The WPA Lifeboat
A Research Report and First-Person Narrative regarding the Works Progress Administration
The Works Progress Administration, later renamed the Works Projects Administration, was an agency created by Franklin Roosevelt as part of his New Deal in 1935. It was one of the largest and most widely associated agency to the New Deal. Though it provided 8 million jobs in total, it was discontinued in 1943 due to rising drafts for WWII and rising costs.
BY SAM LA
The lifeboat for many Americans in this stormy weather was the Works Projects Administration. It was established during Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. Many Americans were jobless at this time and the WPA provided relief and jobs for millions. The WPA did not provide money and was not a form of government intervention; instead it was a form of stimulus or an injection of money to the economy to get it up again. It provided jobs and gave states the power to decide what they want to build using the WPA labor. It supported millions of families in this troubling time by “[feeding] children, redistributed food, clothing, housing, and even helped modernize the states in the west.”1 In Southern California, the WPA helped rebuild the state after a terrible disaster that occurred around this time and helped develop cities into what they have become today.
The WPA was a New Deal program was headed by Harry Hopkins which employed millions of Americans in the Great Depression. It was funded by the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935. Even though the WPA was established after programs such as the Civil Civilian Conservation Corps and the Nation Recovery Administration, because of its popularity the “[WPA.] is synonymous with the entire New Deal.”2 It was so large in magnitude that “almost every community in the United States had a park, bridge, or school constructed by the agency.”1 The New Deal program built everything from post offices to funding artists to paint murals to beautify the cities. With all the good this agency did, it came with an expensive price of $7 billion. But with most programs that the government develops there are critics who criticized the WPA. Most of them criticized how the funds for the WPA were handed out to the states. Many thought that the Roosevelt administration used the WPA to give money to those who favored the WPA to gain power in the legislative branch. Some argued that providing this safe labor hurt the economy as workers did not want to strive to do the hard work associated with getting a job in the private sector. Another complaint people made with the WPA was that they funded frivolous projects that did not benefit anyone. Even with massive amounts of criticism, the public held the agency in a good light due to the jobs produced for them. Anything was better than not having the ability to provide for one’s family. In the end due to risings costs and the war mobilization for World War II, Congress was forced to end this agency for good in 1943. Though criticized as much as it was welcomed the Works Progress Administration was a huge step in helping the millions of people in need during the Great Depression.
In Southern California, the WPA built key buildings such as post offices or police stations. Another footprint they left on California was hiring artists to paint paintings and murals that captured the beauty of the state. Due to an earthquake in 1933 that destroyed many buildings and caused untold damage from Los Angeles to Long Beach, many buildings had to be constructed to replace the buildings lost. The WPA filled the labor needs that California needed to replace buildings lost in the earthquake. Many of these buildings still stand today and are built in a different style. Those buildings were built in a mission instead of the art deco style that we are familiar with today. The mission style was a unique style native to California; the style encompassed the designs of the missions in California with a beige color of building material and tile roofs. It was a style that emanated the Spanish heritage of California. A different type of projects the WPA promoted was employing out of work artists to paint murals that encompassed the art style at that time. The WPA employed artists under the Federal Art Project which was “one of the divisions of the WPA.”3 The paintings that the artists created for the WPA are influenced by the Spanish heritage of California and depict cowboys and rancheros in vivid and bright colors. Most WPA murals or paintings are located in public buildings such as schools, post offices, and a city hall. In Southern California the art was done in a fresco style and the buildings were mainly done in a mission style.
The WPA was not a direct form of government intervention—instead it empowered the states more than critics ever gave them credit for. It provided the labor for states and they decided what kinds of projects they want to invest the money in. A little guide was given by the government to the states that outlined specific criteria that the states had to structure around their requests to be approved by the government. If approved the states would be given the workers to build the WPA project the state requested and the state itself only had to pay for the materials to build it. Wages were extremely uneven while one individual could earn 30 dollars for 100 hours of work another person earned 90 dollar for 30 hours of work. Funds for the program were as uneven as the wages uneven pay per hour rule. Some states were bequeathed more money than one with the same resources. Many critics believe that a minority of senators opposed the WPA and were ignored by Harry Hopkins; instead he concentrated on the senators that were in favor of the WPA and could possibly buy their continuous support for the project. The Roosevelt administration believed that the dollars “were allocated to where need was greatest.”2
In Southern California, a massive earthquake in the Long Beach to Los Angeles area knocked down buildings and killed at least 100 people. Due to shoddy construction and even worse building materials, the buildings toppled over. The WPA complied with this code with every building they built. Most of their buildings were built of reinforced concrete which is very resistant to earthquakes. They were also in a mission style of building that was native to California and is pretty different from the modernize skyscrapers we have in our lives. They also rebuilt buildings that burned down like the Griffith Park Clubhouse which has a restaurant as well as a golf course. They also transformed Ross Field, which was a U.S. Balloon training school for many years, “into a park and golf course” called Arcadia Park and Golf Course.4 The WPA was everywhere in Southern California as well as the whole country.
