I am sure that the full accomplishments of the WPA will never be known by any one person. It has simply been too large in figures and volume of things done to get it all in one brief statement.
—HOWARD O. HUNTER,
COMMISSIONER, WORK PROJECTS ADMINISTRATION,
TO THE U.S. CONFERENCE OF MAYORS, JANUARY 13, 1942
In fact, after its final death knell on June 30, 1943, no one would care to look at the WPA again for quite some time. In the heat of war, there was too much else to think about, and the agency closed its doors without fanfare. Two years later, when the war was ending and life slowly began to return to normal, Americans did not want to remember the depression. And its physical legacy, the works of the WPA, were so familiar as to go unnoticed. Their ubiquity rendered them invisible. The post-war generation grew up attending WPA-built schools. It rode on WPA roads, attended games at WPA stadiums, applied for marriage licenses at WPA courthouses, read books in WPA libraries, swam in lakes created by WPA dams, adopted pets from WPA animal shelters. But for some weathered plaques and cornerstones that marked these structures, they might have been there always, and they rarely got a moment’s thought.
The accomplishments of the WPA came to be measured in statistics: 650,000 miles of roads, 78,000 bridges, 125,000 civilian and military buildings, 800 airports built, improved, or enlarged, 700 miles of airport runways. It served almost 900 million hot lunches to schoolchildren and operated 1,500 nursery schools. It presented 225,000 concerts to audiences totaling 150 million, performed plays, vaudeville acts, puppet shows, and circuses before 30 million people, and produced almost 475,000 works of art and at least 276 full-length books and 701 pamphlets. Such numbers convey almost no impact by themselves. They are silent on the transformation of the infrastructure that occurred, the modernizing of the country, the malnutrition defeated and educational prospects gained, the new horizons opened.
The workers of the WPA of course moved on.
Grace Overbee, the Kentucky packhorse librarian, moved to a job in a WPA sewing room. When the agency shifted to defense work she and other women working in a building in the Lee County seat, Beattyville, made parachutes and uniforms, and when the WPA shut down she returned to farming and eventually remarried.
Henry Moar, the laborer and blacksmith’s helper at the Timberline Lodge, worked on other WPA jobs, was rejected by the draft, and spent much of his post-WPA life moving blocks of ice around the floor of the Northwestern Ice and Cold Storage plant in Portland.
Frank Goodman, the precocious teenager who headed youth publicity for the Federal Theatre Project in New York, followed John Houseman and Orson Welles to their Mercury Theatre. Anthony Buttitta became a private theatrical publicist for performing groups including the San Francisco Light Opera and a memoirist who recounted both the Federal Theatre and his friendship with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Milton Meltzer became an extraordinarily prolific writer with more than 100 books to his credit. Many were for young people, and one covered the WPA arts programs.
Thomas Fleming, the Writers’ Project researcher in Berkeley, was pink-slipped in a personnel reduction but got another WPA job with the Agriculture Department conducting botanical research. When the WPA shifted to defense work, he took one of the training courses and went to work at the Kaiser shipyard in Richmond, California, building the lightly armored aircraft carrier escorts that were known as “Kaiser coffins.” Near the end of the war, he cofounded with a friend what was then San Francisco’s only black newspaper, the Reporter.
Johnny Mills, who worked on WPA road crews in the mountains near his Jackson County, North Carolina, home, farmed and worked mining olivine, a green-colored, iron-bearing rock used in manufacturing processses for its heat resistance.
John B. Elliott, the archaeologist, moved in 1939 from the Green River digs in western Kentucky to explore Adena mound sites in northern Kentucky near the Ohio River. Using a crew of more than fifty men at a site called the Crigler Mounds, he unearthed an Adena “town house” that had been burned, as well as evidence of several log tomb burials. It was a spectacular and chilling discovery, because the cremated remains around the central tomb forced Elliott’s supervisor, William Webb, to wonder if the Adena had engaged in ritual human sacrifice. The last spade was turned at the Crigler Mounds on January 5, 1942, when all WPA archaeology shut down. Elliott, then thirty and subject to the draft, joined the exodus to farming that was considered vital work during the war. He and his wife returned to his family lands in New Harmony, Indiana, where their daughter was born in April 1942, and they would continue to farm through the war and beyond.
