When you hit the trail this summer, keep an eye out for New Deal parks, gardens, civic buildings, art, and public works. Send us photos and stories about the New Deal sites you come across in your travels. There’s a lot out there, as you’ll find in this newsletter—murals in out-of-the-way post offices, a restored PWA courthouse in Nashville, an exhibition of Arthur Rothstein’s photographs in Key West, and more! The Living New Deal, in partnership with our friends at the California Historical Society, recently celebrated the 80th birthday of the WPA. We hope to see you at our upcoming events. As always, we are grateful for your interest and support. Happy summer!
A self-described “post office freak,” Chicago native David Gates is on a mission to document the nation’s post office art. The idea came to him during a river rafting trip when he and his friends came upon an unprepossessing post office in Athelstane, Wisconsin, and used it as backdrop for a group photo. Thereafter, David began to take notice of post offices, especially those in small town America.
David, a computer specialist, is an intrepid hiker. His peregrinations include the Pacific Crest and the Appalachian Trails. It was as a through hiker on the Appalachian Trail—a 2,176-mile trek through 14 states—that his obsession with post offices took hold.
The tiny post offices along the route were David’s lifeline during his 6-month journey through the Appalachians. Retrieving the supplies he had mailed to himself via “General Delivery” before starting out led David to post offices in Erwin, Tennessee; Hot Springs, North Carolina; Front Royal, Virginia; Pearisburg, Virginia; Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; Damascus, Virginia; Boiler Springs, Pennsylvania; Glen Cliff, New Hampshire; Caratunk, Maine; and Andover, Maine. He’s been photographing and writing about post offices ever since. His website, Postofficefreak.com, includes nearly 800 blogs about his post offices encounters.
David had originally planned to photograph as many post office buildings as he could, but has since narrowed this quest to documenting New Deal post offices. Many, he found, have been shuttered or sold.
New Deal murals and sculpture in post offices were produced between 1934 and 1943 under the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture, later called the Section of Fine Arts. The purpose was to boost the public’s morale during the Great Depression with art that, in the words of President Roosevelt, was “native, human, eager and alive — all of it painted by their own kind in their own country, and painted about things they know and look at often and have touched and loved.”
According to the U.S. Postal Service’s website, “more than 1,150 post offices across the continental United States house this uniquely American art for people to enjoy as they go about their daily lives…The United States Postal Service is making every effort to preserve and safeguard it for future generations.”
That’s not what David says he found. “New Deal artworks that belong to the public are no longer available for the public to enjoy,” he says. “Many of these works have been removed, locked away, and even painted over. I want to record them before they disappear.”
David recently published a guide to Wisconsin’s 35 New Deal post offices, “so that people can know what’s out there.”
To learn more go to www.Postofficefreak.com
David Gates is the Living New Deal’s Research Associate for Illinois and post office buildings nationwide. He lives in Crystal Lake, Illinois.
Following a 3-year struggle that gained national attention, the United States Postal Service backed down from selling Berkeley, California’s historic downtown post office. Built in 1914, the massive Renaissance Revival-style building, which anchors the city’s New Deal civic center, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and houses New Deal murals and sculpture.
When the USPS announced plans to sell the building, the Living New Deal organized meetings that led to the formation of Citizens to Save the Berkeley Post Office. Teach-ins and demonstrations on the steps of the downtown post office encouraged the mayor and City Council to join the fight.
After months of public protest and meetings with Postal Service officials proved fruitless, the City and the National Trust for Historic Preservation filed a federal lawsuit seeking to require the USPS to conduct public hearings under environmental and historic-preservation laws before trying to sell the building. When confronted in court with multiple violations of the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, the Postal Service told federal court Judge William Alsup that the post office was no longer for sale. The judge ordered a 42-day public notice of any pending sale or relocation of postal services, and will continue to monitor the USPS for five years. Therefore, future legal action challenging the USPS remains an option.
Berkeley’s successful showdown offers hope to other communities struggling to preserve their post offices and living wage jobs. But the losses continue to mount.
Public protest failed to save Venice Beach, California’s post office, built by the WPA in 1939. A treasured local landmark, the 24,000-square-foot, Art Deco building houses a mural, “Story of Venice,” by artist Edward Biberman. To great fanfare, in 2012 the USPS sold the building to a film producer for $7.5 million. At the press conference the buyer assured the mayor and others assembled that the building would be preserved and its mural restored. The building now stands empty, covered with graffiti.
