WPA Buildings
Architecture and Art of the New Deal
Joseph Maresca
When we were growing up, we found them everywhere in city center. Marble and granite. Monumental rather than massive. Art deco lamps of frosted glass, elegant brass clips and rings. Austere no nonsense clocks, often framed in sharp brass.

Intricate doors, opening into imposing two or three storied entryways. Murals covering whole walls: block figures, not just sitting, but doing things: sowing wheat, working the post office, marching across the plains, digging holes, constructing buildings, constructing a hopeful future, leading us out of the depressing 1930s depression.

A cathedral-like spaciousness throughout, spare but utilitarian, just enough angles to make it stylish rather than fancy. The powerful vertical lines, bent artfully at corners. Long windows - - - five, six, eight, twelve stories high, with square bays atop to remind one of formal columns.

It all came to us courtesy the federal government under the aegis of the WPA - - - the Works Progress Administration, which oversaw the construction of courthouses, post offices, city halls, and various New Deal agency buildings in Washington, D.C. and throughout the country.

Joseph Maresca, the highly knowledgeable author of WPA Buildings, sees, everywhere, a unity of style of these structures which began to appear starting in 1933, continuing into the early 1940s:

    certain structures and sculptural embellishments that stand out with their crisp imposing stonework and distinguished but reserved decoration. These WPA-created federal courthouses and post offices strike one immediately as civic buildings - - - public structures of importance. With their symbolic carvings and motifs, they proudly announce that the American government has arrived as a steady presence - - - the eagle has landed. Indeed, with their carved reliefs and solidly calm appearance, their rows of of tall glass and bronze windows, they exude a sense of permanence. All of this public work cost, in the end, $11 billion but the results have been long lasting. One has but to glance today at the federal buildings in places like Key West or Kansas City, Missouri, or Binghamton, New York to be aware of their continuing sense of authority and civic duty.

These projects were not original to Roosevelt's time in office. "The 1926 Public Buildings Act" had allowed the government to hire private architects to design federal buildings. The act led to an era of robust construction, all completed under the Supervising Architect's Office of the Treasury Department."

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What to call these buildings from that era? "PWA Modernes?" "Stripped classical moderne?" These new buildings "had angular piers, stripped of decoration to emphasize the play of light and dark under the façade." The author sees them as structures with "strong verticals and sculpted massing . . . a familiar template."

He also thinks of them, rightly so, as propaganda, "to show American stability" in the depths of the depression, structures to powerfully "promote and maintain" the natural order.

These massive structures are perhaps the best of the breed. Like the Oregon State Capitol "an ode to the Greek in streamlined elegance." Or the Bathouse Building in San Francisco . . . looks just like a huge ocean liner steaming up from the ocean and down the street. The Federal Building in Hartford, Connecticut: "A bit of imperial Rome in Hartford, the Cotter building retains vestiges of the classical." St. Paul City Hall and Ramsey County Courthouse, "a classic moderne small skyscraper with beautifully massed elements and a clear emphasis on the vertical," with a spectacular lobby, which Maresca reports, with enthusiasm,

    Without question, the most exuberantly art deco of all the spaces in this book. A complete chiaroscuro film noir experience.

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WPA Buildings consists of nine chapters, along with introduction and afterword - - - and it's a dilly. I would guess that in its 150 or so pages there are at least 300 photographs, many of them striking. The author chose buildings in nineteen states and in the District of Columbia. In the latter, we have the Department of Interior Building, the Federal Trade Commission Building, the Ariel Rios Federal Building, the U. S. Department of Justice Building, and the War Department Building.

(In those days, they didn't hide the most massively expensive branch of the federal government under the rubric of "the Pentagon" or "the Department of Defense." Nope: war is war and the government needs a structure honestly named after it's most important function. Thus, the Department of War.)

Chapter Nine features "The WPA and the Art of the Mural." It includes many of the gorgeous wall decorations offered here with a touch of the same reverence as in the earlier Wall-to-Wall America: Post Office Murals in the Great Depression.

And, as we pointed out above, the forty displays shown here in large 6x9 format are of people doing stuff. Taming horses, cutting wood, playing guitars, building buildings, delivering packages, groceries and mail, discovering gold, fighting Indians, getting robbed(!) and, by gum, in one across a far wall at the Library of Congress, going on pilgrimages - - - a tribute, of all things, to Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

There is even a surprisingly contemporary and very colorful panel by Emil Bisttram. It's from 1937, and it's titled "Contemporary Justice and Woman." Women are not just shown having babies or washing clothes or cooking - - - although these do appear in smaller plates at the bottom, but, along the sides - - - doing sculpture, graduating from college, working in a laboratory, dancing, playing golf and tennis. The center-piece shows a daunting woman with sword which has obviously just struck chains from the wrists of the enslaved.

The indigenous peoples of America are not merely shown dancing around with tomahawks.

    Native Americans were popular subjects for the Department of the Interior building, home to the Bureau of Indian Affairs offices. Apache, Pottawattamie, Kiowa, and Cherokee tribes, among others, can be seen in the grand murals in the employees' cafeteria, "which has delighted the workers since its instalation.

"In this vast and naturally lit space where both front and rear walls are arched, following the curve of the ceiling vault, the American Indians' story is told with color and an immediacy of spirit."

As always, Maresca addresses himself to form and function, how murals were set almost organically, some to resonate with the building that houses them, others to enliven the long hallways walls that often mark governmental workspaces.

It is the detail that marks this volume. There's a leisurely grace to these buildings that was often subtly rendered in high art in the most hum-drum surroundings. Walls were not only laced with a surprising variety of murals, marble walls were engraved with mock-columns to break up enclosed spaces. Lighting set in the ceilings was often decorative, and floors often had a terrazo design. Staircases joined in the decorative patterns. Courtrooms would be decorated with wooden paneling that included intricate veneers. The Custom House in Key West sports some unlikely brass torchères which, given the climate, turn rustically green under the Florida seacoast weathering. A simple parkway stanchion is carved with conjoining decorative horizontal and vertical lines. The ceiling lamps in the Federal Building in Hartford show an almost gleeful ornamental clasps around the buffed glass.

The same building shows a just-this-moment-landed brass eagle on the roof, one that could easily be taken for a floating gargoyle. And the lobby of the U. S Courthouse in Philadelphia sports a ferociously beautiful blue marble patterned dome and six lush black marble columns with intricately carved copper patterns at the top.

The surprise in this volume is that we get to see the federal government acting as a benign, almost loving part in people's lives. During its life, the WPA hired over 11,000,000 of the out-of-work, and gave them meaningful jobs in constructing some ravishingly splendid buildings, buildings not meant to lord over those who lived or worked in them, but that were subtly elegant, each being a work of art, offering a sublime working environment for those who worked there, or came for the services offered there.

I'm thinking how different this from what we have now in Washington. With well over eleven million unemployed (ignoring those who have just given up job-seeking), why is there not a new Works Project Administration now giving jobs to those throughout the country who are in such desperate straits? A gentle and inspired system to rebuild our cities, give work to those who so desperately need it, offer hope to all.

--- Lolita Lark
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