Erasing Art and History

Lobby at Rincon Annex Post Office, San Francisco, Site of the last public murals created under the New Deal

Lobby at Rincon Annex Post Office, San Francisco
Site of the last public murals created under the New Deal
Photo Credit: Gray Brechin

While the nation is transfixed by pitched battles over the removal of artworks representing white supremacy, New Deal murals in San Francisco’s Rincon Annex Post Office graphically demonstrate that such cultural melees are nothing new.

Just before World War II, the Treasury Department commissioned Anton Refregier of Woodstock, New York to paint a cycle of murals for the lobby of what was then the San Francisco main post office. “Ref,” as his friends called him, did extensive research for the project before the war but completed the 27 panels after it. They were the last public murals created under the New Deal.

With their vast narrative sweep, the murals are among the largest and arguably greatest New Deal artworks—and they were nearly destroyed for their creator’s audacity.

Raising the Bear Flag, Mural by Anton Refregier, Two American settlers proclaim California’s independence from Mexico

Raising the Bear Flag, Mural by Anton Refregier
Two American settlers proclaim California’s independence from Mexico

Instead of the customary triumphal march from heroic pioneers to productive industries that Americans expected to see on their post office walls, Ref chose to paint California’s history as a series of class and racial contests. In one corner of the lobby, Ref depicted Union and Confederate partisans violently duking it out in San Francisco’s Union Square during the Civil War, in a scene not different from recent events in Charlottesville, San Francisco, and Berkeley,

Next to it, Irish workers are shown viciously beating Chinese immigrants they accused of taking jobs such as building the transcontinental railroad, which Ref painted on a facing wall. To show that humane voices speak for common decencies at all times, Ref added at the bottom an 1875 statement by Irish labor leader Frank Roney: “Attacks upon the Chinese I consider unreasonable and antagonistic to the principles of American Liberty.”

Beating the Chinese, Mural by Anton Refregier, Workers are portrayed beating Chinese immigrants whom they blamed for taking jobs

Beating the Chinese, Mural by Anton Refregier
Workers are portrayed beating Chinese immigrants whom they blamed for taking jobs

Elsewhere in the immense lobby, Ref painted two American settlers raising the Bear Flag proclaiming California’s independence from Mexico. When the Mexican consul objected that the rebels were depicted standing on the Mexican flag they had just lowered, Ref obligingly covered over it in whitewash thin enough that the flag’s colors still dimly show through.

As for the California natives displaced, enslaved, and exterminated in turn by the Spanish, Mexicans, and Americans, Ref showed the Indians as dignified and intelligent individuals and foregrounded them as the workers who had created the wealth of Mission Dolores.

Ref painted a smiling portrait of the man who had made so much art in public places possible—FDR. But his new bosses in the Truman administration ordered him to remove it. He fought the order for seven months but eventually capitulated, writing that even as early as 1947 “the climate was changing. It was necessary to erase the image of Roosevelt and his plans for coexistence, peace, and hope of friendship with the Soviet Union in order to see the American people on to the Cold War.”

Finding Gold at Sutter’s Mill, Mural by Anton Refregier, An argonaut flaunts his find

Finding Gold at Sutter’s Mill, Mural by Anton Refregier
An argonaut flaunts his find

Conservative critics remained unmollified. William Randolph Hearst’s newspapers, savaged Ref’s unorthodox murals for their impiety even before he’d finished them so that, he said, he feared for his safety. When the singer and actor Paul Robeson complimented Ref for including an African-American in his panel of wartime shipyard workers, the artist showed Robeson a clipping from the Hearst press captioned “Refregier paints his favorite subject — the Negro.”

Congressman Richard Nixon wrote that as soon as Republicans had taken over the White House and Congress, a committee would be formed to assure “the removal of all that is found to be inconsistent with American ideals and principles.”

