Sandy Hook

Sandy Hook

Monday, December 06, 2010

Buried Treasure from the WPA Era

WPA Mural

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935 as a continuation of his New Deal, a campaign to revive American optimism and create jobs during the dark days of the depression. From 1935 to 1943 roads and public buildings were built and over eight million jobs were created.

In addition, the WPA’s Federal Art Project hired thousands of artists. “More than 20,000 paintings, murals and sculptures were produced by artists who were paid up to $42 a week. Among them were future superstars Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko and Thomas Hart Benton. Much of the art was installed in public places such as schools and hospitals.”

Just in the past few years, the General Services Administration (GSA) has recovered at least 150 pieces of art.

The Postal Service owns more than 1,200 murals and sculptures that were commissioned by the Treasury Department's Section of Fine Arts from 1934 to 1943. Post office art wasn't meant to create jobs, says Dallan Wordekemper, preservation officer for the Postal Service. Instead, artists competed to create works that would boost morale during the Depression.

The idea, Wordekemper says, was to "bring art to the populace" without charge in a place they visited daily — the local post office. Art that is recovered and restored, he says, often goes right back on post office walls or libraries for the same reasons.

Wordekemper has no budget for repairs, but he says he can sometimes scrounge up funds if a community is willing to raise half the cost. Residents of Herrin, Ill., are collecting donations now to repair a post office mural that had been AWOL for years before the son of a former postal employee returned it. It shows Indians meeting with Revolutionary War hero George Rogers Clark.
Many of the artworks have been lost or destroyed over the years but communities around the country are trying to rescue them. The U.S. Postal Service is diligently working to conserve surviving post office art. The GSA “is cataloguing art created with WPA funding . . . and recovering works that are for sale in auction houses or online.”

Other on-going projects include:

University of Rhode Island: During the renovation of a campus building in July, workers who were tearing down the drywall found six murals behind the plaster. They were painted 71 years ago by Gino Conti and have been hidden for 43 years. The $1.5 million project was paid for by federal stimulus funds.

South Pasadena, California: The “PTA raised $7,000 and won an $8,000 National Trust for Historic Preservation to restore a 1933 bas-relief sculpture showing Civilian Conservation Corps. workers at South Pasadena Middle School. The sculpture had been painted over because its artistic value wasn’t recognized and then sandblasted . . . .”

Florida: St. Petersburg Preservation is monitoring two huge murals of George Snow Hill’s fanciful jungle scenes in a commercial building but the redevelopment project is on hold.

Chicago: When I think of Chicago I think of two things: fantastic food and art everywhere you look. “A grass roots effort and money from arts groups, corporations and the city saved 400 artworks in Chicago public schools, 166 of them by WPA artists. The city has a trove of the art because it was a hub of muralists studying at the Art Institue of Chicago when the WPA began. . . .”

I suppose there’s no chance that our current administration would have the foresight to embark on a modern day WPA. But even if an attempt to launch such a program were made, the Republicans would surely kill it before it even came out of committee.

I couldn’t find illustrations of any of the works featured in this article but following are some of the fine artworks that were produced in those dreary days. Maybe they didn’t put much food in the bellies of the artists but they provided a needed morale boost for the people during that time and an appreciation of the history of that era for the people of today.

WPA Mural
Rudolf Weisenborn
Contemporary Chicago, 1936

WPA Mural
Marguerite Zorach
Hay Making Scene, 1939
Monticello, Indiana

WPA Poster

WPA Mural


  1. I would love to see our society once again reach for such greatness in these dark times....

  2. I grew up in an area where there STILL wouldn't be any bridges if the WPA hadn't existed.

    Isn't it a shame that we got the new Gorbachev, rather than FDR?

  3. Nice reminder of our history. And it's history worth repeating in these times!

  4. Unbeatable. There's a wonderful book of Texas Post Office mural painted during the Depression.

  5. I suppose there’s no chance that our current administration would have the foresight to embark on a modern day WPA.

    I've been cutting Obama a lot of slack but no, the dude has neither a spine nor the ability to pull his head out his ass.