As well as building structures for many cities the WPA employed artists to draws murals, sculptors to make statues, and musicians to perform for the masses. Most murals were influenced by the Spanish heritage of California as well as the Italian Renaissance fresco style of art emerging in this period of time. The WPA gave jobs that used the talents of people to their best. Their leader, Harry Hopkins, “believed that the work given by the WPA should match the skills of the unemployed.”2 They even had a separate branch called the Federal Art Project that employed out-of-work artist to paint murals that helped beautify the city. Most people criticized this way of employing these artists and thought they were spending the money frivolously on works of arts when they could be spending it to help the whole country. These projects were sometimes called boondoggling. Boondoggling was a word developed at this time to describe government projects with dubious merits.
The WPA was everywhere so it was not a surprise when there was a multitude of criticism. Many people wanted the money to go elsewhere, such as fixing the economy or start more projects that would benefit the people. Other critics of the WPA thought that the Roosevelt administration used the WPA to gain political dominance. Those who favored the 1935 election gained more money, while a vocal few who because of their “obnoxious ways of opposing the new deal,” gained less of the money.2 Another vocal criticism of the WPA was that Roosevelt was trying to “build a nationwide voter base.”1 Most of these criticisms of the WPA were not unfounded as the agency was a big step from the rugged individualism idea that the president before Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, advocated in his term of office. Most presidents before Roosevelt applied small government and less restriction on business in their administration. Thus, this was an idea that conflicted with the solution they thought was best for the nation. Though the criticism they produced about the WPA was not unfounded, they ignored that the good side outweighs the negatives and did not understand the gravity of the situation. To survive this national crisis they needed to change their ideals and try something new. The critic’s ideals of laissez-faire economics and small government would not solve this crisis.
To experience some of the history of the WPA my family and I drove around Southern California to take pictures of existing WPA buildings and murals. It was Sunday afternoon when we decided to go visit and take pictures of WPA projects. One of the first places I visited was the Santa Ana High School. (Figure A) It is the “oldest and largest school in Orange County” as it was built in 1889. 5 The school was a beige color with many windows and a plain design. There were trees that give the place color and go with the background of the building. The simple design of the high school was reminiscent of the time of the early 1900s as simple pleasures not so much as expensive tastes. The Santa Ana High School was in a mission style of building and looks like most of the WPA buildings. Second, I visited the W.O. Hart Park in Orange and was completely surprised. The parking for the park was in a canal. It seemed when they built the park they had to divert the Santiago Creek and built the walls to do that (Figure B). As I went in the first thing I noticed was the bridge (Figure C). It looked old and worn and when I walked across it the bridged creaked and moaned as it was a bridge that was as old as it seemed. While my parents looked at the park in entirety I was focusing on the little things. There were simple benches for people to sit on and green fields everywhere. There also seemed to be a bike trail going around the parking lot. The park is enormous and full of orange picnic tables and everything a park should have such as swings, sandlots, and open fields (Figure D).
The next WPA project I saw after Hart Park was a mural on the Plummer Auditorium by Fullerton High School (Figure E). It depicts a festival of sorts and reflects the Spanish influence. It was “constructed in 1930 and entitled Pastoral California by Charles Kassler.”3 ConservArt Associates Inc restored the mural after it was covered with paint for 56 years. The mural is pleasant to look at and still has its vibrant colors and you can see the animals and people quite clearly. Pastoral California is place on the side of the Plummer Auditorium and is covered by bushes and is pretty much hidden. When I saw the auditorium I did not notice the mural at first. Since there was a concert going on, I asked to go in and take pictures. The lady in front then directed me to the side of the building which had the hidden WPA mural. I personally thought that it would stand out more if it was placed somewhere where it would see more light. Murals like this could be appreciated more if they were placed somewhere where most people would see it. After that beautiful mural, the next project that I visited was the Fullerton College North Science and Business Education buildings. Fullerton College was right across from Plummer Auditorium so I was delighted to walk a short distance away since it was getting warmer as time flew by. Both buildings had small plaques that proved they were constructed by the WPA (Figure F). After I found the plaques, I resolved to find plaques of the WPA projects I was going to visit from that point on. Both the college buildings were built in mission style similar to other WPA buildings I found. They both had roof tiles and stone material used for the walls and the simple design is pleasing to the eyes. What was different from the other WPA buildings I visited thus far was that the college buildings had multiple entrances and stairs accompanying them. In my opinion the college setting shaped the buildings to their needs which would account for the extra entrances and stairs that I have seen. The college campus was small and compact but held some historical significance to this project.