Conservatives in Congress have long pushed to privatize the post office. During the Nixon Administration, Congress abolished the U.S. Post Office Department and replaced it with the United States Postal Service, a corporate-like entity with an official monopoly on delivering mail in the United States. In 2007, Congress required that the Postal Service pre-fund 75 years of employee benefits. To avoid forced bankruptcy, the USPS began liquidating properties, often over the objections of local communities. The USPS identified some 600 properties, valued at hundreds of millions of dollars, for possible sale. Many are on the National Register of Historic Places, and many were built by the Roosevelt Administration and contain New Deal artworks.
The Advisory Council on Historic Preservation investigated the USPS sell off. Its report to Congress was highly critical of the USPS and its exclusive contract with the real estate giant, CBRE, in which Richard Blum, husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein, has a large interest.
Berkeley’s Congresswoman Barbara Lee has introduced The Moratorium on U.S. Historic Postal Buildings Act, but Congress has yet to act.
Arthur Rothstein (1915-1985) created an indelible visual record of life in the United States and opened windows to the world for the American public during the golden era of news magazine photography. Rothstein shot some of the most significant photographs ever taken of small town America as a photographer for the federal Resettlement Administration, the New Deal agency later renamed the Farm Security Administration (FSA).
The FSA was established to aid farmers struggling to survive the Great Depression. Rothstein went to work for the FSA in 1935 when he was 20 years old. In an era without television news, Roy Stryker, Rothstein’s boss at the FSA, thought that photographs—distributed widely in newspapers and magazines—would provide a window on the plight of displaced agricultural and industrial workers, thereby demonstrating the need for government assistance and documenting successful programs.
Stryker insisted that his photographers research each assignment. When Rothstein was assigned to photograph Key West, Florida in 1938, he would have arrived understanding the devastating loss of rail service after the 1935 Labor Day hurricane, the distressed state of local cigar and sponge industries, as well as the impending completion of the Overseas Highway, among nascent efforts by the federal government to promote the Keys as a tourist destination.
While Rothstein understood that the new highway would revitalize Key West, he wrote to Roy Stryker at the time of his visit, “I hope the resulting boom and development doesn’t spoil the picturesque beauty of the island nor make the natives lose their friendliness.”
On July 17, the Key West Art and Historical Society’s Custom House Museum will celebrate the centenary of Arthur Rothstein’s birth with “Assignment 1938.” The exhibition exemplifies Rothstein’s ability to assemble a technically refined and representative picture story. The Key West assignment—like so many others throughout Rothstein’s long career—allows us to travel back with him to experience the light and shadow of a time now passed.
The Federal Art Project (FAP) encompassed a wide variety of art forms—from sculpture and fresco to oil-on-canvas and wood relief. However, few realize that an entirely new medium was invented by an FAP artist solely for use on public projects in Southern California.
American artist Stanton MacDonald-Wright first achieved prominence in the art world when he and fellow artist Morgan Russell co-founded the Synchromism movement, an approach to painting that analogized color to music. These works were among the first abstract paintings in American art.
During the 1930s, while MacDonald-Wright was in charge of the FAP in Southern California he devised an entirely new method of creating murals, which he called “petrachrome.”
The petrachrome process is significant not only to those interested in the New Deal but also to art historians in general. The process was similar in principle to a paint-by-numbers. Cement was first tinted with different pigments corresponding to the different sections of the mural. Next, crushed rock, glass, or tile was added to the mixture, which was then applied to the mural surface. Typically, the different color sections were delineated by strips of brass.
The colored cement was allowed to harden and then polished, creating a bold, striking appearance. Instead of a mural being painted onto a surface, the petrachrome process was designed so that the mural was the surface. Reports at the time claimed that the result “more enduring than marble” and “should last as long as the remaining great monuments of antiquity.”
Once the FAP was terminated in the early 1940s the petrachrome method seems to have disappeared completely, leaving only a handful of examples scattered around Southern California. The most celebrated of these is Helen Lundeberg’s “History of Transportation” in Inglewood. Recently the subject of an extensive renovation, Lundeberg’s mural is 8 feet tall and 240 feet long—making it one of the largest New Deal artworks in California.