On May 1, 1953, with a Congressional majority and Vice President Nixon in office, the House Committee on Public Works held a dramatic day-long trial of both history and art with Refregier’s murals in the dock. San Francisco leaders of both parties defended Ref’s post office murals, as did others around the world. At home in Woodstock, Ref worried that his masterpiece would be removed and that the lobby would then be like what it was when he started: “White walls, without colors, without ideas, ideas that make some people so mad, and so afraid.”

Dock Strike, Mural by Anton Refregier, Bloody Thursday, 1934

Dock Strike, Mural by Anton Refregier
Bloody Thursday, 1934

However blasphemous his paintings may have seemed to the self-styled patriots at the time, Ref’s brilliant colors and ideas remain on the walls and are now widely recognized as among San Francisco’s greatest—and most truthful — works of public art.

City of Ambition: FDR, La Guardia, and the Making of Modern New York, by Mason B. Williams

As a lifelong Californian, the name La Guardia meant little to me other than an airport and a bronze plaque I once saw at Brooklyn College. That was until I read Mason Williams revelatory book, City of Ambition, about the extraordinarily productive and improbable partnership of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and President Franklin Roosevelt during the Great Depression.

Williams, a professor of Leadership Studies and Political Science at Williams College, masterfully braids together the lives of the two New Yorkers—both born in 1882 and dying just two years apart in their 60s; Roosevelt, the aristocratic country squire; and La Guardia, the glad-handing, Jewish-Italian from Greenwich Village with a knack for languages. Although separated by party affiliation, the Democrat Roosevelt and the Progressive Republican La Guardia both were born to politics and even more so to public service and clean government.

The Roosevelt dynastic fortune was, after all, founded in New York City, which, by the time of the Great Depression, constituted one of the most important and polyglot voting blocs in the country. In the scrappy, irascible, and equally popular mayor, FDR found a partner with whom he could work while delivering support from the city’s voters for his own New Deal initiatives at the federal level. In the city’s Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, both men found a brilliant administrator who used a torrent of New Deal money and labor to radically transform the city, while taking the credit himself.

La Guardia and FDR At the annual Roosevelt Picnic at Hyde Park, NY, 1938

La Guardia and FDR
At the annual Roosevelt Picnic at Hyde Park, NY, 1938
Photo Credit: Courtesy of La Guardia and Wagner Archives, CUNY

The plaque on La Guardia Hall, the handsome brick library building that terminates the grassy axis of Brooklyn College, quotes the Mayor: “Advanced Education Is A Responsibility of Government And Every Boy Or Girl Who Can Absorb It Is Entitled To It.” At a time when students at even public universities obsess more about their debt than sex, I was as impressed by that sentiment as by a campus that has given generations of immigrants and working class youth the opportunity for personal advancement in the ambience of an Ivy League school. 

That, Mason Williams’ book makes clear, is the vision of government’s rightful role that La Guardia and Roosevelt shared. The plethora of parks, schools, colleges, sewers, roads, tunnels, bridges, and libraries they built and the art they left—all of which the Living New Deal has documented in its new map of New Deal sites in New York City—contributed mightily to the city’s rise as one of the world’s foremost cultural hubs and magnets.

Book Review: Tilden Regional Park—Queen of the East Bay Regional Parks, 246pp, 420 photographs

2016 marked the hundredth anniversary of the National Park Service and the 75th of the East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD), a magnificent two-county system now comprising 65 parks and 120,000 acres of remarkably varied land. Both occasions were celebrated with several public events in Tilden Regional Park in the hills above Berkeley, including the debut of Richard Langs’ comprehensive history of the heavily used 2,000-acre park only minutes from the University of California campus.

The connection between the two park systems—as well as the state parks—is not coincidental since it was faculty and graduates of the University who created and largely built the NPS and then, 25 years later, in the depths of the Great Depression, did the same for the nation’s first regional park system. Langs makes clear that Tilden Regional Park is yet another overlooked New Deal legacy.