  6. Leslie:

    I’m certain all of us at times suffer from blog-hopping fatigue. Then, I come to your blog and find the most wonderful expressions of your love of the intrinsic beauty around us.

    The most essential restoration needed in this country is a love for such expressions.

    The WPA and the CCC would have never been created if today’s political atmosphere and lack of culture and compassion had existed during the Great Deprsssion.

    I, too, have had the good fortune of experiencing Chicago area art and architecture, so thanks for mentioning it.

    I firmly believe one reason the Kennedy administration is still considered the best of the last half century were the cultural and preservation efforts of president and Mrs. Kennedy. We need that kind of inspiration today.

    Thanks for the effort you put into this post.


  7. JR, Intelliwench, K, BB and BJ:

    Thanks to each of you. I'm fascinated with the federal programs of that time and love the art - especially those sweeping murals. And yes I'm burned out on politicas as usual for the moment - so much so that I wonder if my heart hasn't become apathetic and hardened. I'll save my comments about Obama until I can think more about what I want to say beyond shiiiii-it!

  8. Leslie,
    Nice reminder of the enduring good govt can do, as well as showing worthy projects.
    Beautiful artwork too.

  9. Add me to the list of people who would love to see a WPA like movement today.

    As one who spends considerable time in Mexico, I get to see on a regular basis the works of people like Orozco and Rivera who influenced the American Muralists of this time...

    Thanks for the pictures...

  10. Oso: I wonder what we today would do during such hard times.

    Dave: I love Orazco and Rivera. Even have a couple of cheap prints by Orazco - think my librarian aunt must have cut them out of a book? Heavens no. Probably a mag or something she got during one of her many trips to Old Mexico. I love the place myself - the people, the color, the terrain, the food, pottery and art - and so much more.

  11. When I am in Mexico City, I stay in a Mennonite Guest house that used to be Orozcos home. It is very modest, and inexpensive for the city...

    Have you ever seen his mural in the gov't palace in Guadalajara? it is amazing, the eye follow you...

    Here's a link to a small part of it...

  12. Dave: I've never seen this "live," just in pictures. I'd love to visit it - and other places - in person, such as his mural at the U of M. Google Images has lots of images of both artists' works. Actually, at one time I was thinking of retiring in Mexico.

    I did not know of their influence on the artists of the WPA era. Sounds like a blog or two waiting to happen.

  13. I have been incredibly fortunate art wise in Mexico. i've been to the homes in addition to Orozco of both Rivera and Frida Kahlo. I have spent hours in the cabanas of Guadalajara looking at the ceiling frescos of Orozco and have seen countless works of both Rivera and Siquieros in Mexico City.

    If you love art, Mexico is a fascinating place.

    I am hoping next year to lead an art tour through Guadalajara and Oaxaca.

  14. Sounds exciting. I'll work for travel expenses. ; )

  15. WPA also sponsored some of the finest photo essay work ever done, from the plight of Southern poor farm families, to life in Appalaichia, to the Desert Southwest, to magnificent scenes of Yellowstone and other natural wonders.

    My high school, which has since been made the middle school, was designed and built by the WPA in the late 1930s. I thought it a beautiful structure when I went there 1958-62, and still do. It's proven as durable as it is elegant. The modern building that replaced it as the high school is, well, bleh.

  16. We have several here like that and there are quite a few in Denver. But as you say, we're now in to bleh - and lots of it.

    The photography was out of this world and the writing projects, such as the guides to the different states. The whole program was phenomenal.

  17. ha! just going through your back pages.... & so coincidentally... an artist friend of mine, who specializes mural was commissioned a couple of years ago to restore an old WPA mural in a P0ost Office down in Iowa. The PO was renovating... so the had Lief supervise the removal of the whole wall where the mural was.... re-install it and then do the touch up.. I found a link to the story

  18. okjimm: Thanks for the link but you should really do a piece on him.

  19. Well, the local press has covered him innumerable times...

    ... and I don't know what I could write about him for the blogs.... maybe I should give him a call. He did invite down to see how the new mural is going...