Other examples of petrachrome murals can be found in San Diego’s Presidio Park, Santa Paula High School, Upland Elementary School, Santa Monica City Hall, and Canoga Park High School.
The majority of petrachrome murals still exist today. That they, by and large, remain in good condition is a testament to their resilience. I hope to publish a fully illustrated volume dedicated to preserving the legacy of MacDonald-Wright’s petrachrome process.
A man of style, dedicated to a life of art, Milton Hebald passed away in January at age 97. Although I had long heard about him from colleagues in New Mexico, I first met Milton at an exhibit of his artwork in Long Beach, California, in 2009. Many memorable conversations followed.
Milton was dedicated to reaching people through art in public places. He generously lent three of his bronze sculptures to an exhibition of WPA art I co-curated in 2010 at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek.
On his way to becoming a renowned sculptor, Milton won awards for his art as a child in New York City. He was the youngest student to enroll in the Art Students League. In the mid-1930s, Milton went to work for the WPA, teaching and producing public art.
He later put his artistic skills to work making models and casting metal in the defense industry during World War II. He was later drafted into the Army.
In the 1950s he won the Prix de Rome of the American Academy in Rome and with his wife, Cecille, began a half-century of living and working in Italy. After Cecille died he remarried and returned to New Mexico, and later moved to Southern California to be closer to his family.
Milton was known for celebrating the classic human form at a time when many of his contemporaries were moving into abstract art. Among his most recognized public works is the much-loved Romeo and Juliet sculpture in Central Park; the sculpture of James Joyce at his grave in Zurich, and the monumental Zodiac Screen he created for the iconic Pan American Terminal at JFK Airport in New York City. (The terminal is now demolished, but the sculptures are in storage).
Milton continued to work daily into his 90s, sculpting small terra cotta figures. His sense of style was on display when I was photographing him next to one of these terracotta pieces. Striking a jaunty pose and a far off gaze, he commented, “I know how to pose.” During our last visit, a few months before he died, I watched him patiently instructing his great-granddaughter, Cecille, in drawing, while his granddaughter, Lara, looked on.
Milton’s memorial celebration last month in Culver City, California brought people together from across the country to extol the life and work of one of the last surviving WPA artists.
“We should preserve our old buildings, not demolish them, and I hope, in some way, the courthouse will be saved from the wrecking crew.” So wrote Mrs. B.T. Johnson to a Nashville, Tennessee newspaper in July 1935. Mrs. Johnson was objecting to the demolition of Nashville’s existing City Hall, market house, and antebellum county courthouse to make way for the Public Works Administration’s construction of the Davidson County Public Building and Court House.
Nashville architect Emmons H. Woolwine, working with Frederic Hirons of New York, presented plans that were the unanimous choice of jurors in an architectural competition featured in Pencil Points magazine. The judges cited their design as “the most ingeniously designed public building seen in a long time and one that will undoubtedly serve as a model for other buildings of its type for years to come.”
The new building, then called Art Deco and now styled “PWA Modern” combined the uses of the City Hall and County Courthouse buildings some twenty-five years before the City of Nashville and Davidson County would merge to form a metropolitan government. Completed in 1937, the 8-story building held city and county offices, three floors of courtrooms, and the county jail. It was the first building in Nashville to have central air conditioning.
The architectural style appears at first glance to be a stripped-down version of a classical form, with twelve Doric columns across the main façade. Symbolism abounds on both the exterior and interior of the building. The cornice includes carved stone figures: a lioness, a snake, and a bison, symbolizing protection, wisdom, and strength. Three pairs of massive bronze doors hold symbolic figures representing courage, loyalty, law, justice, security, and wisdom.
Above each doorway is a carved glass representation of the great lawgivers, King John, Moses, and Justinian, created by glass artist David Harriton, whose resume includes the windows in the ceiling of the House and Senate Chambers of the U.S. Capitol. Two large cast bronze fountains flank the building’s entrance. In the lobby, large murals, created by Dean Cornwell for the WPA Public Art program, promote the ideals of Industry, Agriculture, Commerce, and Statesmanship.
In 2007, sixty-five years after Mrs. Johnson decried the destruction of one building for another, Nashvillians rededicated their historic PWA Courthouse after a careful rehabilitation.
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