CCC “boys” made the ten enormous relief models of the East Bay used to persuade voters to pass a bond measure needed to purchase surplus watershed lands that would otherwise have been developed, as was land in the Oakland hills and beyond once New Deal tunnels and roads made them accessible. CCC and WPA workers constructed roads, buildings, picnic areas, and water systems, removed poison oak, and planted thousands of trees now in their maturity.

Langs—an ardent golfer—gives special attention to the building and history of the Tilden public golf course which democratized a sport previously available only to a few. He also chronicles the park’s two steam trains, historic merry-go-round, lakes, Little Farm, and other attractions.

Historic photos culled from the EBRPD archives demonstrate the enormous investment in thought and labor that went into the creation of Tilden. Yet, few visitors regard it as a cultural rather than natural landscape designed for the benefit of millions and generations to come. Fewer still who use Tilden (myself included) know the personal stories of the visionary leaders and staff who made it and its sister parks possible. With the aid of Langs’ research and writing, they can now enjoy the Park in time as well as in space. Available at Tilden Nature Center or by emailing [email protected]

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.

The New Deal at the Movies

The Plow that Broke the Plains, 1936

The Plow that Broke the Plains, 1936
The Plow That Broke the Plains, about the Dust Bowl, was the first U.S. Government-sponsored documentary.

Nothing brings to life the countless ways the New Deal saved millions from bleak poverty while catapulting the nation into the 20th century like the movies its agencies produced.

The Living New Deal’s Berkeley Associate John Elrick compiled a list of one hundred films at San Francisco’s Prelinger Archives, which helped Maryland Associate Brent McKee locate and digitize many held by the National Archives film division in College Park, Maryland. Then Chris Carlsson, a San Francisco historian and writer, entered the films into the Internet Archives where anyone can access them.

A few of the New Deal documentaries such as The River and The Plow That Broke the Plains directed by Pare Lorentz with musical scores by Virgil Thompson, are justifiably famous and classroom fare, but most New Deal films were more amateurish, using stock footage and martial music that has nothing to do with the visuals or narration, and little, if any, plot. Nonetheless, they provide a wealth of historical information including typical work days and camp life of CCC enrollees; how farm-to-market roads, enormous dams, and rural electrification improved the lives of farmers and stimulated productivity; productions by the Federal Theatre Project, which hired and entertained millions of Americans; and an array of public works projects and social programs. For example, Making Aviation Safer for America shows how the hundreds of municipal airports built by the WPA laid the foundation for the commercial airline industry, while stimulating local economies.

The River, 1938

The River, 1938
This film about flooding on the Mississippi was distributed by the Farm Security Administration

While most workers shown in the films are white, We Work Again displays the myriad skilled and unskilled jobs that the WPA provided African-Americans, whose unemployment rate during the Great Depression far exceeded the nation’s rate of 25 percent. Other movies show racially integrated WPA-run nursery schools and CCC camps.

A 1935 newsreel produced by Paramount Pictures —Three Billions to Use — opens with an emphatic address by WPA chief Harry Hopkins, insistent that the U.S. must find its own unique way to put its citizens to work to give them a decent standard of living. Hopkins uses the word decent three times in just two minutes, reiterating what Labor Secretary France Perkins recalled as Franklin Roosevelt’s self-imposed moral responsibility to improve the lives of ordinary Americans: “’Decent’ was the word he (FDR) often used to express what he meant by a proper, adequate, and intelligent way of living.”

The ephemeral movies demonstrate how the Roosevelt administration used an activist government to promote common decency. Unfortunately, many of the films have suffered from deterioration as well as from sequential copying to videotape and digital media. The Living New Deal is prioritizing films for repair so that we can make high-quality movies available to scholars, documentarians, and all interested in watching the New Deal in action. Donations for this work are most welcome!

 

Erasing the United Nations

World War II interrupted, postponed, and ultimately altered what became the last New Deal art project. Artist Anton Refregier embarked on his monumental mural cycle for San Francisco’s Main Post Office in 1946. He began with a study of a heroic, solitary California Indian, and—27 panels and 18 months later—culminated with thesigning the United Nations Charter at that city’s Veterans Memorial Building.

