Winter 2017 Newsletter

A colleague’s research into the art of the New Deal recently led her to the National Archives. That’s where Kathleen Duxbury discovered a calendar published in 1939 by the Federal Arts Project, a lifeline for artists during the Great Depression. The calendar showcased a collection of WPA posters. What’s more, the dates perfectly matched those of 2017. The similarities and contrasts between 1939 and 2017 are noteworthy. Then, as now, our country faced economic, environmental, and social turmoil. By contrast, our leaders then launched themselves into actively improving the lives of everyday Americans by creating jobs, affordable housing, public art, and recreation. In this, our first newsletter of 2017, we call out some remarkable examples.

In the year ahead, we will continue to shine a light on the New Deal and the spirit of compassionate and honest government that it stands for. A source of hope, then and now. Thank you for your support.

In this Issue:


Schussing in New England, Courtesy of the CCC

A beginner ski run built by the CCC.

Polar Trail at Beartown State Forest
A beginner ski run built by the CCC.
Photo Credit: MA Dept of Conservation and Recreation

The long, cold winter months can take their toll on the psyche of residents of the Northeast. To help stave off cabin fever, winter sports that get people out and enjoying—rather than dreading—snowy days are invaluable. Surprisingly, it was not until the 1930s that snow skiing became a popular form of recreation in the mountains of the eastern U.S. Perhaps less surprising to those familiar with the New Deal, is that the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) played a significant role in making the sport widely accessible New Englanders.

The CCC built the historic lodge, trails, outbuildings and a parking lot at Mount Greylock

Bascom Lodge
The CCC built the historic lodge, trails, outbuildings and a parking lot at Mount Greylock
Photo Credit: MA Dept of Conservation and Recreation

Although a small state, Massachusetts was home to an average 28 CCC camps per year in the 1930s, putting some 99,500 young men to work planting trees on the cut-over landscape; building roads to connect remote areas; and, as part of the government’s commitment to democratizing recreation, cutting ski trails across the state. The CCC also built lodges to keep visitors cozy while off the slopes. The new ski areas became popular destinations for winter fun for amateur skiers and competitive racers alike.

Some of the ski trails were used long after the CCC boys were no longer around to maintain them. One ski run in what is now the Beartown State Forest was used through the 1960s to train and compete in downhill skiing events. Sadly, many of the trails are now overgrown and the lodges are in ruins, but a few trails no longer skiable remain popular with hikers in the warmer months.

Polar Trail at Beartown State Forest

Polar Trail at Beartown State Forest
A beginner ski run built by the CCC.
Photo Credit: MA Dept of Conservation and Recreation

All is not lost to history, however. In Massachusetts, the Department of Conservation and Recreation has done a remarkable job both commemorating and preserving CCC legacies, including several rustic structures and ski trails. Some trails have been incorporated into privately run ski areas like Mount Wachusett in the center of the state, while others remain legendary destinations for backcountry skiers.

Mount Greylock, a towering mountain in the Berkshires (and, at 3,489-feet, the highest point in the state), is still home to the Thunderbolt Run. The trail was first cut by the 107th Company of the CCC in 1933 and quickly became a major destination for racers and spectators.

Plaque at a warming hut built by the CCC.

Thunderbolt Ski Trail
Plaque at a warming hut built by the CCC.
Photo Credit: MA Dept of Conservation and Recreation

In March 2017, a hundred skilled athletes will once again make the one-to-two hour hike up Mount Graylock, rest at the CCC built shelter, and then race down 2,000 feet. From competitive races to casual ski trips to summer hikers, the CCC’s promise to make New England’s rural landscape a year-round pleasure remains alive and well.

A special thanks to Dr. William Hansen of Worcester State University for tipping off the Living New Deal to the significance of winter sports and the CCC in New England via the New England Ski History site. To see historical films of the Thunderbolt Run, check out this news story from WGBY on the history of the trail, as well as a 1940s home movie of the slope being enjoyed by a wide variety of users.