The last two places I visited that day were the Fullerton Police Station and the Fullerton Museum Center. When the Fullerton Police Station was built in 1941, it was actually used as the city hall and housed the police in the basement (Figure G). Later “with the opening of the current city hall in 1963,” the police occupied the old city hall and it became the modern Fullerton Police Station.6 The Fullerton Police Station was built in the mission style of buildings with a pit, which at first glance looked like a pond, containing a small fountain and another entrance to the building (Figure H). As I was not aware of any plaques before going to Fullerton College, I avidly searched for one and found it in the entrance to the police station. It was a worn plaque with faded writing in a green background. After the trip to the police station I visited the museum center which was located right across from Fullerton High School. The museum itself was built in 1941 as the town of Fullerton quickly developed. Harry Vaugh, a local, “wanted an advanced building that would be a focal point of advanced learning.”7 He got his wish in the building of the Fullerton museum center, which was funded by the WPA. The museum center is just like a standard WPA building with the mission style and the same color bricks used in the wall (Figure I). What was different about this building was the courtyard that was next to it. It contained benches, a small fountain, and contained these pillars which I recall had lamps in them. If I visited the museum at night I would likely marvel at the beauty of the place.
On Monday, I decided to take pictures again since I did not get many murals or pieces of art from the WPA. I wanted to see different kinds of WPA projects in Southern California. With my family, I went to Hollywood and visited the Hollywood Bowl. The fountain there seemed to have been built by the WPA and was a masterpiece to look at (Figure J). The fountain had three statues and seems to depict the muses of drama, music, and dance. The Muses Fountain, as it is named, was “designed by George Stanley in 1938” with the help of the WPA.8 Carved into the side of the fountain was a dedication to the WPA. The fountain provides a serene calm center that stands out from the hustle and bustle of the streets next to it. The white color of the fountain was a sharp contrast to the grey asphalt of the streets and green leafage of the plants around the fountain. After the trip to Hollywood, my family and I journeyed to Burbank and visited the post office mural located there. It seems there were two murals but I could not see the other one because part of the post office was closed. The two murals by the painter Barse Miller are murals “saluting the city’s most famous industries—filmmaking and aeronautics.”3 The picture I found was the panel of the mural that saluted the aeronautics industry (Figure K). The mural depicted a scientist with plans to build a plane while some laborers were building the actual machine. Like the Pastoral California mural it was painted in a fresco style and was influenced by the Spanish heritage of California. It was interesting how those two paintings were very similar in how they were drawn even though two different artists painted them. The fresco style that prevailed at that time might have explained why those two paintings are very similar.
In the course of this project I learned many things about the Works Projects Administration. This agency was everywhere in Southern California building many structures such as roads, public buildings, clubhouses, and schools. Most structures were very similar and used a mission style of building construction unique to America. A branch of the WPA, the Federal Art Project, employed artists to paint murals with the Italian Renaissance Fresco style of art and created many murals that reflected Spanish influence. The FAP also employed sculptors to make statues like the Hollywood Bowl fountain. They also employed musicians to give concerts and performances to entertain the masses. Though criticized as boondoggle, these projects were beneficial to the public contrary to what the critics said. Other criticism of the Roosevelt administration was that it used the money to gain political favors in the Senate and the Congress. Even though the Works Progress Administration was severely criticized, the general public at that time believed that it was doing the job that it was created for. It provided “almost 8 millions jobs” so people could work and provided some money in the Great Depression which helped many to survive until the Depression ended.1 It also helped build key buildings that helped develop fledging cities like Fullerton and Burbank. Because of the draft requirements for World War II Congress had to end this noble agency. Due to that war, the WPA ended in 1941 and was missed by most people. The crisis that is occurring right now is reminiscent of the Great Depression and I think that the Obama administration should bring back a program that would be like the WPA to help jumpstart the economy.
1: “Works Progress Administration.” Wikipedia. 5/25/10 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Works_Progress_Administration>.
Sam La was born in Monterey Park. He is a blunt person and loves to make his friends lives a living hell. Even though he loves to torture them, he holds his friends in the deepest regards and hopes the best for them. He dreams to do something great that leaves his footprint on the world.
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