth Administration (NYA) student records are, likewise, no longer available. The youth were not considered federal employees and their files were temporary, therefore destroyed. However, the faculty personnel records for the NYA do exist at our facility.

CCC Individual Record, Hilo, Territory of Hawaii

CCC Individual Record, 1942
Hilo, Territory of Hawaii
Photo Credit: Courtesy of National Archives

Some researchers start with as little as a name, job description, and location. Others already have a good deal of information and are seeking confirmation. Most of our records are textual. All are organized first by employing agency, then alphabetically—except for the WPA, which is organized by project location, so researchers need to know where the WPA employee worked in order to locate that record.

The National Archives employs archivists and archives technicians to help locate these records. Because so many New Deal agencies endured name changes and lateral movements within the government in order to hold on to funding, we who work here need to know the full histories of federal agencies and their lineage to unearth the records. The WPA/CWA/FERA had an especially complicated past, but that can make for some gratifying success stories.

Recently I worked with a researcher who was exploring the Federal Arts Project of the WPA, and seeking information about some New York City FAP artists. Together we were able to locate a pay ledger that hadn’t been looked at since being transferred to the National Archives. I was as delighted as she was to discover this rich source for her research.

WPA Personnel Record, 1936, Past work experience: Moonshiner

WPA Personnel Record, 1936
Past work experience: Moonshiner
Photo Credit: Courtesy of National Archives

All of us here have heard stories that make our work interesting and rewarding—from conspiracy theories to love stories, and everything in between. I’ll never forget the one about a daughter who had to work picking sweet peas to send money to her daddy for cigarettes while he worked in the CCC three states away. (We helped with that one, too).

Our website will soon receive much-needed updates that will make the path to our records even easier. For requests or questions, please contact [email protected] or write National Archives at St. Louis, PO Box 38757, St. Louis, MO 63138.

Wilbur Bond, NYA Supervisor Earnings Record, 1937 Johnson City, Tennessee

Wilbur Bond
NYA Supervisor Earnings Record, 1937, Johnson City, Tennessee
Photo Credit: Courtesy of National Archives

Laborer, Elk Refuge, Jackson Wyoming

WPA Termination Notice, 1936
Laborer, Elk Refuge, Jackson Wyoming
Photo Credit: Courtesy of National Archives

Cara Moore has a Master’s in History and Museum Studies certificate from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, is a PhD student at Saint Louis University, and a full time employee of the National Archives at St. Louis. Her areas of interest are St. Louis history, music, the New Deal era, and cultural history.

New Deal New York: A Living Legacy for Children

Learn to Swim, Poster by John Wagner

Learn to Swim, Poster by John Wagner
NYC WPA Art Project, 1940
Photo Credit: Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

New Deal New York, a map recently produced by the Living New Deal is not just any map. This one tells a story—the triumph of liberal democracy in the 1930s.

New Deal New York depicts 1,000 sites, showing that the New Deal legacy lives on in all of the city’s five boroughs in the form of artworks, schools, parks, recreation centers, and major public buildings. This infrastructure, the editors of Fortune pointed out, was “a conspicuous example of the social dividend,” promised by the New Deal.

New Yorkers have three politicians to thank for this: President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses. The city won one-seventh of all expenditures made by the WPA in 1935 and 1936—so much that New York City was known as the fifty-first state. Moses spent some $113 million—nearly $2 billion in today’s dollars— on parks and recreation alone in the New Deal’s first two years.

Colonial Park Pool and Bathhouse, 1936

Colonial Park Pool and Bathhouse, 1936
Jackie Robinson Park, Manhattan
Photo Credit: Courtesy NYC Parks

The construction program faced extraordinary challenges—the need to build fast (no one knew how long Congress would subsidize the public works program); the federal mandate that inexpensive materials be used; and that the unemployed be hired as construction workers, not necessarily skilled laborers.

Writer Lewis Mumford, noted for his study of cities and urban architecture, recognized all that was achieved when he invented the capacious term, “sound vernacular modern architecture,” in praise of the New Deal’s results in New York City. He alluded to the freedom of expression that New Dealers insisted is part and parcel of a democracy. Authoritarian regimes may have mandated specific architectural styles, but not the United States, where pluralism was preferred.

Astoria Pool, 1936, State-of-the-art Olympic-size pool in Queens, NY

Astoria Pool, 1936
State-of-the-art Olympic-size pool in Queens, NY
Photo Credit: Courtesy NYC Parks

In the ensuing building frenzy New Dealers made New York City a better place, a safer place, and a healthier place to live, especially for children. Gyms, playgrounds, parks, ball fields, basketball and tennis courts, and running tracks were built throughout the city. Eleven new public swimming pools and bathhouses were immediately commissioned at a cost of about $1 million each, and several others were added subsequently.

