Winter 2015 Newsletter

In this Issue:


Voices of Destiny, The Roosevelts on the Radio

In thirty "fireside chats" he delivered between 1933 and 1944. Roosevelt appealed to radio listeners for help getting his agenda passed.

FDR delivering one of his fireside chats.
In thirty “fireside chats” he delivered between 1933 and 1944, Roosevelt appealed to radio listeners for help getting his agenda passed.

To understand just why Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt enjoyed such popularity despite the enmity of the nation’s Republican press, you can read their speeches, but better far to hear their voices. NPR recently aired an audio documentary by American Radio Works titled The First Family of Radio that reveals a little-known facet of the First Couple’s remarkable political partnership by weaving together excerpts from many of their broadcasts.

As one commentator notes, FDR was a natural at utilizing the new medium of radio to reach out to Americans as if he was chatting with them by their firesides. Usually beginning with and punctuating his speeches with “my friends,” FDR explained in simple and direct terms complex topics ranging from how the banking system works to what his administration was doing to fight the Depression and then the war. Less known is that Eleanor used radio far more than her husband did to advance the objectives of the New Deal as well as those causes to which she was committed — world peace, civil rights, and above all moral courage.

Eleanor Roosevelt is remembered for her newspaper column, "My Day," but she reached millions through her weekly radio address.

The First Lady on the air
Eleanor Roosevelt is remembered for her newspaper column, “My Day,” but she reached millions through her weekly radio address.

Unlike her husband, however, Eleanor was not a natural as a clip of one of her first broadcasts demonstrates when she fairly shrieks into the microphone. Voice coaching taught her how to drop her voice and to modulate it almost as skillfully as her husband. Both Roosevelts never lost their patrician, mid-Atlantic accents, nor did they need or try to. Indeed, that accent may have been a subliminal key to their success for they projected that they were both friendly neighbors and benign parents. Their voices brought millions as virtual guests into the White House of which FDR once said “I never forget that I live in a house owned by all the American people and that I have been given their trust.”

The most remarkable speech for me was one that Eleanor delivered shortly after the White House learned that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. The day before FDR delivered his famous “Day of Infamy” speech, Eleanor was preparing for her weekly radio show across the hall from where the president and his advisors were consulting. She pivoted on a dime and, at 6:45 in the evening, spoke to the nation about the ordeal ahead.

She addressed other mothers as a one who herself had “a boy at sea on a destroyer” (and soon would have three others in combat.) With unwavering determination, she rallied Americans to help one another, concluding “I feel as if I was standing on a rock, and that rock is my faith in my fellow citizens.”

In his 1936 nomination speech, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed that his was a generation that had a rendezvous with destiny. Through their radio addresses, both Roosevelts ensured that destiny was met.

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.

A New Deal Jewel in New York Awaits Revival

Orchard Beach was New York’s most ambitious park project of the New Deal.

Orchard Beach and Pavilion, Bronx, New York
Orchard Beach was New York’s most ambitious park project of the New Deal.  Source

A record 1.7 million people flocked to Orchard Beach in the Bronx this past summer. That would have pleased former New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, the visionary force behind its construction. With its man-made crescent shoreline, Orchard Beach is an engineering feat and was New York’s most ambitious park project of the New Deal. The City’s Landmark Preservation Commission goes even further, citing it as “among the most remarkable public recreational facilities ever constructed in the United States.”

Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses preside at the beach’s grand opening, July 25, 1936

Opening Day, Orchard Beach
Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Parks Commissioner Robert Moses preside at the beach’s grand opening, July 25, 1936
Photo Credit: NYC Parks Photo Archive

Upon completion in 1929 of the widely celebrated six-mile-long Jones Beach on the south shore of Long Island, Moses sought a comparable triumph within city limits. With Long Island Sound bordering Pelham Bay Park, he devised a plan to fill a bay between the two land masses to create a new beach over a mile long. His plan went into action in 1935. A section of the beach opened in 1936, with Moses and Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia presiding; it was completed in 1937.

The city’s Landmark Preservation Commission describes Orchard Beach as “among the most remarkable public recreation facilities ever constructed in the United States.”

