Great Depression program still benefiting Americans today

As the Great Depression wore on, a government initiative put millions, including artists, to work

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To say the United States was in bad shape in 1933 would be an understatement. The unemployment rate was creeping toward 25 percent, and the country's infrastructure ranged from declining to nonexistent.

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in the spring of that year, he recognized that people needed jobs and the nation's infrastructure desperately needed a makeover.

He began by providing direct relief in the form of checks and food, but Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt's relief administrator, thought it was better for the government to provide jobs rather than hand out checks, according to Nick Taylor, author of "American Made: The Enduring Legacy of The WPA: When FDR Put the Nation to Work."

Out of these grave circumstances, the Works Progress Administration, part of FDR's New Deal, was born.

While some of the work created throughout the Works Progress Administration's run -- 1935 to 1943 -- has disappeared or is buried in state archives, many WPA projects still are benefiting Americans today, including art and infrastructure projects across Western Pennsylvania.

Initially, WPA ventures were largely infrastructure projects, updating roads, bridges, tunnels and retaining walls as well as rehabilitating buildings, cataloging government documents and compiling records. Women were put to work sewing clothes and blankets and serving as housekeepers, according to records from the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's Pennsylvania Department.

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article from Sept. 7, 1935, lists 26 WPA projects in Allegheny County, ranging from treating Pittsburgh streets with "bituminous penetration" and making improvements to the borough building in Braddock to completing a sewer system in Clairton and constructing gutters in McKeesport.

In an effort to employ as many people as possible, jobs were expanded to include artists of all kinds -- painters, sculptors, actors, playwrights and writers.

"Gee whiz, there's no sense in making a first-rate violinist who doesn't have a job into a second-rate road builder," Mr. Taylor said.

WPA projects here

Mr. Taylor said one of the biggest improvements that came out of the WPA was the construction of airports. In the early 1930s, larger passenger planes were starting to be built, but there weren't many airports throughout the country. The WPA, he said, "advanced the age of civil aviation incredibly," building a total of 600 airports across the United States, including the footprint for what would become Pittsburgh International Airport. Construction of the airport in Moon began on April 20, 1942, after the WPA purchased the former Bell Farm to build a military airport, later adding commercial terminals.

Schenley Park in Oakland benefited from publicly funded programs. During an economic depression in 1908, many Pittsburgh men were put to work in the park as part of a local unemployment relief project, said Susan Rademacher, parks curator for the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy. Then, bridges along hiking paths in the park were built and rehabilitated between 1935 and 1942 as part of the WPA, she said.

"All of the pedestrian bridges in the park were built by people who were out of work because of a depression," she said.

What's less well known, Ms. Rademacher said, is the number of buildings in Pittsburgh parks that were rehabilitated with WPA funds.

Ralph Griswold, a landscape architect who designed Point State Park and was the parks director during the WPA era, was instrumental in bringing federal dollars from the WPA and Civic Works Administration to Pittsburgh parks, Ms. Rademacher said.

In 1941, WPA workers built the visitors' center, a fountain and stone entrance walls at Riverview Park on the North Side, a project spearheaded by Griswold. Out-of-work Pittsburghers also made drainage repairs, paved roads and improved entrances in Riverview Park, Ms. Rademacher said.

In Highland Park, WPA workers built stone steps throughout the park and modernized the main zoo building.

Ms. Rademacher suspects many of the walls and steps in Pittsburgh parks were built with WPA money, but she doesn't have documentation to confirm the funding. She said retaining walls that are "kind of handsome and look old-ish" were likely built in the 1930s with federal money.

Ms. Rademacher said WPA-era projects bring a lot of character to Pittsburgh parks.

"These were real improvements that were needed to give people better access to park features," she said, and the retaining walls, pedestrian bridges and trails constructed during that era are still "really functional pieces of the park."

"They were done with an aesthetic that was about craftsmanship, stone work and [the use of] native stone,'' she said. "Without them, the park would lose some of its identity."

Now, Ms. Rademacher said, the challenge is keeping these treasures intact.

"Historic parks, just like historic houses, need attention, and they need craftsmanship if we're not going to lose these features that make them unique and special places," she said.

Carol Peterson, a historian who does research on the history of Pittsburgh-area buildings, said Allegheny General Hospital was partially built with WPA funds.

Construction of the hospital began at the beginning of the Great Depression, but when funding ran out, the hospital's shell remained untouched for a few years, she said.

"It was a monument to things not exactly going very well" in the United States, Ms. Peterson said. When the Works Progress Administration got rolling, though, funding from that program was funneled to Pittsburgh to finish the hospital.

"It's important ... that we retain things from different eras" to document our past, Ms. Peterson said.

Even though WPA-era projects didn't feature elaborate, fancy architecture, they are very significant as "markers of times in our history," she said.

"The Depression and its aftermath were huge ... [and] WPA money was used as one of the strategies to counteract the effects of this enormous, awful, national crisis," she said.

"Now we have structural reminders of that all over this place."

WPA art lives on

In addition to those structural reminders, the Works Progress Administration funded murals and other artwork in schools, post offices and other public buildings.

"The things that live in people's memory are the arts projects," Mr. Taylor said.

Vincent Nesbert started WPA-funded murals titled "Justice" in the Allegheny County Courthouse lobby in 1933, said Barbara Jones, curator of the Westmoreland Museum of American Art. When the WPA was shuttered before Mr. Nesbert could finish his work, Pittsburgh picked up the rest of the tab so he could complete the murals, she said.