Girls’ Line at Betsy Head Recreation Center, 1939

Girls’ Line at Betsy Head Recreation Center, 1939
Brooklyn, NY
Photo Credit: Samuel Gottscho, Courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Gottscho-Schleisner Collection

Each week the pools opened, one by one, during the hot summer of 1936, and thousands of New Yorkers attended the spectacular opening ceremonies. By Labor Day, more than 1.6 million people had used new facilities. Most were children—working-class boys who had previously skinny-dipped in polluted water surrounding the city (during the launch of New Deal New York, the historian, Bill Leuchtenberg, revealed that he was one of them), and working-class girls who had had no other place to swim.

A wonderful photograph of two children at Red Hook Recreation Center is featured on New Deal New York map. The kids, who are posing for the photographer, Arthur Rothstein (he worked for another New Deal program, the Farm Security Administration) are standing on broad ledges, called scum gutters, designed to keep water clean and swimmers healthy. Kids hung on to the ledges as they practiced kicking, breathing, and stroking. Thanks to funding from the WPA, the Department of Parks ran a “Learn-to-Swim Program,” that benefitted all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, or gender.

Children at Red Hook Pool, 1936

Children at Red Hook Pool, 1936
Brooklyn, NY
Photo Credit: Arthur Rothstein, Courtesy Library of Congress

The WPA also paid for the poster that promoted the program (including the artist who designed it). It is one that some historians insist depicts the color line that segregated pools under the Moses regime. I’ve argued otherwise; while the color line ran through pools and parks that were built in the city’s segregated neighborhoods, it didn’t run through all of them. New Yorkers, prime among them children, tested entrenched racism during the New Deal and did defeat it in this city

As radio host Sarah Fisko said recently on NPR, “when you can’t see ahead, you look back.” New Deal New York helps us to remember what New Dealers accomplished in New York City in the face of the gravest challenges to our democracy, and to grasp what we can do—what we must do—as we face them once again.

Marta Gutman teaches architectural and urban history at the City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center. Her research focuses on public architecture for city children.

A New Deal Muralist’s Work Lives On

WPA Aquatic Park Bathhouse, Opening Day, January 22,1936

WPA Aquatic Park Bathhouse
Opening Day at the Aquatic Park Bathhouse, January 22,1936
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

Denied admission to art colleges, Hilaire Hiler left Rhode Island for Paris in 1919 where he opened a legendary nightclub. At the Jockey Club, the first after-hours club in the Montparnasse District, Hiler painted the walls with colorful murals, and famously sang and played jazz piano with a monkey perched on his shoulder. The club proved wildly successful. Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, Anais Nin, Henry Miller, Marcel Duchamp, and Man Ray were among the artists and writers on the Paris scene in the 1920s who frequented Hiler’s club and became his friends.

Section of Hiler’s Lobby Mural, Maritime Museum, Aquatic Park

Section of Hiler’s Lobby Mural
Mural by Hilaire Hiler,  Aquatic Park, San Francisco
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP


Anais Nin introduced Hiler to Otto Rank, a close colleague of Sigmund Freud. Hiler attended classes at Rank’s Institute of Psychoanalysis–an adjunct of the Sorbonne. Rank’s psychological theories and the color theories of Nobel scientist William Ostwald would greatly influence the dazzling murals Hiler would later paint at the Aquatic Park Bathhouse building on the San Francisco waterfront.

A joint project of the City and the WPA, the Streamline Moderne building designed by city architect William Mooser, Jr. broke ground in 1936. Working for the WPA, Hiler was assigned to decorate the interior and exterior of the building and supervised a team of artists, artisans, and crafts workers hired by the Federal Art Project. Hiler’s motifs of fantastical underwater scenes used in his murals are also found in mosaics, terrazzo floors, and friezes throughout the 4-story building.

Color Wheel, Hiler ascribed a psychological significance to each color.

Color Wheel
Hiler ascribed a psychological significance to each color.
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

Hiler brought everything he’d learned about color and psychology to his murals in the main lobby. But first he painted on the ceiling of the nearby lounge a 47-foot-color wheel divided into 30 colors and hues. Hiler renamed the room the “Prismatarium,” writing that it functions in relation to the world of color much as a planetarium does for the heavens.

Novelist Henry Miller, a contemporary of Hiler, wrote, “Hilaire lives and breathes color. He is color itself. Sometimes he’s a veritable aurora borealis.”

Just before the art was completed, the City leased the building to a pair of restauranteurs who renamed it “The Aquatic Park Casino” and installed garish-colored furniture among many other violations of Hiler’s design aesthetic. Hiler and all the artists walked off the job. Beniamino Bufano refused to allow his sculptures to be installed. Sargent Johnson, one of only two African-American artists working for the WPA in California, abandoned the 140-foot mosaic he was installing on the veranda. It remains unfinished to this day.

