September 2023

The Fireside—News and Views from The Living New Deal

Capturing the Past

"The Future,” by sculptor Robert I. Aitken

"The Future,” by sculptor Robert I. Aitken
Completed in 1935, the sculpture sits at the Pennsylvania Avenue entrance of the National Archives Building, Washington, D.C.

On June 19, 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation establishing a “National Archives of the United States Government.” It was the culmination of decades of congressional debate on the issue of national records preservation.The new agency began by acquiring federal records from the U.S. Senate, White House, Department of State, Federal Works Agency and other federal entities. Gathering records from around the country posed a greater challenge. No one at the time knew the full extent of federal records in offices and storehouses beyond Washington, D.C. The WPA took up the challenge. In 1936, WPA workers surveyed and inventoried two-million linear feet of records in 5,000 government buildings. Today, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) holds billions of pages of textual records, tens of millions of photographs, millions of maps, charts, drawings and much more, all available to the public. NARA  is an invaluable resource to the Living New Deal as we research and document the vast legacy the New Deal left to America.


In this Issue:

Government Website Highlights New Deal Art

Maintained as a part of our national and cultural heritage, the GSA Fine Arts Collection is one of our nation’s oldest and largest public art collections. Some of the collection can be viewed online.

A revamped Fine Arts Collection website recently unveiled by the US General Services Administration (GSA) is a bonanza for anyone interested in public art and especially those who love the art of the New Deal. While still a work in progress, the site’s detailed data, cross links and color photographs make it a pleasure to browse and search.  

By far the largest section of the new website site is “New Deal Art 1933-1943.” Unlike Living New Deal’s website, the GSA’s site is not attempting a comprehensive survey of public artworks commissioned under New Deal art projects. Rather, it focuses mainly on easel paintings and works on paper on long-term loan to non-government facilities.

A few New Deal murals are currently included in the GSA’s online catalogue, including Phillip Guston’s, Reconstruction and the Wellbeing of the Family, 1943,
at the Wilbur J. Cohen Building, Washington, DC. Photo Credit: Carol M. Highsmith Photography.

New Deal agencies that employed artists routinely offered paintings and drawings to museums, schools, libraries, and other civic and nonprofit institutions. Recordkeeping was spotty at best. Over the decades the government lost track of most of the collection as pieces were moved, borrowed, stolen, sold, put into storage and often forgotten.

GSA, set up in 1949 to manage federal properties and contracts for government agencies, seems to have realized in the 1970s that these were important works of art. Their belated efforts to inventory these works required starting almost from scratch. To date, over 20,000 artworks have been located. There is still a long way to go. Of the New Deal artworks in the online catalogue, only about 20 percent include photographs. (GSA says it is hoping to eventually have a photo for each one.) Only a few murals and sculptures are included; GSA’s responsibility for murals and other “fixed-in-place” New Deal art is unclear and inconsistent.

Celtic Illuminations,1933-34, by Theodora Harrison at the Seattle Ar t Museum

Celtic Illuminations,1933-34, by Theodora Harrison at the Seattle Art Museum
In addition to artworks at federal buildings, the GSA’s website describes more than 20,000 New Deal artworks on long-term loan to museums and other nonprofit institutions.

Yet, the hundreds of photographs already on display online reveal a remarkable range of subjects, styles and quality. There is a series of “Celtic Illuminations;” a lithograph of Amish children ice skating; an abstract study of a twirling ballerina; a Berenice Abbott photograph of Manhattan’s “Billy’s Bar and Restaurant;” and beautiful watercolors of Native American basketry and jars. There are many of scenes of city life, workers on the job, farms, slums, ships, deserts and some uncategorizable curiosities.

The GSA’s Fine Arts Collection website shows the range of styles and media New Deal artists employed.

Clicking on a thumbnail provides an enlarged photograph along with the year, medium, dimensions, artist’s name and the artwork’s location. This last bit of data proves the real value of GSA’s efforts. Much New Deal art disappeared into the storage vaults of museums to which it was allocated. For example, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reportedly received 875 pieces—photographs, paintings, drawings, textiles, sculptures—of which only a small number has ever been displayed.

Sculpture, Family Group by Emma Lou Davis, 1941, Wilbur J. Cohen Building, Washington, DC. The GSA online art catalogue is searchable by artist or artwork. Some descriptions of artworks in the collection include links to videos.