Alex Tarr is an assistant professor of Geography in the department of Earth, Environment and Physics at Worcester State University and member of the Living New Deal board of directors.

Greenhills Named a National Historic Landmark

New Deal Housing

New Deal Housing
A New Deal neighborhood
Photo Credit: John Vashon

Near Cincinnati, Ohio, the Village of Greenhills is one of only three New Deal “greenbelt” towns in the country. On January 11, it was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior.

Greenhills was a demonstration project of the Resettlement Administration (RA) a short-lived New Deal agency that relocated displaced and struggling urban and rural families to planned communities built by the federal government.

The concept for greenbelt towns began in the late 19th century. A “Garden-City Movement,” often dismissed as utopian, promoted self-contained, satellite communities surrounded by “belts” of farms and forests as the answer to the overcrowded cities of post-industrial England.

School children at Greenhills, OH

School Children
Greenhills, OH
Photo Credit: John Vaschon

The idea resonated with Rexford Guy Tugwell, an agricultural economist who was part of FDR’s “Brain Trust.” He persuaded the president that greenbelt towns could house thousands of people displaced during the Great Depression. Roosevelt made Tugwell the director of his Resettlement Administration (RA).

Tugwell immediately purchased some 6,000 acres in southern Ohio, including dozens of struggling dairy farms he hoped could be sustained by the soon-to-be-built greenbelt town of Greenhills.

WPA workers broke ground for the new town in 1935. Over the next two years some 5,000 men and women transformed more than a square mile of what had been cornfields into a village for 676 low-income families.

The WPA relied on mules instead of machines in order to maximize the number of workers and hours spent to develop the town. It directed them to add extra layers of plaster and paint to the buildings to keep people employed.

WPA workers building Greenhills

WPA workers
Building Greenhills
Photo Credit: John Vaschon

Greenhills’ planners provided what were seen as extravagances for low-income housing. Curved streets and cul de sacs separated homes from busy thoroughfares; walkways, pocket parks, and playgrounds were incorporated into pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods; a co-op shopping district (the first strip mall in Ohio), community center with a K-12 school, town library, and public swimming pool were constructed.

A variety of multi-family housing—duplexes, townhouses, and apartments—employed Colonial, Modern, and International-style architecture. Homes were built facing backward to provide views of  common areas and open spaces rather than the street. Utilities were installed underground.

To the consternation of some in Congress, the cost of the project came in at $11.5 million.

Tugwell had envisioned 20 greenbelt towns but managed to build only three—Greenhills, Ohio; Greendale, Wisconsin; and Greenbelt, Maryland– before the Supreme Court ruled the RA unconstitutional. The RA was dissolved in 1937. The Farm Securities Administration (FSA) assumed some of its functions.

Apartment Houses at Greenhills, 1939

Apartment Houses
Greenhills, 1939
Photo Credit: John Vaschon

Greenhills is a living example of a time when government fully dedicated itself to improving the lives of working-class Americans. Yet, Greenhills has struggled to preserve its New Deal legacy.

Parts of Greenhills are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and preservation groups have long called for a plan to protect historic properties. Over residents’ objections, the Village Council voted to raze many WPA-era buildings. Fifty-two of the original townhouses and apartments have been demolished, replaced with new, stand-alone single-family houses. In 2011, Greenhill was listed among Ohio’s Most Endangered Historic Sites.

Greenhills’ newly awarded status as a National Historic Landmark, administered by the National Park Service, may help. Property owners will now be eligible for federal grants to rehabilitate Greenhills remaining New Deal-era structures.

Susan Ives is a communications consultant and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

Uncovering California’s New Deal Art

Catalogue from 1976 Exhibition on New Deal Art in California

Catalogue
1976 Exhibition on New Deal Art in California

A daring exhibition at the University of Santa Clara in 1976 began the rediscovery of a buried civilization then itself only forty years in the past.

“New Deal Art: California,” a six-month exhibition at the De Saisset Gallery, pulled out of storage surviving works of New Deal art while pointing to others long ignored in public spaces: a wealth of paintings, sculpture, photographs, and mosaics whose merit had been buried under the ascendant dominance of modernist abstraction after World War II.

