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.

“Post Office Freak” Hits the Trail

David Gates at the Ladysmith, Wisconsin Post Office

David Gates at the Ladysmith, Wisconsin Post Office
The Colonial Revival-style post office was built in 1935.

A self-described “post office freak,” Chicago native David Gates is on a mission to document the nation’s post office art. The idea came to him during a river rafting trip when he and his friends came upon an unprepossessing post office in Athelstane, Wisconsin, and used it as backdrop for a group photo. Thereafter, David began to take notice of post offices, especially those in small town America.

David, a computer specialist, is an intrepid hiker. His peregrinations include the Pacific Crest and the Appalachian Trails. It was as a through hiker on the Appalachian Trail—a 2,176-mile trek through 14 states—that his obsession with post offices took hold.

The tiny post offices along the route were David’s lifeline during his 6-month journey through the Appalachians. Retrieving the supplies he had mailed to himself via “General Delivery” before starting out led David to post offices in Erwin, Tennessee; Hot Springs, North Carolina; Front Royal, Virginia; Pearisburg, Virginia; Harpers Ferry, West Virginia; Damascus, Virginia; Boiler Springs, Pennsylvania; Glen Cliff, New Hampshire; Caratunk, Maine; and Andover, Maine. He’s been photographing and writing about post offices ever since. His website, Postofficefreak.com, includes nearly 800 blogs about his post offices encounters.

David had originally planned to photograph as many post office buildings as he could, but has since narrowed this quest to documenting New Deal post offices. Many, he found, have been shuttered or sold.

“Unloading a River Barge” by Ruth Grotenrath, 1943.

“Unloading a River Barge” by Ruth Grotenrath, 1943.
Gates searched for the mural in the former Hudson, Wisconsin, Post Office. He found it in storage, no longer viewable by the public. The post office, built in 1939, was sold and is now a restaurant.

New Deal murals and sculpture in post offices were produced between 1934 and 1943 under the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture, later called the Section of Fine Arts. The purpose was to boost the public’s morale during the Great Depression with art that, in the words of President Roosevelt, was “native, human, eager and alive — all of it painted by their own kind in their own country, and painted about things they know and look at often and have touched and loved.”

According to the U.S. Postal Service’s website, “more than 1,150 post offices across the continental United States house this uniquely American art for people to enjoy as they go about their daily lives…The United States Postal Service is making every effort to preserve and safeguard it for future generations.”

That’s not what David says he found. “New Deal artworks that belong to the public are no longer available for the public to enjoy,” he says. “Many of these works have been removed, locked away, and even painted over.  I want to record them before they disappear.”

David recently published a guide to Wisconsin’s 35 New Deal post offices, “so that people can know what’s out there.”

To learn more go to www.Postofficefreak.com

David Gates is the Living New Deal’s Research Associate for Illinois and post office buildings nationwide. He lives in Crystal Lake, Illinois.

Agency Reclaims Imperiled Murals

Five new Deal murals painted in 1938 were in limbo when the Eureka Federal Building was sold.

Nearly lost?
Five new Deal murals painted in 1938 were in limbo when the
Eureka Federal Building was sold.

Five Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP) murals by Thomas Laman will return to public view after more than a decade in limbo. The murals, which depict mining, farming, railroad building, and fauna of northern California, are being restored and will head to McKinleyville, California when a new federal courthouse is completed there next year.

Laman painted the tempera murals in 1936 for the Federal Building in Eureka, California. The building, which has served as a U.S. post office and courthouse since 1911, was sold to a private company in 2002, leaving the fate of its New Deal murals up in the air.

Only a lucky accident saved the Eureka murals.

Last year, the lawyer for the building’s owner contacted the Living New Deal for a referral to an art appraiser—a first step toward selling or donating the murals. We contacted Michael Ramos, an agent in the Office of the Inspector General at the General Services Administration, which oversees federal properties. Ramos’s cases include recovering New Deal art, usually WPA easel paintings. Upon learning that the historic Eureka murals might be removed he launched an investigation.

