New Dealish: May 13, Saint Frances Perkins Annual Feast Day

Emblem honoring Frances Perkins at St Andrews Episcopal Church near the Perkins’s homestead in Newcastle, Maine.

Emblem honoring Frances Perkins at St Andrews Episcopal Church near the Perkins’s homestead in Newcastle, Maine.
Photo by Susan Ives

Frances Perkins was the first woman to serve as a US Cabinet Secretary and the nation’s longest-serving Labor Secretary, serving the entirety of FDR’s presidency (1933-45). A witness to New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in which 146 young women perished, Perkins became a life-long advocate for worker’s rights. Despite hostile pushback from industry and Republicans in Congress, as she nevertheless boldly shepherded legislation establishing worker safety standards, child labor regulations, unemployment insurance, a minimum wage and Social Security.

“If American history textbooks accurately reflected the past, Frances Perkins would be recognized as one of the nation’s greatest heroes— as iconic as Benjamin Franklin or Thomas Paine,” says Yale Law School Professor Adam Cohen.In 1944, a piece portraying Frances Perkins in Collier’s magazine described her accomplishments over the previous twelve years as “not so much the Roosevelt New Deal, as … the Perkins New Deal.”

In recognition of her good works and enduring faith and exemplary contributions to the well-being of all people, in 2009 the Episcopal Church designated May 13 as an annual feast day in Perkins’s honor.
Perkins summed up her work simply: “I came to Washington to work for God, FDR, and the millions of forgotten, plain common workingmen.”

Favorite New Deal Site: A Work of Art, Timberline Lodge, Oregon

A Work of Art
Timberline Lodge, Oregon


Vintage Postcard

More than a mile above sea level, Timberline Lodge, about an hour’s drive east of Portland, embodies the New Deal’s aim to make life itself a work of art by wrapping visitors in it. A symphony of craftspeople and artists employed by the WPA rushed the completion of the lodge so that President Roosevelt could dedicate it on September 28, 1937. Eleanor Roosevelt said at the time that she hoped it would become a “permanent arts and crafts center.” Portland interior designer Margery Hoffman Smith downplayed her own role, saying that “Every workman on the job was thrilled by his work because he felt that his creative skill was becoming an integral part in a very significant whole.”  

It is a shrine as much as a lodge for skiers and hikers nearly ninety years on. As a fan of the Craftsman Movement, a visit to Timberline always uplifts me as much by its artistic integrity and the evidence everywhere of the hands that crafted it as by the views from and to the volcanic peak of Mt Hood behind it.

The Lodge is featured at minute 17.50

Learn more: Timberline Lodge: The History, Art, and Craft of an American Icon, by Sarah Baker (Arcadia Publishing, 201 6). Monro. 

— Gray Brechin

 

Tell us about your Favorite New Deal site. Send us a first-person story of 100 (or so) words describing the site and why you chose it. Submissions will appear in future issues of The Fireside! Be sure to include a photo (with photo credit). Send to: [email protected]. Thanks!
 
Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

Advocating for New Deal Art

Artists on WPA, by Moses Soyer, 1935.

Artists on WPA, by Moses Soyer, 1935
Courtesy, SAAM.

Mural, Life of Washington, by Victor Arnautoff, 1937
New Deal artworks often contain social criticism, leading to controversies over censorship. Courtesy, George Washington High School Alumni Association.

New Deal art programs ushered in a watershed decade for American art. From 1933 to 1943, federal art programs hired tens of thousands of unemployed artists, producing over 200,000 artworks, and temporarily making the federal government the single largest patron of contemporary art in the world.

This unprecedented and visionary patronage diversified who made American art and who had access to it, resulting in an immense and widely dispersed New Deal art collection owned by the American people. However, federal funds to properly document, store and preserve New Deal art were not forthcoming, leaving much of

Redwood Screen, by Sargent Claude Johnson
Johnson, an African American artist, worked for the WPA and was a major art figure in the San Francisco Bay Area. His carved redwood screen, commissioned under the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), was once part of UC Berkeley’s art collection, but was neglected and relegated to storage. In 2009, it was sold as “surplus” to a private buyer for $164.63. The work was ultimately acquired by The Huntington. Courtesy, The Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens © The Huntington.”

this art vulnerable to loss. Ideological attacks on New Deal art and artists after World War II, began a decades-long era of neglect, suppression and destruction that continues to impact New Deal art today.