GSA says it “continues to work with the museum community to develop cooperative agreements for the future care of…these important works of art.” Admirers of New Deal art hope that this will encourage more local “repositories” to exhume and exhibit the New Deal artworks entrusted to them.  

If your institution houses New Deal works of art or you would like more information, send the request to:

Fine Arts Program
Office of the Chief Architect
U.S. General Services Administration
1800 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20405
[email protected]

Barbara Bernstein founded the online New Deal Art Registry and is now the Public Art Specialist at the Living New Deal Project.

Staged in Stone

The Civil Works Administration built the amphitheatre at Berkeley’s Hinkel Park, completed in 1934. The park commission reported that the “CWA funds not only provided much needed relief to the unemployed, but also gave to the citizens of Berkeley a new means of cultural recreation.”
Courtesy, City of Berkeley Parks and Recreation.

Open air theatres, from the modest 350-seat amphitheater in John Hinkel Park in Berkeley California, built of salvaged concrete by Civil Works Administration workers, to the internationally famous 9,000-seat Red Rocks Amphitheater above Denver— probably the greatest single project of the Civilian Conservation Corps—continue to provide live entertainment to millions of Americans unaware of the theaters’ shared New Deal parentage.

The Living New Deal’s website describes 137 of these open-air venues, but there are doubtless many more. Historian and Living New Deal Associate Brent McKee has identified 1,121 outdoor theatres in a dazzling range of designs. He suspects that more remain to be found.

The CCC commenced construction of Red Rocks near Morrison, Colorado, in 1936. The 9,525-seat amphitheater took five years to complete. Photo by Susan Ives.

Detailing the largely improvisatory design and construction of Colorado’s Red Rocks and the Cushing Memorial Mountain Theatre at Mount Tamalpais State Park in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, a paper by Professors Linda Jewell and Steve Rasmussen Cancian quotes William Penn Mott, former director of the National Park Service, who said that the primary purpose of these amphitheaters was “to keep the [CCC] boys busy.” But there was more to them than that. 

Other New Deal agencies, including the Civil Works Administration (CWA), National Youth Administration (NYA) and Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) built amphitheaters as well.

Built by the CCC, the Sidney B. Cushing Memorial Theater at Mt Tamalpais State Park offers stunning views across the bay to San Francisco.
Serpentine rocks provide seating for 4,000 who attend the “Mountain Play” in summer.
Courtesy, Marin County Free Library. Anne T. Kent California Room.

As McKee notes, “the thousands of performances by the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project, Federal Dance Project and Federal Music Project, and also the many work-relief jobs offered to stage designers, lighting technicians, directors, actors, musicians, circus performers, etc.[made] the New Deal .. a truly revolutionary era in the history of performing arts,” while at the same time helping to end the Great Depression. 

In their frequent emulation of Greek models, the designers of these public spaces may have sought to bolster democracy as well by bringing Americans together.

Among the most impressive of these New Deal creations is Woodminster Amphitheater, high in the hills of Oakland, California. It is far more than a theater, but rather an immense work of landscape art by WPA workers.  

Woodminster Amphitheater

Woodminster Amphitheater
The stage is bordered by two 18-foot sculptures by Edward T. Foulkes, representing family closeness. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room

Woodminster began as the dream of Gertrude Mott, who led the California Writer’s Club to champion an “Open-Air Theater and Temple of Honor” dedicated to the state’s past and future writers. Theater and temple were to be sited on land once owned and described by the poet Joaquin Miller (1837-1913) as “these Greek heights.” But it was not until the WPA made work crews available that the 1,500-seat Woodminster Amphitheater took shape between 1938 and 1940 in a city park named for Miller. 

Vintage postcard

Vintage postcard

Dubbed Oakland’s Cathedral in the Woods, the theater is reached by a series of stone ramps, terraces and stairs. It faces a stage wall embellished by colossal Moderne-design sculptures representing family tenderness. Water gushes from the base of the wall, cascading a hundred feet through reflection pools and groves of redwoods and olive trees. At the bottom of the cascade, twin fountains once erupted with changing plumes of spray lit at night by an electric console capable of producing almost 1,300 different combinations of light and color. The spectacle was visible from the Art Deco wonderland of Treasure Island’s 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, itself the product of WPA and PWA funding and labor.

Woodminster’s cascade and fountain are now in disrepair.

Now used primarily for summer stock musicals and high school graduations, Woodminster’s fountains are dry; its broken lighting, rockwork and neglected landscaping reflect the decaying condition of many once-vibrant New Deal landscapes built to rescue a democracy in grave peril. Their restoration might help to do the same today.