Starfish, Hiler Mural Detail

Hiler Mural Detail
Photo Credit: Susan Ives

In a scathing letter to his supervisor, Hiler resigned just days before the park opened on January 22, 1939. He was not seen at the opening ceremonies.

Many of the artists found work at Treasure Island, site of the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition, where Hiler produced two decorative maps of Pacific nations in the Pacific House. He then worked  for the Army in the Presidio as a color consultant on camouflage, taught briefly at Mills College, founded a school in Los Angeles, relocated it to Santa Fe, and eventually moved to New York City. Toward the end of his life he returned to Paris where he died in 1966.

Hiler painted on the ceiling of the room he named The Prismatarium

“Psychological color chart”
Hiler painted on the ceiling of the room he named The Prismatarium
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

The Aquatic Park building underwent extensive restoration between 2006 and 2009. Restorations of Hiler’s murals and Prismatarium ceiling were completed in 2010.  The building today serves as a maritime museum, the centerpiece of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.

Painting Aquatic Park Mural, To save time Hiler began the work on canvas and carried it as far as possible before installation on the lobby walls.

Painting Aquatic Park Mural
To save time, Hiler began the work on canvas and carried it as far as possible before installing the murals on the lobby walls.
Photo Credit: Courtesy San Francisco Maritime NHP

Richard Everett is Curator of Exhibits for the Maritime Museum at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. He has worked for the National Park Service for 38 years.

Photographing New Deal Utopias

Daffodil House, Greendale, Wisconsin, 2009

Daffodil House
Greendale, Wisconsin, 2009
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

Among the various New Deal programs to help displaced farmers and the urban poor was the Resettlement Administration’s plan to construct new communities called Greenbelt Towns. These towns were a utopian model of modern living envisioned by RA administrator Rexford G. Tugwell who served on FDR’s “brain trust.”

I became interested in Tugwell’s egalitarian ideas for fostering community through the physical and social aspects of town planning, encompassing affordable housing, communal activities, natural landscaping, and cooperatively owned businesses. It was a new concept for Americans, but not for Tugwell, who was influenced by the work of Sir Ebenezer Howard, an urban reformer whose work transformed the landscape of British industrial communities in the early 20th Century. In order to provide relief from the overcrowded slums of London, Howard proposed creating Garden Cities–new communities that would combine the best features of both town and country, namely the social and economic advantages of living in a community with fresh air and green spaces.

Mushroom, Greenbelt, Maryland, 2009

Greenbelt, Maryland, 2009
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

I made multiple trips to photograph the three New Deal Greenbelt Towns–Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin. I had learned about the towns through my research on the Garden City, having been inspired by the design and community I found at Julia C. Lathrop Homes, a public housing complex built by the Public Works Administration in 1938. Chicago’s Lathrop Homes had been built with Garden City principles in mind. The New Deal Greenbelt Towns were sited on the suburban frontier outside metropolitan centers.

Gazebo, Greendale, Wisconsin, 2009

Greendale, Wisconsin, 2009
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

Photographing the Greenbelt Towns, I was struck by the beauty and modesty of the architecture and surrounding natural landscapes, as well as the generosity of the residents. Wandering the parks and converging paths, I reflected upon Tugwell’s bold attempt to introduce a new American way of life based on cooperation instead of unrestrained competition. I was impressed at how connected residents felt to their own town, and to their sibling model communities borne out of the Great Depression. As these towns celebrate their 80th anniversaries in 2017 and 2018, I view them as vital communities to be protected and celebrated.

Mural, Greenhills, Ohio, 2009

Greenhills, Ohio, 2009
Photo Credit: Jason Reblando

I am excited to share my photographs of the towns in my new book, New Deal Utopias, as we continue to grapple with the roles of housing, nature, and government in contemporary American life. Like the Greenbelt Towns themselves, the book is the result of communal effort. I’m fortunate to have Natasha Egan, executive director of the Museum of Contemporary Photography, who provided the artistic commentary and Dr. Robert Leighninger, author of Long-Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal, who provided historical context. I’m also indebted to the Living New Deal for providing fiscal sponsorship for the project. Because of the Living New Deal, I was able to secure a publishing grant from the Puffin Foundation as well as connect with an extensive and supportive community committed to preserving the New Deal legacy.

Jason Reblando teaches photography at Illinois State University and is working on a project on the New Deal Greenbelt communities. His work has been published in the New York Times, Slate, and Bloomberg Businessweek. He recently received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar grant to do research in the Philippines. www.jasonreblando.com