To expand our New Deal art advocacy, tin 2023 the Living New Deal launched the Advocating for New Deal Art (ANDA) initiative and began reaching out to experts in New Deal art. Among them is Barbara Bernstein, the Living New Deal’s Public Art Specialist, who founded the New Deal Art Registry, the first online archive of national scope to document New Deal visual art and artists. She is among the first generation of scholars, curators and allied professionals that in the 1970s and 80s, began to recover

Land's End, by Dong Kingman, 1939
Kingman was one of a few Asian American artists hired under the New Deal. The work of New Deal artists of color is one of the areas of emerging research in the field of New Deal art studies. Courtesy, SAAM

New Deal art’s diverse and complex legacy.

One-on-one conversations with a range of New Deal art experts about how the Living New Deal might provide a platform for a New Deal arts community and helped shape the ANDA initiative’s goals of community building and collaboration; raising public awareness of New Deal art and its legacy; building momentum and resources within the field of New Deal art studies and

WPA Poster
WPA artists designed thousands of posters between 1936 and 1943. By publicizing classes, exhibitions, community activities and theatrical productions the posters served to democratize the arts. Many New Deal-era posters were discarded or lost—only about 2,000 WPA posters are known to exist today. Courtesy, Library of Congress

cultivating greater understanding and appreciation for New Deal art. More than fifty scholars, curators, collectors and other New Deal art professionals have signed on to participate.

An advisory board comprised of four distinguished art historians: Dr. Erika Doss (UT Dallas, Texas); Dr. John Ott (James Madison University, Virginia); Dr. Jody Patterson (Ohio State University, Ohio) and Dr. Jacqueline Francis (California College of the Arts, California), in collaboration with other ANDA participants, will help the Living New Deal engage with the critical issues facing New Deal art and provide opportunities to learn about them.  

On February 14th, the ANDA initiative will hold its first public event, “Confronting the Legacy of New Deal Art in the Twenty-First Century,” a session at the College Arts Association Annual Conference, to be held in Chicago (February 14-17). If you plan to attend CAA, please come to the session!  Learn more.

Mary Okin is the Living New Deal’s Assistant Director and heads the Advocating for New Deal Art initiative. Mary holds a doctorate in the History of Art and Architecture from UC Santa Barbara. She previously taught global and digital humanities at San Jose State University and supported art history research at UC Berkeley.

Quilts Embody the New Deal, Practically and Symbolically

Grandmother from Oklahoma with grandson, working on quilt.
California, Kern County, 1936. Photo: Dorothea Lange, Farm Security Administration, Courtesy, Library of Congress.

During the Great Depression, quiltmaking was a popular activity among Americans. Every smalltown and big city newspaper published a quilt pattern column; over 25,000 Americans entered quilts in the massive Sears Century of Progress quilt contest in hopes of winning a Grand Prize of $1,200; and WPA sewing rooms produced hundreds of thousands of quilts to distribute to Americans in need. 

American quiltmaking as we know it was predominantly a result of the Industrial Revolution, though few colonial and 19th-century women recycled worn textiles into quilts. By the 1930s, however, quilts loomed large in the American imagination as a salvage craft connoting the American spirit of fortitude and making do. Both the federal government and grassroots quiltmakers understood quilts’ simultaneous symbolic and practical potential.

Ella Martin, We Do Our Part, 1933, Montcalm, West Virginia

Ella Martin, We Do Our Part, 1933, Montcalm, West Virginia
Courtesy, West Virginia Department of Archives and History

Symbolically, quilts represented the American spirit of making something out of nothing. Farm Security Administration photographers understood this symbolism and frequently posed women at work on quilts or showcased quilts in use in migrant families’ precarious temporary living conditions. Quiltmakers also recognized the potential of quilts to communicate their political perspectives and loyalties. Dozens of original quilts featuring the National Recovery Act blue eagle—several sent to the White House as thank you gifts to the Roosevelts—served as means of signaling support for this early New Deal initiative.

Mary Gasperik, detail, Road to Recovery, 1939
Courtesy,  the grandchildren of Mary Gasperik.

Similarly, a group of African American women married to TVA workers produced modernist quilts celebrating Black contributions to this major infrastructure project. And women like Fannie Shaw from Texas and Mary Gasperik from Chicago stitched their hopes and dreams for recovering from the Depression into their original quilts.