The signing of the U.N. Charter. Mural by Anton Refregier

War and Peace
The signing of the U.N. Charter. Mural by Anton Refregier
Photo Credit: Creative Commons

That event is depicted in a triptych terminating in the post office’s long lobby in which Refregier’s also depicted the horrors of the recent war, multiracial representatives gathered to end war, and Franklin Roosevelt’s face bridging the two. Almost immediately after Roosevelt’s death, reaction set in even as Refregier was still painting.

Refregier had used a photograph of FDR taken after the president’s return from signing the peace treaty at Yalta. “It is a tired, sensitive, and completely beautiful face,” he wrote, “one expressing Roosevelt to me.” He wanted that face to act as a bridge between war and peace and to dedicate the mural cycle to the man “who lives in the heart and minds of the people,” and whose ultimate plan for an international mediating body would, many hoped, end war forever. Hiroshima had demonstrated that the next world war would be the world’s last.

But Refregier’s new bosses in Washington ordered him to delete FDR’s portrait. After resisting the order for seven months, the artist capitulated by replacing the face with a family group representing the Four Freedoms, which Roosevelt had enunciated in his 1941 State of the Union address. Freedom of speech and religion, FDR insisted, must be added to freedom from fear and from want everywhere in the world.

Regregier’s personal papers indicate that he understood the larger implications of the order to remove FDR’s face from this very public building. “The fight was lost[s1] !… The [political] climate was changing. It was necessary to erase the image of Roosevelt and his plans for coexistence and Peace… in order to see the American people on [to] the Cold War.” When Congressmen sought to destroy the murals in 1953, Refregier wrote, “the attack is part of reaction’s drive to destroy the significance of the 1945 U.N. Conference in San Francisco.”

Refregier was not wide of the mark. Although the signing of the U.N. Charter was one of the outstanding events in San Francisco’s history, it is largely forgotten today.

Virginia Gildersleeve, the Dean of Barnard College who attended the conference and who crafted the opening to the charter’s preamble based on that of the United States Constitution, said in her memoirs that Roosevelt’s sudden death “lay like a black shadow over all the world and particularly over the small nations who had pinned their hopes on him.”

As war becomes perpetual in the 21st century, we should remember that under that black shadow, the nations of the world once gathered to abolish it in his memory.

Voices of Destiny, The Roosevelts on the Radio

In thirty "fireside chats" he delivered between 1933 and 1944. Roosevelt appealed to radio listeners for help getting his agenda passed.

FDR delivering one of his fireside chats.
In thirty “fireside chats” he delivered between 1933 and 1944, Roosevelt appealed to radio listeners for help getting his agenda passed.

To understand just why Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt enjoyed such popularity despite the enmity of the nation’s Republican press, you can read their speeches, but better far to hear their voices. NPR recently aired an audio documentary by American Radio Works titled The First Family of Radio that reveals a little-known facet of the First Couple’s remarkable political partnership by weaving together excerpts from many of their broadcasts.

As one commentator notes, FDR was a natural at utilizing the new medium of radio to reach out to Americans as if he was chatting with them by their firesides. Usually beginning with and punctuating his speeches with “my friends,” FDR explained in simple and direct terms complex topics ranging from how the banking system works to what his administration was doing to fight the Depression and then the war. Less known is that Eleanor used radio far more than her husband did to advance the objectives of the New Deal as well as those causes to which she was committed — world peace, civil rights, and above all moral courage.

Eleanor Roosevelt is remembered for her newspaper column, "My Day," but she reached millions through her weekly radio address.

The First Lady on the air
Eleanor Roosevelt is remembered for her newspaper column, “My Day,” but she reached millions through her weekly radio address.

