Turning Controversy into Consensus

Olin Dows, 1937

Olin Dows, 1937
Dows painted the post office murals in Rhinebeck and Hyde Park, New York. He served as an administrator for the first New Deal relief program for artists, the Public Works Art Project (PWAP), and later headed the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP). Courtesy, Wilderstein Preservation.

The New Deal’s efforts to create jobs extended to thousands of artists on relief. Between 1934 and 1943, several government-sponsored programs dedicated to art and culture sponsored the creation of artworks in public buildings. The Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture, later renamed the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, commissioned more than 1,400 murals in post offices nationwide.

In addition to putting artists to work, the post office murals were seen as a way to boost general morale during hardships of the Great Depression. Many of the murals feature historical depictions of the places in which they reside. Some have sparked controversy for their depictions of race and gender.

The murals at the Rhinebeck, New York, Post Office are the work of (Stephen) Olin Dows (1904-1981), a native of the Hudson River Valley and family friend of FDR.  Dows studied at Harvard and the Yale School of Fine Arts and, significantly, spent the summer of 1929 in Mexico where he met such luminaries as Diego Rivera. 

Dows’ twelve murals at the Rhinebeck Post Office depict over 400 years of the region’s history, from the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609 through the post office’s dedication in 1939.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural
Enslaved men had been described as “stevedores” in a 1940 brochure about the murals. Courtesy, therivernewsroom.com.

Slavery was common in New York until it was abolished in 1827. Dows’ murals include several images of Blacks that likely were slaves. One mural portrays two men carrying cargo to a waiting sloop. Another shows a man working at a brick kiln. A third shows a youth harvesting corn.

Some Rhinebeck residents questioned whether depictions of enslaved people should remain part of a public mural. Dows’ depictions of Native Americans also came under criticism. When the Regional Office of the Postal Service, citing public concerns, announced last year that it planned to remove or cover the murals, Rhinebeck residents saw an opportunity to open a discussion about racial justice and Black history.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural
Depictions of Blacks and Native Americans sparked a community dialogue. Courtesy, therivernewsroom.com.

The goal of the community conversation, which was held online owing to the pandemic, was to listen and understand, and not change minds. The participants included local officials and community representatives who adopted guidelines they called, “I say, I see…”  The discussions resulted in an alternative to removing the murals by improving their role as educational artifacts. 

Dows intended the Rhinebeck murals to be educational as well as a celebration of local history. In 1940 he authored a companion brochure explaining the murals panel by panel. When the murals came under threat, Dows’ original brochure became the inspiration for a new brochure that would address the murals’ controversial content.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural by Olin Dows, 1940.

Rhinebeck Post Office Mural by Olin Dows, 1940.
Controversies can arise when New Deal-era murals include imagery considered offensive today. Courtesy, DCHS.

A consensus emerged around the need to provide historical context for the murals. The revised brochure, “Invisible People, Untold Stories” focuses on seven of the murals’ scenes. Under “The Mural Depicts,” text explains that General and Janet Montgomery, shown planting seedlings, settled in Rhinebeck in 1774.  Opposite, under “Source Materials Reveal,” we also learn that 421 of Rhinebeck’s 491 persons of color were enslaved.  In another example, “The Mural Depicts” we see Black “stevedores” at work. Under “Source Materials Reveal” we learn that one enslaved stevedore named Tom was 24 years old in 1799 and stood 5 feet 10 inches tall.  

”Invisible People, Untold Stories”
A community conversation resulted in a booklet that provides historical context for the Rhinebeck murals. Photo by Bill Jeffway.

The brochures are used in local schools, but the booklet is essentially an online tool. A digital kiosk, offering a self-guided educational tool that can be viewed from any touchscreen, is in development. Outreach to tribal representatives has just begun to evaluate the potential for more learning opportunities.

View the booklet, “Invisible People, Untold Stories”

Learn more about endangered New Deal artworks and ways communities and institutions can respond.

Bill Jeffway is Executive Director of the Dutchess County Historical Society. He serves on the research committee of Celebrating the African Spirit, and is the founder of HistorySpeaks, a consultancy that documents the past in relevant and colorful ways. [email protected]

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.

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.

Book Review: Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene, pp 170

Ben Shahns New Deal Murals

Ben Shahns New Deal Murals
by Diana Linden, Wayne State University, Reviewed by Gabriel Milner, Ph.D.

A prolific visual artist before, during, and after the New Deal, Ben Shahn’s religion (Judaism), place of birth (Lithuania), and first language (Yiddish), set him apart as a member of “the ‘Hebrew Race,’ a racial assignment both inferior and vastly different from white or Caucasian artists among whom Shahn is positioned today.” This identity, all-important at the time but largely overlooked now, accounted for a sense of history, community, and engagement with the world that Shahn manifested in his innovative and unflinching murals.

Ben Shahn’s New Deal Murals: Jewish Identity in the American Scene, a finalist in the Visual Arts category of the 2015 National Jewish Book Awards, examines four works that Shahn completed or envisioned while working for the WPA. Shahn learned fresco painting as an assistant to Diego Rivera in the 1930s and created his own visually powerful style as a muralist for the New Deal Arts Project.  After situating Shahn within early 20th Century New York, the book delves into the conception, creation, and reception of four murals:  “The Jersey Homesteads Mural,” which Shahn painted for a cooperative community of former Jewish garment workers established under the New Deal; the Bronx Central Post Office murals; a mural he proposed for the main St. Louis Post Office; and an easel painting in a Queens post office. Setting them within their national and international contexts, including Jewish agrarian communities in the Soviet Union, the rise of Nazi Germany, and life in Manhattan where Shahn lived and worked, Linden illustrates how the artist layered identities and eras to make America comprehensible to an “in between” people.

For instance, the Jersey Homesteads Mural celebrated American workers while alluding to the promise and disillusionment that the nation held for immigrants fleeing persecution. Linden maintains that it echoes the mass exodus of Eastern European Jews to America and the story of the Exodus from Egypt, calling attention to America’s stringent immigration policies at a time when Jews were fleeing Nazi persecution. In Shahn’s proposed St. Louis mural depicting Missouri’s history, prominent barbed wire suggests “an important tool by which white settlers kept ‘others’ out in order to claim the land for themselves,” as well as the Nazis’ use of “barbed wire as a tool to contain people,” Linden observes.

In Linden’s view, Shahn’s goal was to “spark positive social change.” Her book, bolstered by vibrant reproductions of Shahn’s murals, sketches, and photographs, shows that his view of art was to compel rather than simply commemorate.  Readers interested in Jewish American history, art history, and Depression-era American culture will enjoy this insightful book.

is Project Manager for The Living New Deal. He is a trained cultural historian who teaches courses in U.S. History at the University of California, Berkeley, and Stanford University.

“Post Office Fans” Hits the Trail

David W. Gates Jr. at the Ladysmith, Wisconsin Post Office

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

Susan Ives is communications director for the Living New Deal and editor of the Living New Deal newsletter.

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.

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

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.


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.