Practically, quiltmaking provided work. WPA Sewing Rooms were the largest federal New Deal employer of women; to be eligible for these coveted jobs, women could not have a father or husband able to work. Women like Octa Self of Nashville, whose husband left her to raise their five children on her own, earned a modest living supervising the quilt project at one of the local sewing rooms.

Quilt Makers
Mrs. Lizzie Chambers and Mrs. Mary Collier piecing quilts while Mrs. Octa Self, forelady of the quilting project directs the pattern they are to follow. 1936. Records of the Work Projects Administration, National Archives, (69-MP-3-21-550).

In such workshops, women gained new skills, benefited from the moral support of the fellow workers and produced quilts and other goods that New Deal projects distributed on a massive scale to struggling Americans.

At Farm Security Administration Migratory Labor Camps on the West Coast, women’s mutual aid clubs made quilts for newly arriving families. Federally employed home economists supervised many of these quilting projects, earning a wage themselves while imparting sewing and other household management skills to women who were desperate to keep their families afloat. Other women made quilts to sell at curb markets run by the federal government’s Agricultural Extension Service which provided guidance to rural Americans in agricultural and household tasks.

Basket of Tulips, from Pennsylvania Museum Extension Project, c. 1939
Courtesy, Shippensburg University Library Special Collections

Out-of-work artists also used both the practical and symbolic aspects of quilts. As part of the Index of American Design, a program of the Federal Art Project, the government hired artists to create watercolor renderings of over 700 quilts, a fraction of the 18,000 paintings made to document American decorative, folk and commercial art, in hopes of creating a widely distributed portfolio of American design. Pennsylvania’s WPA Museum Extension Project even silkscreened quilt patterns based on historical quilts.

In these ways—both symbolic and practical—New Deal federal programs aimed to harness and celebrate the fortitude of quiltmaking, while providing unemployed Americans with paychecks.

Janneken Smucker, professor of History at West Chester University outside Philadelphia, specializes in digital and public history and material culture. Her 2023 book, A New Deal for Quilts (International Quilt Museum with University of Nebraska Press) explores the ways Depression-era programs drew on quilts and quiltmaking as part of government relief and public relations efforts, and how the quilts themselves conveyed Americans' hopes and dreams for recovery. Watch Dr. Smucker’s webinar, A Living New Deal for Quilts.

Rediscovering New Deal Art in Marin County, California

William Jurgen Hesthal’s 13 x 6 foot terra cotta mosaics, “Comedy" and “Tragedy were created for Tamalpais High School in 1937.

William Jurgen Hesthal’s 13 x 6 foot terra cotta mosaics, “Comedy" and “Tragedy were created for Tamalpais High School in 1937.
The works were restored in 2011 but have yet to be reinstalled. Courtesy, Tam High Alumni Association.

San Francisco boasts some of the greatest examples of New Deal art—from the vibrant frescoes created for Coit Tower in 1934 as the pilot project of the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), to various murals executed under the PWAP’s better-known successor, the WPA’s Federal Art Project (FAP).

After decades of neglect, the murals at Coit Tower, the Beach Chalet and the city’s historic Aquatic Park Bathhouse (now the Maritime Museum run by the National Park Service) and other locations, have been restored and are officially preserved and celebrated.

New Deal art is not confined to major cities, however. Hardly a county or municipality in the United States was untouched by the Roosevelt Administration’s unprecedented federal support for the arts, as painters and sculptors produced works for post offices, schools, hospitals, and other public spaces. To appreciate the full reach of the New Deal, it is instructive to travel to the smaller towns and cities that ring the Bay Area, where public works and artworks funded by the WPA—often unrecognized for their provenance—are coming to light.


Undated performance, probably late 1930s or 1940s, at the Mead Theater at Tamalpais High School, with mosaics by William Hesthal visible on either side of stage. Courtesy, Lucretia Little History Room, Mill Valley Public Library.