Christian Walter, a Pittsburgh native and director of the local division of the WPA's Federal Art Project, painted the mural in the lobby of Greensburg Salem High School, she said. A painter named Alexander Kostellow finished WPA-funded murals of the Battle of Bushy Run in the Jeannette post office after the artist who started them, Robert Lepper, died. Mr. Kostellow also painted a bucolic scene called "Spring Planting" in the Somerset post office.

All of those paintings remain on display today.

Ms. Jones has news clippings, fliers and handwritten information, the beginnings of her research into WPA-era art projects in Western Pennsylvania. She's interested in Depression-era art, and she hopes to hold an exhibition of art projects from the WPA era at the Westmoreland Museum of American Art when it reopens; the museum is slated to close temporarily for a major expansion sometime next year and will be shuttered for a year to 18 months.

WPA art projects were important, Ms. Jones said, because "by supporting the artists, you were supporting the country as a whole."

The art of the era -- most of which depicted nostalgic scenes from everyday life -- "was somehow comforting to the American people," she said.

Ms. Jones noted that by keeping artists, playwrights, writers and actors employed, the WPA brought people together.

"It was very positive, a reinforcement of what this country is about," she said.

WPA problems

But not all WPA projects were resounding successes.

Ms. Peterson, the house historian, said a WPA-funded survey of Allegheny County properties is kind of hit or miss.

"They're kind of neat, and they have a great deal of detail in some ways," she said. One survey she pulled for a house she owns on 43rd Street in Lawrenceville noted that the original roof was a "standing seam" metal roof made of tin.

On the other hand, Ms. Peterson has noticed some surveys from the WPA project are riddled with misinformation.

"After seeing a bunch of stuff that seemed to be very much on the mark, then seeing some stuff that didn't seem right, it left me feeling like they were not necessarily something to rely on when you have a difficult research project," she said.

Ms. Peterson determined that her house on 43rd Street was built in the early 1850s, but the WPA survey said it was built in the 1900s and was one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood. She said the surveyors were right that it was one of the oldest houses in the neighborhood, but way off on the date.

"If any given house was already quite old by the time they did the survey in the '30s, then its origins might have been murky at best by that time, just as it might be now," she said.

Mr. Taylor said the WPA had its problems, ranging from people being given jobs for political reasons to bungled projects.

A Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph story from February 1943 detailed a WPA sewing project that was shut down amid "charges of politics, fraud and favoritism."

"Fraught with toil, trouble and tattle-telling, the sewing project lasted more than six years," the story said. "At one time, more than 2,000 women were employed at the depression-born jobs, which cost the city as much as $100,000 a year for materials."

The story goes on to note that a former WPA district supervisor of women's professional projects, Florence Cochrane, and her assistant, James C. Gallagher, pleaded guilty to defrauding the government out of $1,163 for selling waste materials.

Mr. Taylor said residents bought boats and fishing equipment, hoping to use them in a WPA-built lake in North Carolina, but after the hole was dug, workers discovered there was no water source to fill it. In the Midwest, Mr. Taylor said a planned skating rink wound up being used as a softball field because, again, there was no water source to make ice for the rink.

"If you're employing millions of people on hundreds of thousands of projects, you're going to make mistakes," he said.

He added that even at the project's peak in 1938, the WPA employed only about 3.5 million people, and most of those jobs weren't full time, so a lot of people moonlighted in addition to the WPA work. Additionally, the jobs weren't for everyone; people seeking WPA work had to prove they were on welfare to get a job, and only one member of a household could hold a WPA post. Additionally, the program was limited by appropriations, and federal debt was a concern.

"It was never enough to provide jobs for all the people that needed them," he said.

Would WPA work today?

While not on the same level as the years following the 1929 stock market crash, the economic and employment picture in the United States today isn't rosy, and most would agree the U.S. infrastructure could use a rehabilitation, from updating roads, bridges and storm sewer systems to shoring up the electric grid and expanding Internet access.

The unemployment rate in the seven-county Pittsburgh region is 6.8 percent, but the 7.4 percent statewide jobless rate and the 8.2 percent nationwide rate mean a lot of Americans are still out of work. By comparison, in May 1999, the 4.2 percent jobless rate was a 29-year low.

So would a WPA-esque program make sense in America today?

Mr. Taylor and others believe so.

"I'm enthusiastic about the WPA -- about the history and about the results," Mr. Taylor said.

He said that the WPA "cost a lot of money, but these things pay benefits in the long run, and the WPA proved that."

Ms. Jones isn't optimistic about a large, federally funded arts program similar to the WPA because of dwindling public support for the arts.

"It's a whole reversal of attitudes," she said.

Mr. Taylor agreed.

"Politics and art are often oppositional," he said, noting that arts projects have been killed when conservatives didn't like how the money was being spent.

While the WPA existed, "it was just remarkable," he said. "It produced a remarkable legacy in the arts."

He added that WPA workers took pride in what they did and learned as they worked. The skills they acquired or maintained were put to use in military manufacturing jobs during World War II.

Mr. Taylor said publicly funded infrastructure projects, including more high-speed rail service and retrofitting public buildings with green technology, would benefit everyone.

"You can argue all day long about, 'Oh, they're spending too much money,' but we all benefit from it," he said. "And businesses benefit from it as well."

The American landscape was transformed once by out-of-work people and Mr. Taylor believes it wouldn't be a stretch to do something similar today.

"The WPA proved that people, given work, will do it well in most cases and with pride," Mr. Taylor said. "These things wouldn't be around today if people hadn't done a good job."

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Annie Siebert: or 412-263-1613. Twitter: @AnnieSiebert. First Published July 6, 2012 4:00 AM


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