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: Iconic Art Deco Architecture in New York City

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



The New York City Guide’s writers had a passion for the city’s architecture of all periods.  Grand Central Station, St Patrick’s Cathedral,  the Metropolitan Opera House, City Hall and Gracie Mansion, The Flatiron Building , the NY Public Library, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Plaza Hotel are each described in lively, intelligent detail. 

The writers saved their highest praise for the flourishing Art Deco Movement of the 1920s and 30s.  Midtown Manhattan abounds in fine examples of art deco from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to countless office buildings, subway stations and restaurants. There are some on almost every block. One could spend weeks trying to see them all. 

For a first cut, iconic buildings such as the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and Rockefeller Center present the full experience, every detail designed and embellished  in the most refined art deco taste. Describing these newly-built sites inspired the Guide’s writers to reach for superlatives.  Visiting seventy-five years later  may be even more  thrilling. Each one is perfectly preserved, sparkling clean, architecturally refined and just plain gorgeous. The WPA New York City Guide in hand, I spent days exploring them. I just couldn’t get enough.  

The Chrysler building was the first of these three iconic buildings to be built.  The story recounted by the guide is that, in 1929, two architects were competing for the distinction of building the tallest building in the world: William Van Alen, the architect of the Chrysler Building and his former partner, Craig Severance, the architect of the Bank of Manhattan headquarters at 40 Wall Street:

“When the Chrysler tower seemed likely to terminate at 925 feet, the builders of the Manhattan Company structure […] decided to halt their operations at 927 feet. Meanwhile, steel workers were secretly assembling the rustless steel sections of the Chrysler spire which, when lifted lifted through the dome and bolted into place, brought the building to its triumphant height of 1048 feet.”

(New York City guide, p. 224)

Van Alen’s victory was pyrrhic. Just two years later, “the Empire State building stole the laurels” rising to 1250 feet.  (p. 224, 319.)

Tallest or not, the Chrysler Building is a triumph of design; for sheer Art Deco beauty it is unmatched, especially at night when the top is lit to spectacular effect.  

The Guide’s description barely does it justice:

“The building’ s [modernist] architecture […] avoids historical precent [and] achieves freshness, originality, and a striking effect. The angular lobby is finished in sumptuous African marble […] sharp contrasts of color and line appear in the tower treatment, the corners of the fourth state flare outward, projecting great metal discs that resemble 1029 Chrysler radiator caps.” (p. 224)

The Empire State Building gets more thorough treatment in the Guide:

“The great limestone and steel structure [is] a monument to […] the boom years from 1924-29. The supreme shaft of the building rises out of a broad five-story base [and] at the eighty-sixth floor level is a 200-foot observation tower—sixteen stories of glass […] 

The coloring of the building […] is spectacular in sunlight [when] the aluminum spandrels and soft-textured limestone are tinged with gray and lavender, and the silvery sheen of metal on the walls creates and effect of airy lightness. The Fifth Avenue entrance […] opens into a long hall […] lined with marble. The high silver-leaf ceiling is painted in metallic colors with geometric patterns suggesting stars, sunbursts and snowflakes.”  (p. 320-21.)

Rockefeller Center, the last great Art Deco building project in New York City, brought the era to a spectacular close. In both scale and elaborate design, it surpassed its predecessors. Completed in 1939, Rockefeller Center is sited on 12acres on Fifth Avenue in the very heart of Manhattan. It includes twelve buildings, most of them skyscrapers, included radio (and now tv) stations, foreign consulates, an underground shopping mall, street and roof top-level restaurants, outdoor cafes, an observation deck, an ice skating rink, outdoor sculpture gardens with fountains and pools, rooftop gardens of  Spanish, Italian, Japanese, American and aquatic designs. Below ground, are a subway line and a trucking and shipping terminal. 

Everyone visits Rockefeller Center, NYC residents and tourists alike, to form the audience for daytime tv shows, to see productions at Radio City Music Hall, and, at Christmastime, to see NYC’s official Christmas tree on the plaza overlooking 5th Avenue. 

Although the plan for Rockefeller Center was criticized as undistinguished and inartistic before it was built, by 1939,  it had garnered great acceptance and accolades: 

“Rockefeller’s position among the city’s institutions is secure. Reproach has given way to respect. In its architecture , Rockefeller Center stands as distinctively for New York as the Louvre stands for Paris. Composed of the essential elements of New York skyscrapers — steel framing and curtain walls —  the group relies almost exclusively for exterior decoration on the pattern of its widows, piers, spandrels and wall surfaces. Its beauty derives from a significant play of forms and light and shadow.” (NYC Guide, p.334)

Like its NYC’s other two Art Deco masterpieces, Rockefeller Center exhibits sleek and stunning design. But it tops them all in the riotous profusion of its decorative artwork. The Center’s many murals, mosaics , sculptures, and friezes depict aspirational themes: 

  •  Murals by Jose Maria Sert are titled “Man’s Intellectual Mastery of the Material Universe” and include images of the eradication of disease, the abolition of slavery, the suppression of war, and the hope of mankind’s  salvation. 
    • Mosaics over one of the 6th Avenue entrances depict “the genius which interprets the laws and cycles of the cosmic forces of the universe to mankind”,
    •  Sculptured panels by Gaston LaChaise portray “Genius Receiving the gift of the Sun,” “ The Conquest of Space,” “ Gifts of Earth to Mankind” and “The Spirit of Progress. 
    • Carved wood panel in The RKO Building show “ Radio Spreading the Inspiration of the Past and Present” 
    • A mural “Concerned with the Spiritual Challenge of Modern Civilization” graces the elevator bank of one of the 5th Avenue skyscrapers.  
    • A gold-leafed sculpted panel on the facade of “La Maison Franchise is represents Paris and New York joining hands over the figures of Poetry, Beauty and Elegance.  

            There are far too many more artworks to count. You have to see them to believe it!

One dark note: Originally included in this exuberant decoration,  was a fresco  by Diego Rivera,  “Man at the Crossroads,” commissioned for the lobby of Rockefeller Plaza (“30 Rock”.) Rivera’s subject, endorsed by Rockefeller,  was to be the contrast between capitalism and socialism in contemporary social, scientific and material culture. In 1933, while the work was still in process, the New York World Telegram called it anti-capitalist propaganda. In protest, Rivera secretly added an image of Lenin (between the helicopter blades on the right) to the fresco. Although Rockefeller liked the work, he asked Rivera to remove Lenin’s portrait but Rivera refused. Rockefeller then ordered the panel to be plastered-over.

Thankfully for us, Rivera took photographs of the work in progress and then recreated the fresco in Mexico City at the Palacio des Bellas Artes.

July 2021