The disinterest or actual contempt with which so much of the Art Establishment regarded the figurative art of the New Deal was not entirely accidental. It had much to do with the deliberate erasure of the New Deal ethos that had produced it, though few at that time were aware of it.

Victor Arnautoff, Metropolitan Life (detail), Coit Tower, San Francisco

Coit Tower Mural
Victor Arnautoff, Metropolitan Life (detail), Coit Tower, San Francisco
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

Much of the credit for the rediscovery of New Deal art belongs to Dr. Francis V. O’Connor who, in 1974, published Art for the Millions: Essays from the 1930s, written by those who worked for the WPA Federal Art Project, still an essential collection of source material. O’Connor served as a consultant for the De Saisset Gallery exhibition along with curators Lydia Modi Vitale and history professor Steven Gelber, who now lives in retirement in Santa Rosa, California. Gelber remembers the exhibition fondly and well.

Dorothea Lange, Tulelake, September 1939

Dorothea Lange, Tulelake, September 1939
Catalogue Number 147

Dr. Gelber recalls today that the artists he interviewed all spoke of the art programs with something akin to love. Government patronage gave them security while enabling them to create art for a broad public rather than wealthy collectors, galleries, and corporate lobbies, as was so often the case when the federal art projects ended.

Two years in the making, the exhibition produced a richly illustrated catalogue containing an extensive inventory of New Deal public artworks throughout California. More important to those now researching New Deal art projects was a unique program of video documentation made possible by an NEH grant that enabled Gelber and Vitale to outfit a van with equipment with which they recorded surviving administrators and artists in their homes and studios. The Archives of American Art in Washington, D.C. houses those interviews. Through them, those involved in the vast programs of government-sponsored art speak to us today.

Donal Hord, Guardian of the Water, Fountain Sculpture, San Diego County Administration Building

Donal Hord, Guardian of the Water, Fountain Sculpture
San Diego County Administtration Bldg

The art reproduced in the museum catalogue and in the February 4, 1976 issue of Francis Ford Coppola’s City magazine demonstrates the impressive range of works that emerged through federal patronage.

A cast stone relief on the exterior of the WPA-built Berkeley Community Theatre, for example, depicts people of all races brought together through acts of creation—an ideal that seemed attainable when government actively supported the arts.

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.

CCC Totem Pole Inventory Needed

Totem poles located to a park in Hydaburg in 1941

Totem Park
Poles located to a park in Hydaburg in 1941

During the New Deal, the federal government took an unprecedented step toward preserving Native American art: It funded an effort to repair and replicate scores of totem poles in southeast Alaska.

Alaska, then a U.S. territory, was suffering from chronic unemployment during the Great Depression. Between 1938 and 1942, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) employed Native Alaskans to identify, locate, and restore deteriorating totem poles. The poles were sometimes relocated to “totem parks” the CCC built to draw tourism to towns and villages.

CCC men restore a totem pole in Saxman, 1939

Totem Carvers
CCC men restore a totem pole in Saxman, 1939
Photo Credit: US Forest Service

The red cedar poles are carved and sometimes painted with family crests and images of animals. Traditionally placed along waterfronts, the totems mark family houses, clan gathering sites, and gravesites. Some “storytelling” poles serve to pass on clan knowledge and customs from generation to generation.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, “By the end of the Depression, 48 poles had been restored, 54 duplicated, and 19 new totems carved” by CCC workers. Unfortunately, no one has a conducted a definitive inventory of the CCC-era totem poles, believed to total 121.

Living New Deal researcher, Brent McKee managed to cobble together a list from various books and online sources. He has identified 63 poles, with names such as “The Spirit of Hazy Island Pole,” “The Giant Clam Pole,” “Sitting Bear Grave Marker,” and “The Lincoln Totem Pole,” carved in honor of Abraham Lincoln.