Orchard Beach Pavilion in 1937
The city’s Landmark Preservation Commission describes Orchard Beach as “among the most remarkable public recreation facilities ever constructed in the United States.”
Photo Credit: NYC Parks Photo Archive

Grand achievements and remarkable efficiency were hallmarks of the Moses regime, but neither would have been possible without the shared Progressive vision of Mayor LaGuardia, and the Mayor’s able maneuvering in Washington to secure New Deal funding.  President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a New Yorker himself, was no fan of Robert Moses and even urged his firing. But FDR was charmed by LaGuardia, and noted that he found it hard to resist the feisty Mayor’s requests. New Deal accomplishments in New York in 1936 alone included not only Orchard Beach, but also Pelham Bay-Split Rock Golf Course, eleven massive municipal swimming pools, and the Triborough Bridge—all with Moses at the helm.

While Orchard Beach is enormously popular today, its dramatic centerpiece, a massive bathhouse pavilion, is fenced off and deteriorating. The design of this monumental structure, a New York City landmark, is credited to architect Aymar Embury II. Its striking style—classicism cloaked in austere modernism—echoes that found in civic buildings across the country from the period. Yet the building’s blue terra-cotta details, some with Art Deco elements, give it a distinct individuality. Even in its current disrepair, the pavilion conveys a noble grandeur, evoking a sense of stability that must have been reassuring during the Great Depression.

The Pavilion is closed pending its restoration as a recreation center.

Orchard Beach Pavilion today.
The Pavilion is closed pending its restoration as a recreation center.
Photo Credit: Deborah Wye

The New York City Parks Department is in the midst of a multi-year study to determine the structural soundness of the building and its possible future uses. Although there is no official report yet, analysis of the concrete has shown it to be stable enough for restoration. As a city property, the pavilion will probably languish through years of building regulations and shifting funding appropriations. But, hopefully, the former bathhouse, once providing changing rooms, restaurants, and shops, will one day be a fully-equipped recreation center with programs as popular year-round as Orchard Beach is every summer.

Deborah Wye was a long-time curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Upon retirement, she turned her attention to New York City history and architecture. She is a Board member of the Lower East Side Preservation Initiative.

“Just the way society was.” Segregation in the CCC

CCC Boxing Team at Marsh Field, San Diego, Calif.

CCC Boxing Team
CCC Boxing Team at Marsh Field, San Diego, Calif.

The Civilian Conservation Corps was born of pure and progressive intentions: employment for young men, conservation work on public lands, and nondiscrimination. Illinois Representative Oscar DePriest, the only black member of Congress at the time, made sure that the 1933 legislation that established the CCC banned discrimination based on “race, color, or creed.”

During the decade it was active, the CCC succeeded in many ways. It put three million men to work, planted over three billion trees, and restored America’s parks and public lands. But it strayed far from its commitment to inclusion. In terms of racial integration and equality, the CCC represents one of the biggest missed opportunities of the New Deal.

Photo taken at Marsh Field barracks shows that some CCC camps were racially integrated.

CCC boys at Marsh Field, San Diego, Calif.
Photo taken at Marsh Field barracks shows that some CCC camps were racially integrated.

The U.S. Army controlled CCC camp administration and operations, and its policy of racial segregation transferred easily to the new civilian workforce. Most of the CCC’s quarter million African-American enrollees served in segregated companies and were unable to attain positions of authority. Some Southern states categorically excluded blacks, arguing that they were needed for growing and harvesting cotton. There were a few mixed camps in states with smaller African- American populations like Minnesota and Wisconsin, but these were the exception.

Black and white CCC enrollees lived and worked together in Berkeley, California

Clearing land at Tilden Park, Berkeley, Calif.
Black and white CCC enrollees lived and worked together in Berkeley, California

“Historian Olen Cole, Jr. and others note that integrated camps existed outside the South in the early years of the CCC. In some areas, however, negative reactions from neighboring communities triggered separation of blacks and whites.”

Black enrollment in the CCC was capped at ten percent of total recruits–roughly equivalent to the proportion of blacks in the U.S. in 1930, but nowhere near proportional to the number of blacks eligible for relief during the Depression. Thousands were turned away.

CCC workers load pinecones into drying shed near Olustee, Florida, where Willie O'Neal (quoted in this article) was stationed. 1938. Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

CCC workers, Olustee, Fla.
CCC workers load pinecones into drying shed near Olustee, Florida, where Willie O’Neal (quoted in this article) was stationed. 1938. Credit: State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory.