A case in point is Mill Valley, just fourteen miles north of San Francisco, in neighboring Marin County. Tamalpais High School was the beneficiary of two large WPA commissions that have received renewed attention in the past two decades. In 1937—the same year that the Golden Gate Bridge opened, contributing to a local population boom, William Hesthal (1908–1985) was commissioned to design a pair of 13-foot-tall mosaics for the Mead Theater, a massive amphitheater built by WPA workers the previous year. A native San Franciscan, Hesthal was one of the 25 artists that had created fresco murals for Coit Tower. His two lunette-shape mosaics for Tam High representing comedy and tragedy were installed on either side of the stage. In the 1970s, the panels were put into storage, where they gradually accumulated dust and debris. In the early 2000s, Tam High alumni mobilized to raise funds for the mosaics’ restoration, which was completed in 2011. The school is still looking for a location on campus to re-install them.

 

Maurice Del Mue’s mural The Golden Hills of Marin, 1938. Oil on canvas, 8 x 38 feet.

Maurice Del Mue’s mural The Golden Hills of Marin, 1938. Oil on canvas, 8 x 38 feet.
Digital reconstruction by Richard Lang in 2003, projecting what mural will look like after restoration. Courtesy, Tamalpais High School Alumni Organization.

A year after Hesthal’s mosaics were completed, another notable Bay Area artist, Maurice del Mue (1875–1955), was hired by the WPA to paint a mural for the high school’s assembly hall. Born in France and raised in San Francisco from age seven, Del Mue studied with the San Francisco Art Association as well as the École des Beaux-Arts, Paris, and worked as an illustrator for the San Francisco Chronicle and the advertising firm Foster & Kleiser. In the early 1920s, he moved to the small town of Forest Knolls in San Geronimo Valley, in western Marin County. Del Mue’s surviving 38-foot-long oil-on-canvas mural for Tam High depicts a bucolic West Marin landscape of rolling hills and farm buildings—most likely an actual ranch near the artist’s home and studio.

As with the mosaics, the mural suffered from later neglect and obscurity: in 1961, it was was removed when the hall was converted to a library and subsequently spent decades in storage tightly rolled up, resulting in widespread cracking. (A companion mural, also believed to have been by Del Mue was destroyed before an art teacher at the school could intervene.) Since the early 2000s Tam High alumni have been seeking to raise the funds necessary for the painting’s extensive restoration.  

Maurice Del Mue's untitled mural for Lagunitas School (now San Geronimo Valley Community Center), 1934. 8 x 17 feet.

Maurice Del Mue's untitled mural for Lagunitas School (now San Geronimo Valley Community Center), 1934. 8 x 17 feet.
Digital reconstruction by Richard Lang in 2003, prior to the work’s 2004 restoration. Courtesy, San Geronimo Valley Community Center.

Del Mue was, in fact, employed by New Deal agencies to create several other murals throughout Marin County during the 1930s. Two 1936 murals for the library at the College of Marin, in Kentfield, had a history strikingly similar to those at Tam High, with one destroyed during renovation in the 1960s and the other preserved only thanks to a vigilant biology teacher; it remains in storage. Very little is known of what became of another Del Mue mural created for the officer’s lounge at the Hamilton Air Force Base in Novato. But Del Mue’s 1934 mural for the Lagunitas School (now the San Geronimo Valley Cultural Center) enjoyed a much happier fate: in 2004 it was restored by art conservator Anne Rosenthal and it remains on permanent view.

All of these works constitute an important part of both local and national history. It is heartening to see communities rallying to preserve this cultural heritage.

Ted Mann is an archivist in the Lucretia Little History Room of the Mill Valley Public Library, where his exhibition Marin as Muse: Artists in Mill Valley and Environs, 1870–2020 remains on view through January 31, 2024. He previously worked as an associate curator at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, and a guest curator at the Manetti Shrem Museum of Art, University of California, Davis.

Favorite New Deal Site: Franklin County Courthouse, Preston, Idaho

Franklin County Courthouse
Preston, Idaho


Designed by Salt Lake City architect Hyrum C. Pope, the Franklin County, Idaho, Courthouse was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. Photo by Richard Walker.

The New Deal was the impetus behind some of the most impressive structures in small-town America. When my partner Joan and I take road trips around the West to get away from everyday hassles and enjoy the magnificent scenery, we always keep our eyes peeled for New Deal discoveries.

We were near the end of a long drive from Missoula to Salt Lake City, when, despite being exhausted, we decided to exit Interstate 15 and take old US Highway 91 south for the last fifty miles. We were rewarded with several New Deal finds.