Trader Legend Pole: This replica of a pole in Sukkwan was carved during the 1938-1942 CCC project

Trader Legend Pole
This replica of a pole in Sukkwan was carved during the 1938-1942 CCC project.
Photo Credit: National Park Service

Brent says he thinks a few of the original CCC poles are probably still standing. Others have been taken down due to poor condition, or left to deteriorate on the ground and replaced with new poles, according to Native tradition. Still others are in warehouses and work sheds undergoing restoration or being replicated onto new poles. No active inventory exists, so their names, locations, and current status are largely unknown,

“But research builds on top of previous research,” says Brent. “It is my hope that the Living New Deal can map most or all of the totem poles I have found—even with imprecise geographical coordinates—and thereby (hopefully) spark more research into these historic and fascinating artworks.”

Susan Ives is a communications consultant and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

Florida’s New Deal Landscapes in Jeopardy

CCC Picnic Shelter at Highlands Hammock SP

CCC Picnic Shelter at Highlands Hammock SP
Historic structures are the focus of preservation management but not the surrounding setting.
Photo Credit: David Driapsa

Florida’s State Parks — like those of other states — expanded and greatly benefited from New Deal programs as well as from Franklin Roosevelt’s personal interest in conservation (see previous newsletter for review of Douglas Brinkley’s Rightful Heritage.) So skillfully did experienced landscape designers and CCC recruits work to preserve the qualities for which the parks were chosen while simultaneously making them accessible to the public, that few people today are aware that they are largely cultural landscapes as well as natural treasures. That is what their creators intended, but the confusion presents problems for their preservation 80 years later.

Florida established nine State Parks with the aid of New Deal talent. Eight were developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC): Florida Caverns, Fort Clinch, Gold Head Branch, Highlands Hammock, Hillsborough River, Myakka River, O’Leno, and Torreya. An urban park, Ravine Gardens, was built by WPA.

The parks were embellished with buildings and structures that exemplify the National Park Service rustic style, meant to harmonize with their environments. Buildings typically utilize timber and stone, with designs derived from the English Arts & Crafts movement. Employing native building materials—limestone, cypress, pine and palm logs— resulted in similar looking buildings throughout the Florida park system, with the exception of Florida Caverns, which is all stone. Yet each of the nine parks is unique since each was chosen to represent the diversity of the Florida physiographic regions.

CCC fences, part of the cultural landscape

CCC fences, part of the cultural landscape
Fence posts to keep roving cattle out of the park were made of concrete to resist fire and rot, but cannot withstand neglect.
Photo Credit: David Driapsa

Established in 1934 as Florida’s first state park, Highlands Hammock is a rare uncut remnant of the hardwood tropical forest that once covered the central Florida highlands around Sebring. An influential advisory group that included renowned landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., prepared a master plan for a botanical garden and areboretum that would later be annexed to the park. The plan for what was then called Florida State Botanical Gardens and Arboretum employed unobtrusive foot trails, weather shelters, and picnic grounds was careful to preserve the scenic features and biological diversity of the forest. Under the direction of landscape architect Charles Raymond Vinten, two hundred young men of the CCC were tasked with the construction.

CCC museum at Highlands Hammock SP

CCC museum at Highlands Hammock State Park
The museum honors the CCC, but much of the landscape they shaped has fallen into disrepair.
Photo Credit: David Driapsa

Vinten, who worked for the National Park Service, was soon promoted to supervise the development of all CCC park projects in Florida. His skill, dedication, and judgment account for the quality, style, and uniformity of these New Deal-era parks.

Highlands Hammond State Park is primarily valued—and managed—for its natural resources. However, like the other New Deal-era Florida state parks, its cultural landscape is largely neglected. Elements that serve to articulate the parks’ historic, CCC-constructed landscapes are being lost, despite their significance to the state’s heritage.

 

Book Review: New Deal Photography: USA 1935-1943, Farm Security Administration, 605pp, reviewed by Susan Ives

Taschen, an international publishing company begun in Cologne in 1980, has achieved international renown for its standout coffee table books. Taschen’s art books span from western masterpieces to pop culture, including illustrated monographs on artists, musicians, and writers, classical and… read more