Revisiting the “Blue Bible”

 
The “Blue Bible,” compiled 82 years ago, is a “best of” the PWA’s thousands of construction projects. Photo by Gray Brechin.

President Biden’s initial $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal is merely a belated down payment on decades of cost-cutting neglect and deferred maintenance that has brought much of U.S. infrastructure to near third world status. If it passes Congress, his proposal would create a myriad of needed jobs, but it’s also a reminder of the stupendous feat that ”Honest Harold” Ickes achieved modernizing the country in just half a decade. During that time, he served as both a seemingly never sleeping Secretary of the Interior and head of the Public Works Administration (PWA), a vast public works construction agency often confused with its sometimes rival, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under Harry Hopkins.

Harold Ickes
As U.S. Secretary of the Interior throughout FDR’s presidency, Harold Ickes was in charge of implementing major New Deal relief programs, including the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the federal government’s environmental efforts. Courtesy, Wikipedia.

I call the doorstopper of a tome with the snoozer title Public Buildings: Architecture Under the Public Works Administration, 1935-1939 the Blue Bible not only for its buckram binding of that color but also because of the volume of information, much of which the Living New Deal has used on its website. Published by the Government Printing Office in 1939, the richly illustrated book is proof of what could be accomplished in the future.

Contracting with both small, local and giant construction companies such as Bechtel and Kaiser, the PWA stimulated the economy by building dams, airports, schools, colleges, bridges, public hospitals, art galleries, sewage treatment plants, lighthouses, libraries and even sleek Staten Island ferries and Coast Guard cutters. At over 600 pages of text, black and white plates and floor plans arranged by building type, the book shows a nation transformed in short order, yet it is only an abbreviation of a larger report requested by President Roosevelt and compiled by architects C.W. Short and R. Stanley-Brown. They culled hundreds of what they regarded as all-stars from more than 26,000 PWA projects, many of which remain to be discovered.    

Blue Bible Project page

Blue Bible Project page
The PWA funded and administered the construction of more than 34,000 projects. Many outstanding examples appear in these pages. Photo by Gray Brechin.

Despite the gigantic scale and quality of many of the buildings, the plates included in the book identify neither the architects nor engineers responsible for the projects, although the cost is given. They show the smorgasbord of styles popular during the New Deal, ranging from Georgian to Pueblo, from Art Deco and Streamline Moderne to hints of the new International Style. Lavish government patronage led many artists employed by New Deal agencies to compare their era to that of the Renaissance.  The architects who compiled the book wrote, “Today architecture in the U.S. is passing through a period of transition, thus creating a condition which has much in common with that which existed in Italy in the 15th century when the architecture of the Middle Ages was changing to that of the Renaissance.” 

Bonner's Ferry Bridge, Spanning Kootenai River, Idaho

Bonner's Ferry Bridge, Spanning Kootenai River, Idaho
The PWA’s accomplishments include building LaGuardia Airport, the Tri-borough Bridge, and Lincoln Tunnel in New York City; the Skyline Drive in Virginia, and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Grand Coulee Dam. Courtesy, Bridgehunter.com

Scanning the book reminds me of architect and urban designer Daniel Burnham’s famous command in the early 20th century: “Make no small plans,” he said, since “they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” Ickes himself said when dedicating California’s Friant Dam that “Even those of us in Washington who are responsible for carrying out orders sometimes lack comprehension of the mighty sweep of this program.”

Short and Stanley-Brown closed their introduction with a claim you won’t find in any government report today: “This vast building program presents us with a great vision, that of man building primarily for love of and to fulfill the needs of his fellowmen. Perhaps future generations will classify these years as one of the epoch-making periods of advancement in the civilization not only of our own country, but also of the human race.”

PWA Map
Vintage poster describing some of the PWA’s construction projects across America. Courtesy, Digital.library.Cornell.edu

The Blue Bible reminds us today how far the U.S. once materially advanced civilization, even as forces in Europe conspired toward its destruction.

Copies of the book can be acquired on Amazon as originals or as a 1986 paperback reprint by Da Capo Press.

