WPA Guide Series

By Fern Nesson

Fern Nesson takes us on the road following the original WPA Guidebooks. Follow along as she re-enacts these journeys, discovering what’s old and what’s new.


Travels with The WPA State Guides: 19th Century Firehouses of Greenwich Village


The American Guide Series, produced by the Federal Writers’ Project, is one of the most well-known WPA projects. Written as a collection of travel guides, the series included suggested tour routes as well as essays on the history and culture of each U.S. state and territory. Major U.S. cities and several regions were also given their own separate guidebooks.  

The state guides give a fascinating snapshot of American life in the 1930s. Written in a lively and approachable style, they detail and celebrate the rich diversity that our country displayed at that time. The writers’ enthusiasm is infectious and their guide is as much fun to read today as it must have been for travelers in the 1930s.  

Several historians have written about the American Guide Series over the past 80 years, but no one, to my knowledge, has used them as current-day travel guides. That is just what I set out to do. I am an American historian, art photographer, and enthusiastic traveler. I have read each of these guides. I love them for their wonderful enthusiasm and their curiosity about every aspect of regional life—from food, to linguistics, to folklore, to statistics, to geography, to environment, to history—and especially for their liberal attitudes and respect for diversity. In this series, I will be posting photo essays and articles based upon tours recommended in the guides.

Fern L. Nesson

Pre-Civil War firefighting in New York City was done by volunteer groups who built and equipped their own neighborhood firehouses. In 1865, when the city created the Metropolitan Fire Department (MFD), it acquired these buildings and hired distinguished architects to design many additional ones. 

The Nineteenth Century firehouses in Greenwich Village are of singular beauty and emotional resonance.  The custom has always been to honor colleagues lost in fires with plaques on the facades of their firehouses. On September 11, 2001, a large proportion of the firefighters who died at the World Trade Center were from Village fire stations. Their names are inscribed on plaques at these stations and their photos are displayed at the 2001 Memorial  at the Fire Museum on Spring Street (itself a Nineteenth Century firehouse.)  

As architecture-centric as the New York City Guide is, it fails to mention the firehouses. The omission is a shame but it should not discourage exploration. These charming buildings are architectural treasures; they are worth a visit.

July, 2021


Jefferson Market Clocktower Fire Lookout  (1877)

Engine Company 18, 132 West 10th Street (1892)

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Engine Company 18, 132 West 10th Street (1892)

Engine Company 18, 132 West 10th Street (1892)

Engine Co. No. 55, 363 Broome Street (1899)

Engine Co. No. 55, 363 Broome Street (1899)

Engine Co. No. 55, 363 Broome Street (1899)

NYC Fire Museum

NYC Fire Museum

NYC Fire Museum

NYC Fire Museum

NYC Fire Museum

NYC Fire Museum

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NYC Fire Museum

NYC Fire Museum

Former Perry Hose Company, 48 Horatio Street (1856) 

              Former  Columbia Hook and Ladder Co., 102 Charles Street  (1854)

              Former  Columbia Hook and Ladder Co., 102 Charles Street  (1854)

Former Empire Hose Company No. 40, 70 Barrow Street (1852)

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Former Engine 24, 78 Morton Street (1864)

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Former  Fire Patrol No. 2, 84 West 3rd Street (1906)

Former  Fire Patrol No. 2, 84 West 3rd Street (1906)

Former  Fire Patrol No. 2, 84 West 3rd Street (1906)