Cohen Federal Building: Shahn Frescoes – 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 a magnificent collection of social security themed artworks funded by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts.  The most spectacular of the artworks is a massive, multi-paneled, fresco mural by Lithuanian-born artist Ben Shahn, entitled “The Meaning of Social Security.”

Shahn’s mural cycle covers both sides of the central corridor of the  building. On the east wall are three panels depicting the ills Social Security was meant to alleviate:  “Child Labor, Unemployment, and Old Age.”  On the west well are scenes of a society cured of those ills, called, “Work, the Family, and Social Security”.  The murals were completed in 1942.

Wall placards provide details about the murals:

Ben Shahn built his mural ‘The Meaning of Social Security’ around the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, giving pictorial form to the President’s June 8, 1934 address on the Social Security legislation:  ‘This security for the individual and for the family concerns itself primarily with three factors. People want decent homes to live in; they want to locate them where they can engage in productive work; and they want some safeguard against misfortunes which cannot be wholly eliminated from this man-made world of ours.’ The Social Security Act was passed on August 14, 1935 as part of the New Deal program of sweeping social reforms that responded to the economic crisis of the Great Depression. Shahn’s Social Security mural vividly captures the ambitions of the New Deal programs and also serves as an example of government efforts to extend patronage to the arts in the 1930s.”

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.

Source notes

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 20201

Coordinates: 38.8867, -77.0164

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