Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Give a man a dole, and you save his body and destroy his spirit. Give him a job and you save both body and spirit.
Harry Hopkins, WPA Administrator
The stock market crash of 1929 precipitated a broader economic collapse that persisted throughout the 1930s. At its peak, the Great Depression saw the overall unemployment rate rise to roughly 25 percent. Unemployment rates were even higher in some parts of the country. The administration of President Franklin Roosevelt responded with a series of measures known as the New Deal. This included legislation like the Social Security Act and the Tennessee Valley Authority Act. Other programs included agricultural price supports, the National Industrial Recovery Act which gave workers the right to unionize and the Glass-Steagall Act which reformed the banking industry. The initial effects of the New Deal were positive but persistently high rates of unemployment prompted additional New Deal programs. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) created in 1935 was one of these programs.
What did the WPA do?
WPA provided jobs to people to build schools, bridges, post offices, parks, highways, and other infrastructure. WPA funding was often combined with funding from other programs like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Public Works Administration (PWA). Many WPA project were small, such as street and sidewalk improvements. Other projects like the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles, Midway International Airport in Chicago, and what is now Reagan National Airport in Arlington, Virginia were much larger.
Before ending in 1943, the WPA employed more than 8.5 million workers on 1.4 million projects. There are currently over 15 thousand WPA sites in the United States and over 300 in my home state of New Mexico.
In addition to the brick-and-mortar projects we usually associate with New Deal programs, the WPA also supported artists, writers, theater directors, and musicians. The Federal Art Project, a subset of the WPA, funded artists including Jackson Pollock, William de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Mark Rothko, and Diego Rivera. WPA arts projects in my state of New Mexico include murals and paintings found in such places as the Round House (the state capital building) and the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe, the University of New Mexico, the Truth or Consequences post office, and the Albuquerque Federal Courthouse. The many New Mexico artists whose work was funded by the WPA include Pablita Velarde, Allan Houser, William Lumpkins, Maria Martinez, and Ila McAfee.
El Palacio Magazine just published my sister article on New Mexico WPA sites. This post presents four examples of WPA sites in the Midwest taken during a recent road trip. You can also see images of New Mexico WPA sites here.
Some Examples of WPA Sites Today
The Will Rogers High School in Tulsa, Oklahoma is one of the most impressive New Deal Sites in the Midwest. It was built in 1939 and funded by the WPA sister agency PWA and enrolls about 1,300 students annually. Imagine how many students have been educated in the over-80 year history of the school. In addition to the Art Deco architectural style of the building (designed by Joseph R. Koberling Jr, Leon B. Senter, and A.M. Atkinson), the building features decorated metal doors, two large black lamps, and carvings above each of the two front entrances. The 2001 6th World Congress on Art Deco (hosted by the Tulsa Historical Society) featured this building.
Built in 1940, the Garwood Schoolhouse in Missouri is one of the smaller WPA sites in the Midwest. It later served as a community center and is now a private residence. If you look closely, you can see the year “1940” and a “W” formed by stones above the door.
WPA also built the Dexter School Gymnasium in Missouri in 1940. It now hosts athletic and entertainment events.
My final Midwest WPA site example is the Downers Grove Post Office built in 1938 by the Department of the Treasury. I lived in Downers Grove before moving to New Mexico and visited this post office many times. I learned that it was a New Deal building while working on this project. WPA funded Post Offices throughout the United States.
The Great Depression brought significant cultural and demographic shifts all across the United States. The Harlem Renaissance, which saw the emergence of a Black middle class in New York City, ended with the Great Depression.
Literature and film from that period reference the Great Depression and New Deal. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath and the accompanying John Ford film used the great westward migration as a backdrop. My paternal grandparents migrated to California during this period and lived at the Tulare migrant labor camp in Visalia. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men includes a conversation between characters George and Lennie about losing their “work cards”. These were the cares that WPA issued to workers to allow them to get these jobs.
The more recent Coen Brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou? recasts Homer’s Odyssey in Depression-era Mississippi and includes a reference to putting everything on electricity, a task carried out by the New Deal Rural Electrification Administration.
An epitaph to the Roaring Twenties?
The American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who wrote about the roaring twenties, including the collection of short stories in Tales of the Jazz Age and the novel The Great Gatsby, might have also written the epitaph to the roaring twenties in his essay Echoes of the Jazz Age:
Now once more the belt is tight and we summon the proper expression of horror as we look back at our wasted youth. Sometimes, though, there is a ghostly rumble among the drums, an asthmatic whisper in the trombones that swings me back into the early twenties when we drank wood alcohol and every day in every way grew better and better, and there was a first abortive shortening of the skirts, and girls all looked alike in sweater dresses, and people you didn`t want to know said “Yes, we have no bananas,” and it seemed only a question of a few years before the older people would step aside and let the world be run by those who saw things as they were—and it all seems rosy and romantic to us who were young then, because we will never feel quite so intensely about our surroundings any more.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, 1931