Jimmy Bonanno, the carpenter, spent the war years working for private contractors doing defense-related work in New England and New York State, returning to his family in Brooklyn only periodically. In addition to the monumental task of building Camp Edwards on Cape Cod in record time—its construction became a model for similar camp projects—he worked in Springfield, Massachusetts, and in Utica and Rome, New York. Eager to return home, he applied for a job at Sullivan Drydock and Repair, a Brooklyn shipyard that was building submarine chasers among other vessels for the navy, and although he passed the test he was never called. Nor was he called up for the draft, since his work was vital to the military effort. When he finally returned home for good after the war in the Pacific ended, he was greeted by a brand-new daughter, Annette Nicolina Bonanno.
Howard Hunter joined the army, made lieutenant, was captured by the Germans, and was interned at a prisoner-of-war camp in Adelboden, Switzerland, until the German surrender in May 1945.
Harry Hopkins married his third wife, the former Louise Gill Macy, at the White House in 1942. After Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Warm Springs on April 12, 1945, less than a month before the German surrender, Hopkins performed one last mission for the government. Although sick and frequently confined to bed, at President Harry Truman’s request he mustered the strength to fly to Moscow at the end of May for meetings with Stalin and Soviet foreign minister V. M. Molotov. The talks produced a Soviet concession on voting procedures that salvaged the new United Nations but were less successful at limiting post-war Soviet influence over Poland. At the beginning of July, Hopkins left Washington for the last time and returned with his wife to New York, where they moved into a house on Fifth Avenue and he planned to write about his government experiences. In the meantime, Mayor La Guardia appointed him to arbitrate disputes in the New York garment industry. But his health continued to deteriorate and he died on January 29, 1946, of hemochromatosis, the digestive ailment that had plagued him for years. He was only fifty-five years old.
The great works of the WPA fell victim to neglect and disrepair, its most ambitious initiatives obscured by fading memory.
The Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood was abused by its early patrons, who found the handmade furnishings and art too attractive to resist. They stole watercolors from the walls, stuffed the handmade bedspreads into suitcases, and tossed the wrought-iron lamps with their rawhide shades out the window into the snowbanks, then fished them out and took them home. The lodge closed from 1942 to 1945, reopened after the war, and closed again in 1955 after the electricity was cut off because of unpaid bills. Reopened later the same year, it continued to entertain more visitors than it was built for, and the heavy traffic took its toll on the handmade furnishings that remained.
The WPA turned the San Antonio River Walk over to the city in March 1941. It featured new sidewalks, stone footbridges, stairways from street level, waterside benches, and 4,000 trees, shrubs, and other plantings. Fifty thousand San Antonians came out for the opening and a parade of boats. Then they went away. For almost thirty years, the River Walk languished as a hangout for drunks and derelicts, avoided by most of the city’s residents.
Roosevelt tried to resurrect the ill-fated Florida Ship Canal in 1939, at the beginning of the defense buildup, but by then the cost had risen to an estimated $200 to $300 million, and it was again rejected by the Senate. It was revived yet again during the administration of Lyndon Johnson, this time as a shallower barge canal. This, too, was rejected, and today the only sign of its presence are the tidy frame cottages of Camp Roosevelt, now private homes, and two huge concrete pylons, largely invisible in roadside undergrowth, that would have supported a bridge to carry traffic over the canal.
In New Straitsville, Ohio, the coal fires burning underground grew in notoriety even as the WPA mine crews fought to contain them. Journalist Ernie Pyle supplemented his columns about the fire with a radio report for NBC in which he donned miner’s gear and went underground with a microphone so listeners could hear the crackling flames. Tom Manning of the Ripley’s Believe It or Not radio show broadcast from the Lost Run Mine while helpers threw water on the flames to make the fire roar. Mine engineer James Cavanaugh declared the fire licked on January 1, 1940, and the crews packed up and went away.