The Franklin County Courthouse in Preston, Idaho is a striking example. As we were driving through town, Joan’s eye caught the Moderne outline of the building—a gleaming white cube shading into Midcentury Modernism. Our suspicions were confirmed by the brass plaque in the lobby—Public Works Administration (PWA). Another notch on the camera lens!

 
Tell us about your Favorite New Deal site. Send us a first-person story of 100 (or so) words describing the site and why you chose it. Submissions will appear in future issues of The Fireside! Be sure to include a photo (with photo credit). Send to: [email protected]. Thanks!
 
Richard A Walker is the director of the Living New Deal.

Dad’s CCC Yearbook Recalls Life in the Corps

Stuck at home during the pandemic, I began sorting through storage boxes, some not opened since my mother passed away in 1993. I came upon “Memories of the Civilian Conservation Corps,” my father’s 1937 yearbook from his time in the Corps, opening a window into the history and experiences of those who were part of the New Deal’s popular youth program.


The author’s father, William Johnson, Courtesy, Marjory Johnson Wood

My father was a proud member of the CCC, signing on in Cusson, Minnesota, in 1933 at age 21, and serving until 1937. His yearbook describes the adventures of the men of Company #723.

Company #723’s was initially assigned to the Kabetogama State Forest in northernmost Minnesota. He arrived at Vermilion River Camp S94 on January 4, 1934. Among his many assignments were Company Shoemaker, Tool Ensign, Leader, Saw Machine Operator, Tractor Operations Leader, Tool Supply Sergeant and State Toolman. 


CCC OATH      Courtesy, Marjory Johnson Wood

Camp life was far different from anything he had ever experienced. Many of the men were away from home for the first time and holding their first steady jobs. In the early years of the Corps, there were five applicants for every opening. Once admitted, successful candidates like my father took the oath of enrollment followed by two weeks of training at Fort Snelling, Minnesota.

Life in camp provided good meals, hard work and a regular schedule. Enrollees worked under locally experienced men, (LEM’s) and received on-the-job training. Since they were run by the U.S. Army, CCC camps looked and operated like military bases. Camp life meant close association with 200 other men of diverse backgrounds, skills and temperaments and had a profound effect on their health and attitudes from the work, the activity and comradery.


Courtesy, Marjory Johnson Wood

Enrollees had nicknames for almost everything, including each other. They dubbed the U.S. Army, “Mother,” because it fed, clothed, disciplined and sheltered them. When enrollees came down with communicable illnesses such as strep throat, measles or chicken pox, often the best option was to quarantine the infected camp until the disease had run its course. 

In April 1934, Company #723 received orders to move to the fairgrounds in New Caledonia—a distance of 388 miles. Work at the new camp was in quarrying rock, building dams, terracing farms and planting trees. The men lived in tents equipped with Sibley tent stoves dating from the Civil War. Somehow, the men withstood the cold and the smoke from those primitive stoves. 

By November 1934 Company #723 was on the move again— a 400-mile ride from New Caledonia to Orr, Minnesota, in a convoy of thirty trucks. My Dad’s yearbook says, “There is not a man in that convoy who will ever forget the extreme discomfort of riding in open trucks that distance in the November weather we were blessed with.” 


Company 723-CCC-Orr, Minnesota, February 9, 1934.                                        Courtesy, Marjory Johnson Wood.

In January 1935, on a 20-degree below-zero night, a contingent of 135 rookies arrived in Orr by train and were transported in 21 trucks to their camp. It was a tough initiation. The influx put the camp at 295 men. The school house and recreation hall were so crowded with cots that a side camp was opened at Crane Lake where fifty men volunteered to isolate themselves. According to my father’s yearbook, the camp was in a beautiful spot and the enrollees seemed to enjoy their isolation.


Cartoon from 1937 CCC yearbook. Courtesy, Marjory Johnson Wood

In May that year, the equipment was loaded to a special train and the men embarked for their new destination 350 miles south in Lewiston. In October, Company #723 moved again, two blocks away to a new camp still under construction. The wiring at the new camp would not be completed for a month. The enrollees worked on their camp newspaper, read books and played pool by candlelight. One man recalled, “When the lights finally came on, we spent some weary hours scraping tallow off everything that a candle could possibly stand on.”