The murals, by Thomas Laman, are on their way to a new home after the GSA intervened.

Courthouse Mural, Eureka, Calif.
The murals, by Thomas Laman, are on their way to a new home after the GSA intervened.

The GSA concluded that the owner of the building did not have the right to dispose of the murals. After extensive negotiations, ownership of the murals was “conveyed back” to the GSA. In September, the agency officially reclaimed them—essentially returning the murals to public ownership.

There is no official policy about who owns the art in federal buildings, such as post offices, once they are sold. Many public artworks have been lost as a result.

The GSA considers site-specific art to be part of the structure. However, until recently it required only that the GSA be notified if artworks were to be removed once federal properties were sold. Thanks to renewed interest in New Deal artwork, the GSA now retains ownership of the art. It can choose to “loan” it to the building’s owner, but can reclaim it at any time.

Despite mounting public pressure to do so, the U.S. Postal Service, which claims control over all post office artwork, has never articulated its policy for protecting these cultural treasures.

As more federal properties are declared surplus and sold to private buyers, communities are mobilizing to keep the artworks inside—many the legacy of the New Deal—accessible to the public, which, after all, paid for them.

Indians at the Post Office

Indian Bear Dance, by Boris Deutsch, adorns the post office in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

Indian Bear Dance
Indian Bear Dance, by Boris Deutsch, adorns the post office in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service

As communities around the nation protest the dismantling of the U.S. Postal Service and the sell off of historic post offices—some containing New Deal art works—the Smithsonian’s Museum of the American Indian and National Post Office Museum have jointly debuted an online exhibition of post office art depicting Native Americans: Indians at the Post Office: “Native Themes in New Deal-Era Murals.”

A research team pouring over photos of the roughly 1,600 post office murals that were sponsored by the Treasury Section of Fine Arts in the 1930s found that about a quarter of them depicted Indians. From these, the team selected two-dozen murals that it organized into categories including Treaties, Encounter, Conflict, Evangelization, Indian Lifeways, and The Myth of Extinction.

Two Eagle Dancers, 1936 by Stephen Mopope a Kiowa Indian, is one of 16 WPA murals commissioned for the Anadarko, Oklahoma Post Office.

Two Eagle Dancers
Two Eagle Dancers, 1936 by Stephen Mopope a Kiowa Indian, is one of 16 WPA murals commissioned for the Anadarko, Oklahoma Post Office.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service

An essay accompanies each mural detailing its locale, the circumstance of its creation, subject matter, tribal details, artist biography, and more. Largely thanks to papers collected and oral histories conducted by the Archives of American Art, the sometimes subversive intentions of the artists, not obvious to the casual viewer, can now be explained.

Like the lands over which Native Americans and immigrants fought, the team has staked out contested terrain: many New Deal painters hired to adorn the post offices visually reiterated mythologies congenial to those who had won and occupied the land.  But, as a Forward to the exhibition correctly states, the muralists often encountered political minefields, “Artists were constantly reminded by Treasury officials that the communities were their patrons, and they must go to great lengths to satisfy the desires of everyone involved in the project in order to save their commission. Needless to say, “everyone” did not include the Indians they so often depicted. With the exception of a few Native artists and others sympathetic to their forcible displacement, history was portrayed by the victors to legitimate their conquest.

Early Indian Life on Analostan Island is one of seven murals created by Auriel Bussemer in the Arlington, Virginia Post Office

Early Indian Life Analostan Island
Early Indian Life on Analostan Island is one of seven murals created by Auriel Bussemer in the Arlington, Virginia Post Office
Photo Credit: Courtesy of the U.S. Postal Service

‘Indians at the Post Office” suggests other themes yet to be tackled in the continent-spanning gallery of public art created during the Great Depression by the Treasury Section. These could include themes such as local labor and economy, nature, technology, African-Americans, and above all, postal work and service. Since art encompasses fine architecture, such an exhibition should be staged at the National Building Museum only a few blocks from the National Postal Museum. It would provide Americans an opportunity to see what we paid for, and what we are now so rapidly losing.