But beginning sometime in the late 1960s, the work of the WPA gained new attention. It found fresh appreciation and new advocates. San Antonio’s international Hemisfair, celebrating the city’s 250th anniversary in 1968, sparked a restoration of the River Walk. Today, like the Alamo, it is one of the city’s most popular destinations, treasured by tourists and locals alike. In Oregon in 1975, the nonprofit Friends of Timberline formed to bring the lodge’s glory back to life. Since then it has painstakingly documented the lodge’s art and craftwork, preserved and restored furnishings and decorations and replaced others, including parchment lampshades, hand-woven fabrics, and more than a hundred hand-hooked rugs. It is a measure of the group’s success that Timberline Lodge is today perhaps the nation’s chief monument to the WPA. The Mendocino Woodlands Recreation Demonstration Area, one of the forty-six WPA-built camping areas across the country, is being restored by the State of California and is still used for family recreation and environmental education. (The Catoctin, Maryland, camp called Hi-Catoctin is, as noted, the presidential retreat Camp David.) Pantheon Books, a division of Random House, reissued the state and major city guides of the American Guide series in the early 1980s in both hard- and softcover editions, complete with new introductions and art deco covers to evoke the 1930s.
There are many other survivors of the WPA’s building program, great and small. They include swimming pools, golf courses, tennis courts, parks, zoos, animal shelters, yacht marinas, stadiums, baseball parks, libraries, museums, schools, and too many other examples to mention, but the list goes on. So, too, with the services that it originated. It would be unthinkable today if public-school children were not offered hot lunches at their cafeterias.
Much valuable work was lost, the canvases of the easel art division of the Federal Art Project being the first casualties. Thousands of them were still “unallocated” when Pearl Harbor brought the nation into World War II, meaning that they had not found homes on the walls of government offices as had been intended. In the haste of mobilizing in the emergency of all-out war, they were shipped to warehouses for storage. What happened then—or didn’t happen—became the stuff of urban legend in the art world. At some point the paintings were deemed to be expendable. One account had them being auctioned off as scrap at 4 cents a pound. One auction lot of canvases was purchased by a New York plumbing contractor who intended to use them as pipe insulation, but the oil paint on hot pipes “produced an unattractive smell” and the plumbing man sold them to a secondhand store in Manhattan, where artists including Jackson Pollock rushed to buy their works back for $3 to $5 apiece. A Time magazine item in 1944 recounted the journey of “bales” of easel paintings from a Flushing, Queens, warehouse to a bric-a-brac shop on Canal Street in Manhattan, where art dealers bought them on the cheap—again, $3 to $5—to clean, mount, frame, and resell. Artist/sculptor Pierre Clerk recounts a story his neighbor on the Bowery, abstract impressionist Adolph Gottlieb, told him in the 1960s. Sometime after the war, Gottlieb, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning decided to find out what had happened to their WPA paintings. They pursued various reports and rumors to a plumbing warehouse on Staten Island, where they found hundreds of canvases stacked according to size. They sifted through the stacks until they were exhausted but found none of their own works, and finally retired to the nearest bar in frustration. Barroom tales aside, there seems little doubt that a great deal of the easel art was destroyed. As Art Digest editor Peyton Boswell Jr. wrote, some good art was surely among “the thousands of canvasses…'sold for scrap by the ton.” Audrey McMahon said she was promised that the works would be preserved, and that what happened “is shameful history.”
Yet today the government is asserting its rights to the work that it once scrapped. The General Services Administration, the custodian of federal property, is reclaiming WPA pieces that have fallen into private hands. In June 2006 it stopped a Pennsylvania auction house from selling a consigned painting by WPA artist R. A. D. Miller entitled “House with Fence,” valued at $10,000 to $15,000. Ownership records don’t count, says the GSA, because the government never sold the pieces in the first place. Relying on tips, it targets works that are advertised online or in auction catalogues as WPA art and that still have the Works Progress Administration labels that were pasted to the back to identify them. A GSA fine arts specialist says perhaps half a dozen pieces a year are reclaimed and placed in public buildings or donated to approved institutions. Private art dealers say that collectors have reacted by removing the labels before trying to sell WPA pieces, despite the destruction of provenance that this represents.
