Cohen Federal Building: Fogel Murals – Washington DC

Project type: Art Works, Murals
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The Wilbur J. Cohen building, originally built for the Social Security Administration in 1938-1940, is home to many social security themed artworks funded by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts.

Two of the artworks are murals by Seymour Fogel, “Wealth of the Nation” and “Security of the People,” painted in 1938 and installed in 1942 in the lobby at Independence Avenue entrance.

The Social Security Administration never occupied the building, which was turned over to the War Department in 1941.  After the war, the Federal Security Agency (FSA), under which the Social Security Board had been placed in 1939, moved into the building. In 1953, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, succeeded the FSA and subsequently became part of the Department of Health and Human Services in 1980. In 1988, the building was renamed in honor of Wilbur J. Cohen,  the first employee of the Social Security Board and later Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.

The Dallas art brokerage firm Russell Tether Fine Art provides a detailed analysis of the Fogel murals:

In the two murals Fogel executed for the Social Security Building in Washington DC one sees an illustrated version of Roosevelt’s utopian vision.  These paired murals were completed in 1938 but installed in 1942; they are now housed in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services building.  In the left panel of the mural, titled “Security of the People,” we see a family engaging in leisure activities.  A mother caresses her child while her husband reads the newspaper.  Nearby, we see a young girl drawing on a chalkboard and a teenage boy playing tennis.  Fogel’s point is clear: in the future brought about by the government-sponsored safety net, Americans will be able to attain that “freedom from want” Roosevelt prophesied in his 1941 State of the Union address.

Fogel does more in “Security of the People” than show us a future unmarred by need; he anticipates that Americans will, with the advent of prosperity, have the opportunity to better themselves and become fuller individuals.  Fogel’s “Security of the People” predicts an impending leisure society, in which newly-“secure” Americans are afforded opportunities for self-actualization.

Fogel presents a similarly utopian image in the right panel of the Social Security Building mural.  This time, however, his focus is not on the welfare state’s impact on individuals.  In his “The Wealth of the Nation,” he looks at how state planning benefits us collectively.  In this piece, we see a scientist peering into a microscope, an engineer examining blueprints, and a number of laborers performing industrial tasks.  Fogel’s thesis is as clear as it was in “Security of the People;” he anticipates a cooperative society where every part contributes to the whole.  In Fogel’s future, the adversarial relations between competing capitalists and between capital and labor will be obsolete.”


Source notes


Text excerpt courtesy of Russell Tether Fine Art: "Seymour Fogel and the Art of American Optimism," January 5, 2013.

Project originally submitted by Charles Swaney on March 14, 2014.
Additional contributions by Richard A Walker.

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Location Info

330 Independence Ave. SW
Washington, DC 20237

Coordinates: 38.8867, -77.0165

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