Unlike her husband, however, Eleanor was not a natural as a clip of one of her first broadcasts demonstrates when she fairly shrieks into the microphone. Voice coaching taught her how to drop her voice and to modulate it almost as skillfully as her husband. Both Roosevelts never lost their patrician, mid-Atlantic accents, nor did they need or try to. Indeed, that accent may have been a subliminal key to their success for they projected that they were both friendly neighbors and benign parents. Their voices brought millions as virtual guests into the White House of which FDR once said “I never forget that I live in a house owned by all the American people and that I have been given their trust.”

The most remarkable speech for me was one that Eleanor delivered shortly after the White House learned that the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor. The day before FDR delivered his famous “Day of Infamy” speech, Eleanor was preparing for her weekly radio show across the hall from where the president and his advisors were consulting. She pivoted on a dime and, at 6:45 in the evening, spoke to the nation about the ordeal ahead.

She addressed other mothers as a one who herself had “a boy at sea on a destroyer” (and soon would have three others in combat.) With unwavering determination, she rallied Americans to help one another, concluding “I feel as if I was standing on a rock, and that rock is my faith in my fellow citizens.”

In his 1936 nomination speech, Franklin Roosevelt proclaimed that his was a generation that had a rendezvous with destiny. Through their radio addresses, both Roosevelts ensured that destiny was met.

For Sale: America’s Historic Post Offices

Citizens protest at the Downtown Berkeley Main Post Office

Citizens protest at the Downtown Berkeley Main Post Office
Berkeley, California

 

Despite growing public protest, the U.S. Postal Service is moving apace to sell the public’s historic post offices. Last month, the Postal Service added four more post offices on the National Register of Historic Places to its “For Sale” list: California’s La Jolla Wall Street Post Office, built in 1935; New York City’s Old Chelsea Station on West 18th Street, and the Bronx General Post Office on the Grand Concourse, both built in 1937; and the Berkeley Downtown Post Office, which, in spite of a year long campaign to keep the century-old building in the public domain, was recently slated for sale.

Like many other endangered post offices, these buildings contain unique New Deal artworks.

During the 1930s the federal government put thousands to work building the nation’s postal system.  In big cities and small towns alike, New Deal post offices are among the most artful, architecturally distinguished, and beloved buildings.

The thirteen murals in the Bronx Post Office created by New Deal artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson are considered masterpieces.

The Bronx Post Office
The thirteen murals in the Bronx Post Office created by New Deal artists Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson are considered masterpieces.

“Apparently the country is done with that kind of idealism,” notes Gray Brechin, geographer and Living New Deal Project scholar, “Rather than building beautiful public places, the federal government is selling them off.”

Buildings on the National Register of Historic Places are afforded some protection—their exterior must be preserved. But once sold the buildings are often gutted. In at least one case, a 1937 post office in Virginia Beach, Virginia was demolished to make way for a Walgreen’s pharmacy.

The National Historic Preservation Act ensures public access to public artwork, but when post offices are sold the murals and sculptures often are removed to storage. Even when the art remains in place, it’s up to the new owners whether the public may view it.

The Postal Service financial crisis started in 2006 when Congress required the Postal Service to pre-pay 75 years of workers’ benefits within ten years. Although many blame email for the Postal Service’s demise, the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act of 2006 is responsible for $4 out of every $5 in Postal Service debt—more than $15 billion in 2012. In response, the Postal Service is cutting services and selling many of its most valuable properties.

CB Richard Ellis, a giant commercial real estate firm, holds the exclusive contract to sell postal properties worth billions. CB Richard Ellis’ chairman is Richard Blum, a University of California Regent and the husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein. So far, the press has shown no interest in investigating how that contract was awarded, nor its terms.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR) introduced legislation to repeal the law responsible for the Postal Service’s death spiral. The bill recently passed the Senate but the other has yet to be voted on in the House.


The National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Historic Post Office to its list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Places of 2012.

Read Francis O’Connor’s open letter about post office art »

For a list of endangered post offices go to:  http://www.savethepostoffice.com