The murals have fared better. They, like other works of the WPA, are being rediscovered and restored at sites from New York to California. The works of Charles Alston, Alfred Crimi, Vertis Hayes, and Georgette Seabrooke at Harlem Hospital in New York City were taken down and restored starting in 2005, for reinstallation in a new patient pavilion by 2009. At Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, at the Beach Chalet across from the Pacific Ocean, the frescoes of Lucien Labault, Primo Caredio’s mosaics, and the staircase wood carvings of Michael Von Meyer were cleaned and brought back to their original splendor in 1997 and now anchor the park’s visitors’ center. In Chicago, an artist and art historian named Heather Becker has spearheaded an effort to locate, preserve, and restore WPA and other early-twentieth-century murals, which has evolved into the country’s largest mural preservation program. As a result, the Chicago area now boasts some 437 restored murals in sixty-eight locations, primarily in public schools. Nationally, the National New Deal Preservation Association was formed in 1998 to bring attention to WPA and other New Deal art, construction, and conservation projects.
Looking back, what does the WPA mean? Is it a historic artifact almost lost to living memory, or a model for some sort of future government initiative? Many people wonder if anything like the WPA will ever happen again. The answer to that, at least in terms of the wholesale offering of public jobs, is almost certainly no, despite circumstances such as the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in which it is possible to imagine the benefits of a vast labor force mobilized by a committed government.
What, then, did it mean for the government to exchange faith with its people in such an unprecedented way? In looking at the legacy of the WPA, the fact that shines through the statistics and the human stories, the administrative dramas and political attacks, is the New Deal’s fundamental wisdom of treating people as a resource and not as a commodity. Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Hopkins believed that people given a job to do would do it well, and the fact that their paychecks were issued by the government would make not a whit of difference. They were right. The workers of the WPA shone. They excelled. They created works that even without restoration have lasted for more than seventy years and still stand strong, art that is admired, research that is relied upon, infrastructure that endures. They clothed the threadbare, fed the hungry, taught the illiterate, innoculated the vulnerable. They turned toys that were rich children’s discards into poor children’s treasures. They fought floods and hurricanes and forest fires with bravery that exists today only in the memory of the fewer and fewer who survive, in moldering newsprint, and in the great memory bank created by the Internet. This history and these stories, great and small, remain to be discovered by those who seek them. Those who do will be enriched by what they learn.
One final accomplishment of the WPA’s workers must never be forgotten. These ordinary men and women proved to be extraordinary beyond all expectation. They were golden threads woven in the national fabric. In this, they shamed the political philosophy that discounted their value and rewarded the one that placed its faith in them, thus fulfilling the founding vision of a government by and for its people. All its people.
GLOSSARY OF NEW DEAL “INITIALIZED” AGENCIES
AAA: Agricultural Adjustment Administration. Agency established under the Agricultural Adjustment Act, May 1933, to regulate crop and livestock production.
CCC: Civilian Conservation Corps. Created by presidential act March 31, 1933, to employ young men eighteen to twenty-five in conservation work in national parks and forests.
CWA: Civil Works Administration. Temporary jobs program during winter of 1933–34.
FAP: Federal Art Project.
FERA: Federal Emergency Relief Administration. First federal relief agency established under the Federal Emergency Relief Act, May 12, 1933.
FMP: Federal Music Project.
FSRC: Federal Surplus Relief Corporation. Agency that processed surplus food and fuel for distribution to relief clients. Later became the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation.
FTP: Federal Theatre Project.
FWA: Federal Works Agency. The entity created in Roosevelt’s government reorganization plan in 1939. It included the Work Projects Administration and the reduced Public Works Administration.
FWP: Federal Writers’ Project.
NRA: National Recovery Administration. Agency set up under the National Industrial Recovery Act, June 1933, to establish and monitor “voluntary” industry-wide codes setting production levels and employment standards.
NYA: National Youth Administration. Agency established under the WPA to provide part-time jobs for high school and college students to allow them to earn money while continuing to study.
PWA: Public Works Administration. Construction agency set up under the National Industrial Recovery Act to build major public works.
RFC: Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Agency established under Herbert Hoover, January 22, 1932, to make emergency loans to banks, railroads, and insurance companies. Later authorized to make loans to state and local governments to provide jobs.
TERA: Temporary Emergency Relief Administration. New York State relief agency established under governor Franklin Roosevelt, November 1931.
TVA: Tennessee Valley Authority. Multistate public agency created in May 1933 to build hydroelectric dams to bring electricity and development to a large part of the rural South.
WPA: Works Progress Administration. Established by presidential order May 6, 1935, to move unemployed workers from relief to jobs and to rebuild the national infrastructure. Name later changed to Work Projects Administration.