Craighead County Courthouse – Jonesboro AR

The Craighead County Courthouse, an Art Deco style building located in Jonesboro, Arkansas, was constructed in 1934-1935 with the aid of funds provided by the federal Public Works Administration (PWA). The Arkansas General Assembly established Craighead County and established Jonesboro as the seat in 1859. For nearly thirty years, three different buildings served as the county courthouse. In 1885, a two-story brick building with a four-story clock tower was constructed after a fire. By 1933, the building was razed and the stage was set for the new courthouse to be constructed. Elmer Stuck, a prominent local architect, designed the Depression-era courthouse. In 1995, the county expanded the courthouse with the addition of an annex of similar architectural style across Union Street. The two buildings are connected by a brick skywalk. The courthouse was inscribed on the National Register of Historic Places on September 11, 1998 for its association with local architectural history.

Central Assembly Building & Auditorium – Nampa ID

A 1200-seat auditorium in the Public Works Administration (PWA) Moderne style built primarily as an addition to the facilities of Central Junior High School, but also served the Nampa community for many years as a venue for concerts, sporting events, and other large public gatherings.

According to the Idaho Statesman, “The structure was built as a PWA project at a cost of $88,725.88. It is at the corner of Fourteenth avenue and Sixth street south. All intermural sports for the entire system will be played in the new building. Opera seats arranged on three sides of the hard maple center floor will accommodate 1200 persons. Folding chairs may be used to seat an additional 200 persons on the stage. When the auditorium is used for class plays or programs chairs placed upon the main floor will seat 1000 more persons. The building is modernistic in design. Lee R. Cooke, Nampa, was architect and engineer. J.O. Jordan and Son, Boise, was general contractor.”

University of Minnesota: Pioneer Hall – Minneapolis MN

Pioneer Hall is a co-ed residential hall for first-year students at the University of Minnesota. Originally the Men’s Dormitory, the building features colonial architecture and was built in two shifts, the latter with funding from the Public Works Administration. The south side was completed in 1930 and the north side 1934.

Berwyn Municipal Building – Berwyn IL

The Berwyn Municipal Building was completed in 1939 as a non-federal Public Works Administration project. The architects Hubert Burnham and Charles Herrick Hammond were chosen by the city of Berwyn. It was built in the Moderne style and the main façade features large blocks of tan limestone as well as tan glazed bricks and unusual prism shaped pilasters. The main façade features a limestone parapet with “Municipal Building” incised into the stone cornice. On either side of these words are two carved emblems depicting homes emitting a stylized ray of light. The building originally functioned as a government office, fire station, city hall, correctional facility, courthouse & library. The construction of the building cost about $190,00, the PWA supplied $85,000 of the funding.

The architects, Burnham and Hammond, designed many of the futuristic buildings at Chicago’s 1933-34 Century of Progress fair. Hubert Burnham (1882-1968) was a son of famous Chicago architect Daniel Burnham. Hubert and his brother Daniel designed Chicago’s Carbide and Carbon Building (1927-28), which is their best known work. Charles Herrick Hammond (1882-1969) served as the supervising architect of the State of Illinois from 1929 to 1940. Hammond joined Burnham’s firm in 1933.
Burnham and Hammond designed a wide variety of commercial and institutional buildings as well as train stations during their partnership.

The Police Department found different quarters in the 1960s. The library maintained a branch in the basement until the early 1980s. All windows and doors were replaced in the 1990s. There was an addition to the building in 1991 to allow for an elevator to make the building ADA compliant. The building still contains the Berwyn City Hall.

Famed Coit Tower Murals Restored

Mural  “California” by Maxine Albro

Orange Harvest
Mural “California” by Maxine Albro

The long-awaited restoration of twenty-seven New Deal murals at San Francisco’s Coit Tower is complete. The tower re-opened to the public with a ribbon-cutting ceremony on May 14.

The murals were painted in 1934 under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project, the first New Deal employment program for artists.  They depict scenes of California in the 1930s. The Living New Deal’s Advisor Harvey Smith wrote the tower’s new signage interpreting the murals and the tumultuous times that inspired them.

Mural “Library” by Bernard Zakheim

Library
Mural “Library” by Bernard Zakheim

Age and neglect had taken a toll on both the tower and its artworks. Local activists pushed a successful ballot initiative to require the city to dedicate funds to restore and protect the landmark and murals. The tower closed in October 2013 for the $1.3 million upgrade.

Coit Tower, named for Lillie Hitchcock Coit, a colorful local character, was built in 1933. With 360-degree views of the city and the bay, the tower is one of San Francisco’s most visited landmarks.