Robert Fechner, director of the CCC, defended the quotas, extending Jim Crow to the new agency. “I am satisfied that the negro enrollees themselves prefer to be in companies composed exclusively of their own race…This segregation is not discrimination and cannot be so construed. The negro companies are assigned to the same types of work, have identical equipment, are served the same food, and have the same quarters as white enrollees.” It would be twenty years before the “separate by equal” doctrine would be overturned by the Supreme Court, in Brown v Board of Education.

In 2000, as part of an oral history project Willie O’Neal, an African American CCC enrollee in Florida, described segregation in the Corps as “just the norm of being black or white…that was just the way society was.”

The work completed by the black camps was at times particularly poignant. At Gettysburg Military Park, two black companies were assigned to refurbish Confederate and Union monuments to the fallen. Historian Joseph Speakman notes, “No one recorded the sentiments of the young black men, some of them possibly the grandchildren of…slaves, who had done this refurbishing work on behalf of Confederate veterans.”

CCC Company 893 in Pineland, Texas, shows African American members of this "mixed" camp to the far right of the photograph. 1933. Credit: Connie Ford McCann, University of North Texas Libraries, Portal to Texas History.

CCC camp in Pineland, Tex.
CCC Company 893 in Pineland, Texas, shows African American members of this “mixed” camp to the far right of the photograph. 1933. Credit: Connie Ford McCann, University of North Texas Libraries, Portal to Texas History.

Speakman, along with other historians, have argued that the CCC failed to live up to its original commitment. Indeed, the restriction on black involvement is often forgotten in New Deal history. Had the CCC stuck to DePriest’s intention perhaps we could measure the success of the CCC not only in trees planted or miles of road built, but in strides toward racial equality.

Natalie Heneghan is Research Associate for the Living New Deal and a recent graduate of Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.

Agency Reclaims Imperiled Murals

Five new Deal murals painted in 1938 were in limbo when the Eureka Federal Building was sold.

Nearly lost?
Five new Deal murals painted in 1938 were in limbo when the
Eureka Federal Building was sold.

Five Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP) murals by Thomas Laman will return to public view after more than a decade in limbo. The murals, which depict mining, farming, railroad building, and fauna of northern California, are being restored and will head to McKinleyville, California when a new federal courthouse is completed there next year.

Laman painted the tempera murals in 1936 for the Federal Building in Eureka, California. The building, which has served as a U.S. post office and courthouse since 1911, was sold to a private company in 2002, leaving the fate of its New Deal murals up in the air.

Only a lucky accident saved the Eureka murals.

Last year, the lawyer for the building’s owner contacted the Living New Deal for a referral to an art appraiser—a first step toward selling or donating the murals. We contacted Michael Ramos, an agent in the Office of the Inspector General at the General Services Administration, which oversees federal properties. Ramos’s cases include recovering New Deal art, usually WPA easel paintings. Upon learning that the historic Eureka murals might be removed he launched an investigation.

The murals, by Thomas Laman, are on their way to a new home after the GSA intervened.

Courthouse Mural, Eureka, Calif.
The murals, by Thomas Laman, are on their way to a new home after the GSA intervened.

The GSA concluded that the owner of the building did not have the right to dispose of the murals. After extensive negotiations, ownership of the murals was “conveyed back” to the GSA. In September, the agency officially reclaimed them—essentially returning the murals to public ownership.

There is no official policy about who owns the art in federal buildings, such as post offices, once they are sold. Many public artworks have been lost as a result.

The GSA considers site-specific art to be part of the structure. However, until recently it required only that the GSA be notified if artworks were to be removed once federal properties were sold. Thanks to renewed interest in New Deal artwork, the GSA now retains ownership of the art. It can choose to “loan” it to the building’s owner, but can reclaim it at any time.

Despite mounting public pressure to do so, the U.S. Postal Service, which claims control over all post office artwork, has never articulated its policy for protecting these cultural treasures.

As more federal properties are declared surplus and sold to private buyers, communities are mobilizing to keep the artworks inside—many the legacy of the New Deal—accessible to the public, which, after all, paid for them.

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

Rediscovering Oral Histories of the WPA

The WPA collected oral histories of early Orange County residents.

Boarding House, Laguna Beach, Calif.
The WPA collected oral histories of early Orange County residents.

