June 2021

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal


On June 16, 1933, Congress passed the National Industrial Recovery Act (NRA), one of the central initiatives of FDR’s first hundred days as president. Intended to jumpstart the nation’s economic recovery, the act had two parts. The first created the National Recovery Administration (NRA) to halt deflation, assure fair competition, and guarantee the rights of workers. The second established the Public Works Administration (PWA) to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure and get Americans back to work. 

The NRA enjoined business to adopt a “code” that included a minimum wage, maximum workweek, and the abolition of child labor. Businesses that went along were permitted to display the NRA’s symbol, the Blue Eagle, declaring “We do our part.” 

In 1935, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the NRA was unconstitutional, but the agency’s efforts proved ineffective, in any case.  In contrast, the PWA was untouched by the ruling and continued through 1943. During its 10-year existence, the PWA invested $4 billion to construct more than 70 percent of the nation’s schools; 65 percent of its new courthouses, city halls, and sewage-disposal plants; 35 percent of its new public health facilities; and 10 percent of all new roads, bridges and subways.  The vast infrastructure created by PWA workers still serves eighty years on.


In this Issue:

New Deal Artworks Showcased in Upstate NY

“First Snow” by Neva Coffey

“First Snow” by Neva Coffey
Part of the New Deal collection at the GVCA, the scene shows New Yorkers at play, while the “Store to Let” sign acknowledges the Great Depression. Courtesy, GVCA.

The New Deal Art programs were a lifeline to struggling artists, of which New York had more than its share. Of the more than 10,000 artists commissioned nationwide by the WPA’s Federal Art Project (FAP) some 2,300 artists were in New York City. 

A little-seen collection of paintings by WPA artists is on display in the village of Mount Morris, curated by the Genesee Valley Council on the Arts (GVCA). The artworks, most dating from 1936-1937, offer a window on life in New York during the Great Depression.

While many of the New Deal’s administrators believed that art could enrich the daily lives of all Americans, the main objective of the federal art programs was to provide jobs. The FAP hired thousands of unemployed painters, sculptors, muralists and graphic artists, with various levels of experience, and paid them a flat wage of $23.50 a week along with a stipend for materials. In addition to art production, the FAP offered art classes, held exhibitions and organized community arts centers through which many Americans were introduced to the arts for the first time.

"Blue and Gold” by Inez Abernathy

"Blue and Gold” by Inez Abernathy
The foreground illustrates a rural setting in the midst of an urbanizing town in the background – a changing sociocultural climate in New York during the 1930s. Courtesy, GVCA.

In the 1930s, New York State opened tuberculosis sanatoriums in Mount Morris, Oneonta and Ithaca. Each facility was allocated a number of paintings by WPA artists. The landscape and still-life paintings that were sent to the Mount Morris Tuberculosis Hospital may have been chosen for their ‘restful’ subject matter. The paintings, by both American-born and European-immigrant artists, reflect the social realism popular at the time that FAP Director Holger Cahill praised as a “rediscovery of the American scene.” Changes underway, such as the expansion of cities, are depicted in paintings “Long Island Farm” by Philip Cheney and “Blue and Gold” by Inez Abernathy.

“Apples” by Fred Adler

“Apples” by Fred Adler
FAP artist Adler was first assigned to paint scenes at an Iowa CCC camp.
This later still-life suggests the plight of minimally employed apple vendors on New York City streets during the Great Depression. Courtesy, GVCA.

“Apples,” by artist Fred Adler, suggests the plight of those minimally employed.

When the Mount Morris sanatorium closed in 1971, some 200 paintings were distributed to various Livingston County government offices. In 1999, the paintings were inventoried by the County and the Genesee Valley Council on the Arts, where the collection—on loan from the federal government—is currently on rotating exhibit. Many of the paintings are in their original frames bearing a “Federal Art Project” plaque on the front and typed tags on the back indicating the state of origin. All were produced in New York. Most of the artists lived in Manhattan. Until recently, little was known about them or their subsequent works. 

In 2018, students from a local college, the State University of New York at Geneseo, under the supervision of Professor Ken Cooper, photographed and catalogued the WPA paintings and researched the artists that produced them. This work led to an exhibit at the GVCA’s New Deal Gallery in 2019. The students also produced a digital exhibit, The Green New Deal: Art During a Time of Environmental Emergency”—that looks at these Depression-era paintings through a modern lens. The online exhibit includes a map showing where sea level rise now threatens some of the locations that inspired the paintings including several of Central Park.”

"Pelham Bay Park #1" by Moses Bank

"Pelham Bay Park #1" by Moses Bank
Some landscapes depicted by FAP artists, such as Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx, are now endangered by rising sea levels. Courtesy, openvalley.org.