For holidays, especially Thanksgiving and Christmas, enrollees got special meals that camp newspapers described as like “mother used to prepare.” Though liquor was not allowed in camps, enrollees got a bottle of beer with their holiday meal.

My father was discharged from the CCC on September 13, 1937.


Courtesy, Marjory Johnson Wood

During its 9-year existence (1933-1941), 4,500 CCC camps were built in every state and some territories. Fifty-one camps operated in Minnesota, employing 86,000 young men. The Minnesota CCC’s accomplishments included 650,000 trees planted, 45,000 miles of telephone lines built, 40,000 miles of fire breaks installed, 2,202,000 dams constructed and 32,500 acres of public campgrounds developed. The men also maintained 91,000 miles of telephone lines, 30,000 miles of fire breaks and 163,000 miles of trails and roads.

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE CCC IN MINNESOTA

Marjory Johnson Wood is a native Minnesotan living in Aurora, Minnesota. She is an artist, illustrator and author of two books of Scandinavian folk tales. Her article originally appeared in The TimberJay, a newspaper in Tower, Minnesota. An extended version of this article can be found here.

Government Website Highlights New Deal Art


Maintained as a part of our national and cultural heritage, the GSA Fine Arts Collection is one of our nation’s oldest and largest public art collections. Some of the collection can be viewed online.

A revamped Fine Arts Collection website recently unveiled by the US General Services Administration (GSA) is a bonanza for anyone interested in public art and especially those who love the art of the New Deal. While still a work in progress, the site’s detailed data, cross links and color photographs make it a pleasure to browse and search.  

By far the largest section of the new website site is “New Deal Art 1933-1943.” Unlike Living New Deal’s website, the GSA’s site is not attempting a comprehensive survey of public artworks commissioned under New Deal art projects. Rather, it focuses mainly on easel paintings and works on paper on long-term loan to non-government facilities.

 
A few New Deal murals are currently included in the GSA’s online catalogue, including Phillip Guston’s, Reconstruction and the Wellbeing of the Family, 1943,
at the Wilbur J. Cohen Building, Washington, DC. Photo Credit: Carol M. Highsmith Photography.

New Deal agencies that employed artists routinely offered paintings and drawings to museums, schools, libraries, and other civic and nonprofit institutions. Recordkeeping was spotty at best. Over the decades the government lost track of most of the collection as pieces were moved, borrowed, stolen, sold, put into storage and often forgotten.

GSA, set up in 1949 to manage federal properties and contracts for government agencies, seems to have realized in the 1970s that these were important works of art. Their belated efforts to inventory these works required starting almost from scratch. To date, over 20,000 artworks have been located. There is still a long way to go. Of the New Deal artworks in the online catalogue, only about 20 percent include photographs. (GSA says it is hoping to eventually have a photo for each one.) Only a few murals and sculptures are included; GSA’s responsibility for murals and other “fixed-in-place” New Deal art is unclear and inconsistent.

Celtic Illuminations,1933-34, by Theodora Harrison at the Seattle Ar t Museum

Celtic Illuminations,1933-34, by Theodora Harrison at the Seattle Art Museum
In addition to artworks at federal buildings, the GSA’s website describes more than 20,000 New Deal artworks on long-term loan to museums and other nonprofit institutions.

Yet, the hundreds of photographs already on display online reveal a remarkable range of subjects, styles and quality. There is a series of “Celtic Illuminations;” a lithograph of Amish children ice skating; an abstract study of a twirling ballerina; a Berenice Abbott photograph of Manhattan’s “Billy’s Bar and Restaurant;” and beautiful watercolors of Native American basketry and jars. There are many of scenes of city life, workers on the job, farms, slums, ships, deserts and some uncategorizable curiosities.


The GSA’s Fine Arts Collection website shows the range of styles and media New Deal artists employed.

Clicking on a thumbnail provides an enlarged photograph along with the year, medium, dimensions, artist’s name and the artwork’s location. This last bit of data proves the real value of GSA’s efforts. Much New Deal art disappeared into the storage vaults of museums to which it was allocated. For example, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art reportedly received 875 pieces—photographs, paintings, drawings, textiles, sculptures—of which only a small number has ever been displayed.


Sculpture, Family Group by Emma Lou Davis, 1941, Wilbur J. Cohen Building, Washington, DC. The GSA online art catalogue is searchable by artist or artwork. Some descriptions of artworks in the collection include links to videos.