Although most widely remembered for its construction and art projects, another of the WPA’s missions was putting unemployed historians and writers back to work.  In Orange County, California, this materialized in the form of WPA Project #3105—an exhaustive chronicling of the county’s history, told through diverse topics such as fashion, transportation, architecture, irrigation, and sports.

WPA Project #3105 can be found—with dedicated searching—in the collections of the Santa Ana Public Library. While all two-dozen volumes contain valuable information, a standout is titled “Pioneer Tales.”

An 1880 sketch of Newport Bay preserved by the WPA.

McFadden’s Wharf
An 1880 sketch of Newport Bay preserved by the WPA.

“Pioneer Tales” contains several hundred pages of oral histories compiled by WPA employees. The interviews, conducted in 1935 and 1936, document the stories of the county’s first settlers, many of whom moved to California during the 1870s and 1880s. Had the WPA not captured their stories, many of these pioneers’ would never have had the chance to share their colorful recollections with subsequent generations.

“Pioneer Tales,” like all of Project #3105, was never published to a wide audience. In fact, only two copies are known to exist.  Yet, some 80 years after they were compiled, the stories remain both historically important and entertaining to the modern reader.

Orange County—a quintessential suburbia today—has history replete with bullfights, lynching, and shoot-outs. Pioneer James McMillan, for example, told the story of a steamship that was wrecked in Newport Bay. It was only through his heroic rescue that the crew was saved. In his oral history, J.E. Parker recalled the massive Mexican fiestas on the ranchos in the days before Orange County had seceded from Los Angeles. Perhaps the most harrowing tale came from Mr. N.T. Wood, who described in detail his near-death encounter with a grizzly bear in one of Orange County’s canyons.

The WPA collected stories about the county’s early settlers.

The MacMillan Family
The WPA collected stories about the county’s early settlers.

There is no doubt that many communities across America had similar historical projects funded by the WPA. Who knows how many volumes of WPA writings are now languishing in libraries—their pages crumbling like those of Project #3105—at risk of being lost forever. Thousands of pages of Project #3105 have yet to be transcribed from the original typewritten manuscripts, so the project’s contribution to the historical record remains virtually unknown.

Putting such historical WPA works into the hands of readers and researchers is a step in the right direction. Efforts to preserve WPA artworks and structures for future generations are underway in cities and towns across America; shouldn’t the same attention be paid to preserving the written word of the WPA?

Charles Epting is the author of Orange County Pioneers: Oral Histories from the Works Progress Administration, available now from the History Press.

Preservation Groups to Appeal Ruling on Post Office Sale

Preservationists vow to fight judge’s ruling to develop historic post office.

Post Office, Stamford, Connecticut
Preservationists vow to fight judge’s ruling to develop historic post office.

The National Post Office Collaborate and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have announced they will appeal a ruling by federal Judge Janet Arterton that allows the sale of the Stamford, Connecticut Post Office to go forward. A developer plans to turn the handsome 1916 Italianate building into a restaurant and high-rise condominium.

The lawsuit challenging the sale had been viewed as potentially precedent-setting. It sought to stop the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) from selling the Stamford Post Office—and by extension, hundreds of other post offices—under the National Historic Preservation Act and National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA), claiming that historic buildings and public artworks come under the legal definition of Public Trust assets.

Artist rendering of condominium towers planned for Stamford, Conn.

New plans for old post office
Artist rendering of condominium towers planned for Stamford, Conn.

The sell off of the nation’s post offices followed federal legislation in 2006 requiring the USPS to prepay billions of dollars for health and retirement benefits for its current and future workers—a move apparently intended to push the Postal Service into bankruptcy. Many of the downtown post offices being sold are in areas prized by developers—well-heeled towns and gentrifying neighborhoods. Many are architectural jewels built during the New Deal, some containing valuable artworks paid for with public funds.

Many communities and local governments have mobilized, hoping to keep their local post offices open and in public ownership.  For information: http://savethepostoffice.com. The Collaborate is seeking donations to continue its legal fight.

Jacquelyn McCormick is the Executive Director of the National Post Office Collaborate, a post office preservation group in Berkeley, California. You can view her presentation to the Municipal Art Society for New York here.

Berkeley and the New Deal

Harvey Smith’s Berkeley and the New Deal is an eye opener. Like many of Arcadia Publishing’s books, its focus is on local history, richly illustrated with photographs. But Berkeley and the New Deal tells a bigger story. Smith has written… read more