The Federal Art Project’s easel and print divisions provided an important lifeline at a time when opportunities for women and non-white artists were limited. The GVCA’s New Deal Gallery holds paintings by more than twenty women, including Dorothy Varian and Selma Gubin, as well as more than a dozen works by Japanese American artists, including Fuji Nakamizo and Tomizo Nagai. Varian, Gubin and Nakamizo all have works in the Smithsonian American Art Museum.  Other well known artists in the GVCA collection include David Burliuk and Fritz Eighenberg.

The paintings can be viewed online and at the New Deal Gallery, located at 4 Murray Hill Drive in Mount Morris, New York; for more information, visit www.gvartscouncil.org

Deborah Bump has served as the Executive Director of GVCA since 2018. She lives with her family in Mount Morris, New York.

Revisiting the “Blue Bible”

The “Blue Bible,” compiled 82 years ago, is a “best of” the PWA’s thousands of construction projects. Photo by Gray Brechin.

President Biden’s initial $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal is merely a belated down payment on decades of cost-cutting neglect and deferred maintenance that has brought much of U.S. infrastructure to near third world status. If it passes Congress, his proposal would create a myriad of needed jobs, but it’s also a reminder of the stupendous feat that ”Honest Harold” Ickes achieved modernizing the country in just half a decade. During that time, he served as both a seemingly never sleeping Secretary of the Interior and head of the Public Works Administration (PWA), a vast public works construction agency often confused with its sometimes rival, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under Harry Hopkins.

Harold Ickes
As U.S. Secretary of the Interior throughout FDR’s presidency, Harold Ickes was in charge of implementing major New Deal relief programs, including the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the federal government’s environmental efforts. Courtesy, Wikipedia.

I call the doorstopper of a tome with the snoozer title Public Buildings: Architecture Under the Public Works Administration, 1935-1939 the Blue Bible not only for its buckram binding of that color but also because of the volume of information, much of which the Living New Deal has used on its website. Published by the Government Printing Office in 1939, the richly illustrated book is proof of what could be accomplished in the future.

Contracting with both small, local and giant construction companies such as Bechtel and Kaiser, the PWA stimulated the economy by building dams, airports, schools, colleges, bridges, public hospitals, art galleries, sewage treatment plants, lighthouses, libraries and even sleek Staten Island ferries and Coast Guard cutters. At over 600 pages of text, black and white plates and floor plans arranged by building type, the book shows a nation transformed in short order, yet it is only an abbreviation of a larger report requested by President Roosevelt and compiled by architects C.W. Short and R. Stanley-Brown. They culled hundreds of what they regarded as all-stars from more than 26,000 PWA projects, many of which remain to be discovered.    

Blue Bible Project page

Blue Bible Project page
The PWA funded and administered the construction of more than 34,000 projects. Many outstanding examples appear in these pages. Photo by Gray Brechin.

Despite the gigantic scale and quality of many of the buildings, the plates included in the book identify neither the architects nor engineers responsible for the projects, although the cost is given. They show the smorgasbord of styles popular during the New Deal, ranging from Georgian to Pueblo, from Art Deco and Streamline Moderne to hints of the new International Style. Lavish government patronage led many artists employed by New Deal agencies to compare their era to that of the Renaissance.  The architects who compiled the book wrote, “Today architecture in the U.S. is passing through a period of transition, thus creating a condition which has much in common with that which existed in Italy in the 15th century when the architecture of the Middle Ages was changing to that of the Renaissance.” 

Bonner's Ferry Bridge, Spanning Kootenai River, Idaho

Bonner's Ferry Bridge, Spanning Kootenai River, Idaho
The PWA’s accomplishments include building LaGuardia Airport, the Tri-borough Bridge, and Lincoln Tunnel in New York City; the Skyline Drive in Virginia, and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Grand Coulee Dam. Courtesy, Bridgehunter.com

Scanning the book reminds me of architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham’s famous command in the early 20th century: “Make no small plans,” he said, since “they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Ickes himself said when dedicating California’s Friant Dam that “Even those of us in Washington who are responsible for carrying out orders sometimes lack comprehension of the mighty sweep of this program.”

Short and Stanley-Brown closed their introduction with a claim you won’t find in any government report today: “This vast building program presents us with a great vision, that of man building primarily for love of and to fulfill the needs of his fellowmen. Perhaps future generations will classify these years as one of the epoch-making periods of advancement in the civilization not only of our own country, but also of the human race.”

Vintage poster describing some of the PWA’s construction projects across America. Courtesy, Digital.library.Cornell.edu

The Blue Bible reminds us today how far the U.S. once materially advanced civilization, even as forces in Europe conspired toward its destruction.

Copies of the book can be acquired on Amazon as originals or as a 1986 paperback reprint by Da Capo Press.

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.