GSA says it “continues to work with the museum community to develop cooperative agreements for the future care of…these important works of art.” Admirers of New Deal art hope that this will encourage more local “repositories” to exhume and exhibit the New Deal artworks entrusted to them.  

If your institution houses New Deal works of art or you would like more information, send the request to:

Fine Arts Program
Office of the Chief Architect
U.S. General Services Administration
1800 F Street, NW
Washington, DC 20405
[email protected]

Barbara Bernstein founded the online New Deal Art Registry and is now the Public Art Specialist at the Living New Deal Project.

Staged in Stone


The Civil Works Administration built the amphitheatre at Berkeley’s Hinkel Park, completed in 1934. The park commission reported that the “CWA funds not only provided much needed relief to the unemployed, but also gave to the citizens of Berkeley a new means of cultural recreation.”
Courtesy, City of Berkeley Parks and Recreation.

Open air theatres, from the modest 350-seat amphitheater in John Hinkel Park in Berkeley California, built of salvaged concrete by Civil Works Administration workers, to the internationally famous 9,000-seat Red Rocks Amphitheater above Denver— probably the greatest single project of the Civilian Conservation Corps—continue to provide live entertainment to millions of Americans unaware of the theaters’ shared New Deal parentage.

The Living New Deal’s website describes 137 of these open-air venues, but there are doubtless many more. Historian and Living New Deal Associate Brent McKee has identified 1,121 outdoor theatres in a dazzling range of designs. He suspects that more remain to be found.


The CCC commenced construction of Red Rocks near Morrison, Colorado, in 1936. The 9,525-seat amphitheater took five years to complete. Photo by Susan Ives.

Detailing the largely improvisatory design and construction of Colorado’s Red Rocks and the Cushing Memorial Mountain Theatre at Mount Tamalpais State Park in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, a paper by Professors Linda Jewell and Steve Rasmussen Cancian quotes William Penn Mott, former director of the National Park Service, who said that the primary purpose of these amphitheaters was “to keep the [CCC] boys busy.” But there was more to them than that. 

Other New Deal agencies, including the Civil Works Administration (CWA), National Youth Administration (NYA) and Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA) built amphitheaters as well.


Built by the CCC, the Sidney B. Cushing Memorial Theater at Mt Tamalpais State Park offers stunning views across the bay to San Francisco.
Serpentine rocks provide seating for 4,000 who attend the “Mountain Play” in summer.
Courtesy, Marin County Free Library. Anne T. Kent California Room.

As McKee notes, “the thousands of performances by the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project, Federal Dance Project and Federal Music Project, and also the many work-relief jobs offered to stage designers, lighting technicians, directors, actors, musicians, circus performers, etc.[made] the New Deal .. a truly revolutionary era in the history of performing arts,” while at the same time helping to end the Great Depression. 

In their frequent emulation of Greek models, the designers of these public spaces may have sought to bolster democracy as well by bringing Americans together.

Among the most impressive of these New Deal creations is Woodminster Amphitheater, high in the hills of Oakland, California. It is far more than a theater, but rather an immense work of landscape art by WPA workers.  

Woodminster Amphitheater

Woodminster Amphitheater
The stage is bordered by two 18-foot sculptures by Edward T. Foulkes, representing family closeness. Courtesy Oakland Public Library, Oakland History Room

Woodminster began as the dream of Gertrude Mott, who led the California Writer’s Club to champion an “Open-Air Theater and Temple of Honor” dedicated to the state’s past and future writers. Theater and temple were to be sited on land once owned and described by the poet Joaquin Miller (1837-1913) as “these Greek heights.” But it was not until the WPA made work crews available that the 1,500-seat Woodminster Amphitheater took shape between 1938 and 1940 in a city park named for Miller. 

Vintage postcard

Vintage postcard
Courtesy, Wikimedia.org

Dubbed Oakland’s Cathedral in the Woods, the theater is reached by a series of stone ramps, terraces and stairs. It faces a stage wall embellished by colossal Moderne-design sculptures representing family tenderness. Water gushes from the base of the wall, cascading a hundred feet through reflection pools and groves of redwoods and olive trees. At the bottom of the cascade, twin fountains once erupted with changing plumes of spray lit at night by an electric console capable of producing almost 1,300 different combinations of light and color. The spectacle was visible from the Art Deco wonderland of Treasure Island’s 1939 Golden Gate International Exposition, itself the product of WPA and PWA funding and labor.