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.

“Imperial San Francisco” Now an Audio Book

Living New Deal founder Dr. Gray Brechin’s provocative 1999 bestseller, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, (University of California Press) is now available as an audio book narrated by the author. A website that accompanies the audio book’s release includes color illustrations from the book not previously published, synopses of select chapters and Imperial San Francisco delves into the often dark history of San Francisco’s development as an example of the environmental and social costs of urban growth more broadly, a cautionary tale for urban planners, historians, geographers, environmentalists as well as readers and listeners of all ages.

Dr Brechin is a historical geographer and author. His chief interests are the state of California, the environmental impact of cities upon their hinterlands, and the invisible landscape of New Deal public works. He was the first director of the Mono Lake Committee and has worked as journalist and TV producer in San Francisco. Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, spent sixteen weeks on the San Francisco Chronicle’s best-seller list and is considered a classic of urban studies.


New Dealish: Berkeley Rose Garden Inspires a Song and Film

Plaque at Berkeley Rose Garden

Plaque at Berkeley Rose Garden
Photo by Susan Ives

As development marched toward the Berkeley hills in the 1920s, the ravine carved by Cordonices Creek was considered too steep for houses. With panoramic westward views of San Francisco Bay and the Golden Gate, the 3.6-acre canyon captured the imagination of park advocates. Renowned Berkeley architect Bernard Maybeck designed a terraced amphitheater with a redwood pergola, and landscape architect Vernon M. Dean and Charles V. Covell, founder of the East Bay Rose Society, finalized the plan. The City of Berkeley then applied for federal funds available under New Deal public works programs.

Construction on the Berkeley Rose Garden began in 1933. Hundreds of men employed by Civil Works Administration and, later, the Works Progress Administration, worked over four years to install the garden. Among the six curved stone terraces are more than a thousand rose bushes, at their most spectacular in mid-May. The rose garden remains one of the city’s most cherished public spaces.

Songwriter Alexis Harte’s grew up playing at the Rose Garden and adjacent Cordonices Park, where the WPA also left its mark. Harte has memorialized his experiences in a ballad, “Your Rose Garden,” that celebrates, as he puts it, “the New Deal in our backyard.”

Recently, Harte received an $8,500 grant from UC Berkeley to make a short film based on the song.  He has teamed up with Berkeley filmmaker Josh Peterson and the UC Cinematic Arts and Production Club. “We’re exploring a partnership with the Living New Deal ,” says Harte. 

“If this project is successful, we plan to make a toolkit to help filmmakers, musicians, storytellers, artists, etc., create and fund similar tributes to the New Deal as we approach its centennial. We think that’s a national legacy worth celebrating.”

LISTEN: “Your Rose Garden”  (4 minutes)

With thanks to Berkeleyside where Alexis Harte’s interview appeared.

Favorite New Deal Site: A Riverside Greenway, Charleston, West Virginia

A Riverside Greenway
Charleston, West Virginia

Photo by Betty Rivard

Several times a week I walk alongside a beautiful stretch of the Kanawha River in downtown Charleston, West Virginia.  Kanawha Boulevard was a narrow, traffic-clogged street when, in late 1930s, the city and the Public Works Administration (PWA) funded a 14-mile throughway to improve traffic flow. In 2014, after the Army Corps of Engineers stabilized the river bank, a riverfront greenway for pedestrians and bicyclists was enhanced. Blocks of stone from the original PWA project were repurposed as benches along the portion of the greenway where I walk. Today, federal grants are making possible the Capitol Connector, linking our State Capitol and Haddad Riverfront Park. The connector project is seen as a way to bring our community back together along the beautiful Kanawha and Elk Rivers. President Roosevelt visited Charleston on September 3, 1940 to view the completed boulevard, waving to people from his open-air car. I like to think that he and Mrs. Roosevelt would be proud of the legacy his administration helped to create here and the community connections it continues to inspire.

Tell us about your Favorite New Deal site. Send us a first-person story of 100 (or so) words describing the site and why you chose it. Submissions will appear in future issues of The Fireside! Be sure to include a photo (with photo credit). Send to [email protected]. Thanks!

And the Winners are . . .

FDR delivering one of his fireside chats.

The 2023 New Deal Book Award

The winning titles and authors have been announced. The 2023 Award, with a prize of $1,000, will be presented at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library June 22, 2024.