Woodminster’s cascade and fountain are now in disrepair.
Courtesy, Oaklandmomma.com.

Now used primarily for summer stock musicals and high school graduations, Woodminster’s fountains are dry; its broken lighting, rockwork and neglected landscaping reflect the decaying condition of many once-vibrant New Deal landscapes built to rescue a democracy in grave peril. Their restoration might help to do the same today.

Gray Brechin is a geographer and Project Scholar of the Living New Deal. He is the author of Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin.

A New Deal for Dalhart: Reviving a Rural Texas Town

Dust clouds over Dalhart, 1936

Dust clouds over Dalhart, 1936
During the Great Depression, winds swept away parched topsoil, dooming farms, businesses and the national bank in Dalhart. Photographer unknown. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

“The thirties began in economic depression and in drought. The first of these disasters usually gets all the attention, although for many Americans living on farms, drought was the more serious problem,” Donald Worster wrote in his 1979 Bancroft Prize-winning chronicle, Dust Bowl. This could not be truer than in Dalhart, Texas, the epicenter of the Dust Bowl.  

Born at the turn of the 20th century as an important railroad crossing in the northwest corner of the Texas Panhandle, Dalhart became a prosperous agricultural community, home to the XIT Ranch, then the largest cattle ranch in the world. But by the 1930s, extreme drought combined with the region’s notorious wind led to the soil erosion that ultimately devastated the town’s agricultural industry.

Abandoned farm near Dalhart, Texas

Abandoned farm near Dalhart, Texas
Photo by Dorothea Lange, Resettlement Administration, 1938. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Things began to turn around in 1934 with the emergence of the New Deal, when the USDA’s Soil Conservation Service chose Dalhart, the county seat, for one of the nation’s first erosion-control demonstration projects—the first to focus solely on wind erosion.

Initially manned by the Civilian Conservation Corps and the Works Progress Administration, these rehabilitation projects restored grasslands in areas not suitable for farming and introduced new methods of moisture retention, such as terracing, crop rotations and contour plowing. The success of the projects combined with new federal loan programs incentivized farmers to adopt the new practices, which boosted the local economy and popularized conservation practices. By 1936, more than 40,000 farmers throughout the region had adopted the new methods, accounting for more than 5.5 million acres of contour-listed conservation.

The drought committee from the Soil Conservation Service surveys sand dunes just a few miles north of Dalhart.
Photo by Arthur Rothstein, Farm Security Administration, 1936. Courtesy, The New York Public Library.

These restoration programs revived the agricultural economy of Dallam County, today one of the largest agricultural producing counties in Texas by value, with the city of Dalhart serving as an agribusiness hub for a region stretching across five states.

The impact of the New Deal didn’t stop at the agricultural revival of Dalhart’s farmlands. The destruction caused by the Dust Bowl also meant the city itself needed rehabilitation assistance. The WPA was responsible for damming the Rita Blanca Lake (now a city-owned recreation site), paving downtown streets, constructing underpasses to accommodate vehicle and rail traffic and building Dalhart’s downtown post office, today owned by Vingo Vineyards Winery.

Vintage Postcard, Dalhart, Texas Post Office

Vintage Postcard, Dalhart, Texas Post Office
The former Dalhart, Texas post office building was constructed with federal Treasury Department funds in 1934.

Dalhart owes much of its mid-century revival to the New Deal and the impact of the Soil Conservation Service. Today, the City is committed to historic preservation efforts, many of which highlight the New Deal-era. Restoring Dalhart’s historic downtown has become a priority.  

Paved with bricks laid by WPA workers, Denrock Avenue is lined with historic storefront buildings that, like the city itself, withstood the hardest of times. Restoring and preserving this history is part and parcel of the vision for the city’s future as a destination for visitors, a vibrant commercial center and a source of pride for Dalhart’s resilient residents. 

WATCH: Dalhart Dust Storm
Newsreel footage reveals the devastation of soil erosion and dust storms to the town and farms around the panhandle town of Dalhart,1930s. Courtesy, Texas Archive.org

Bryce Jones is the Community Development Manager for the City of Dalhart, Texas. In his role, he is focused on downtown development and historic preservation.