There’s talk these days that what this nation/state/city needs is a 21st Century Work Progress Administration (WPA). It’s short-hand for what is, in fact, an incredibly complex story of a Depression era program of immense import to the participants and their families, to the economy, and to every American today.
Instinctively, mention of WPA conjures images of bridges, roads, buildings and other concrete (literally) memorials to the work of thousands of men and women who improved the physical infrastructure of the nation. In part this is because those physical structures remain and the “WPA” stamp is an enduring reminder of who did the work.
One remarkable aspect of the WPA initiative is the less visible but equally lasting impact on the lives of people who were struggling through treacherous economic times. The goal was to provide one paid job for all families where the breadwinner suffered long-term unemployment. As one recorder of WPA activities wrote in 1942, “The Work Projects Administration helped to solve the problems of the family and the city.”
The WPA was authorized in 1935 under the leadership of President Franklin D. Roosevelt with the inspiration and guidance of his adviser Harry Hopkins. Framed as an outgrowth of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration WPA focused on economic recovery and on the absolute commitment to the value of a real job. Though critics charged that WPA was a government handout, the truth is that WPA workers improved the health and welfare of millions of Americans who learned new skills, tried out ideas, and left a positive imprint of solid construction and implementation of essential community services.
During WPA’s eight years Americans invested $13.4 billion dollars. In Minneapolis 70,000 men and women found gainful work, education and creative opportunities through WPA. When WPA was dissolved in 1943 it was not failure of the program but a more robust economy buoyed by the harsh reality that American men and women had found defense-related employment.
One hallmark of WPA was that it was largely operated by state and local governments. Local agencies which provided 10-30% of costs worked closely with and nonprofits and community organization that played a major role in developing and delivering services.
Begun as an economic development/employment project WPA shifted with the tides of time. As American workers found jobs in industry, labor unions worried less about their members losing jobs to WPA workers; this opened the way for WPA to venture into vocational training. As visionaries worried about the loss of creative talent and feared that writers, artists, musicians were given unskilled labor jobs, programs in the arts emerged. Later, as War overwhelmed the nation, existing programs were repositioned in terms of defense preparedness.
The diversity, complexity and shifting direction of WPA programs is hard to categorize. Though they are variously grouped, the WPA programs fall generally into the categories of Construction and Community Service.
Minneapolitans live in a city built with the labor of WPA workers, working for no more than $8/hour and grateful to have a job to go to in the Depression era. A shining example of their work is the Minneapolis Armory, built in 1935, probably the most important building constructed in the Twin Cities during the Depression.
The Armory is known as the nation’s shining example of Moderne style. Its very existence depends to some extent on the fact that it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Armory construction brought $300,000 into the local market while it employed over 400 tradesmen. All of the materials for the building were produced locally, in keeping with principles of WPA projects – steelwork by Minneapolis Moline and Gillette-Herzog, brick from Twin City Brick, granite from St Cloud and limestone from Mankato.
The Armory is just one stunning example of the physical impact of WPA . Some basic statistics describe the scope: WPA workers built eleven new city garages and reconditioned five new parks, 68 playgrounds and eight high school athletic fields enlarged and improved 14 branch and main libraries, built or repaired sewers, alleys, curbs and gutters repaired, repaved thirty miles of street and built ten new bridges. They also installed nearly 65,000 street and traffic signs. You get the idea.
Other construction highlights include these:
- Columbia Golf Course, which dates from the early 1900’s, is one WPA project with which most Northeasters are familiar. Golfers enjoy the upgraded grass greens created by WPA workers. The improved greens actually helped Columbia to continue to operate, though at a loss, during hard times.
- Another local hallmark of WPA is John P. Murzyn Hall in Columbia Heights which began as a WPA project at a cost of $649,407. Originally known as Columbia Heights Field House, the hall served da community center for the people of Columbia Heights. The first official event at Murzyn was the January 28 Birthday Ball to celebrate Washington’s Birthday in 1939. Murzyn Hall continues to serve the community as the site of countless dances and other activities and a popular locus for weddings and other important family and community celebrations.
- Wold-Chamberlain, then one of the largest in the country, enjoyed a major rehab subsidized with $2 million federal funds and the labors of hundreds of WPA workers. The construction include 30,000 feet of new runway, new hangers, grading for a new naval base and more.
- Liberal grants of federal funds and WPA labor benefitted the Minneapolis Municipal River Terminal
- The Minnesota Soldiers Home got a new power plant along with extensive landscaping and sidewalk construction.
- The Longfellow House was rehabbed and converted into a public library, now a charming museum and reminder of an earlier Minneapolis
- The “belt line highway” remains a major thoroughfare that still bears the mark of the WPA workers who provided a sixty-foot main highway 66 miles long, “flanked on each side by walks and service drives.” The goal was to “enable motorists from the west to enter the heart of Minneapolis at the most advantageous point, with minimum confusion and maximum safety.”
- The city’s proud heritage of beautiful parks owes a debt to WPA workers who established five new parks and reconditioned thirteen others. They built five new parks and added bath houses and landscaping to Lake Calhoun and Lake Hiawatha. The beauty of Theodore Wirth and Minnehaha Park tells the WPA story writ large.
- They remodeled the interior of the Minneapolis auditorium and rehabbed numerous court houses offices.
- Workers reconditioned 22 municipal buildings including seven fire and four police stations.
- General Hospital and the University hospital received assistance for a total of 155 WPA construction workers.
- WPA workers worked in a quieter environment to conduct a geodetic survey of Minneapolis “to determine the precise locations of boundaries and geographic points so that the city’s future may be planned intelligently and precisely.” The report of the survey is that the “geodetic maps are accurate within an inch and less. The project is closely allied to the U.S. coastal and geodetic survey.
- Of particular interest to Northeasters are the five greens that WPA workers constructed at the Columbia Heights Golf Course.
- The Minnesota State Fairgrounds are not exactly Minneapolis but as the home of the Great Minnesota Get Together the Fairgrounds belong to all of us – and to WPA we all owe a debt of gratitude to the WPA workers who built the swine and horse barns, the poultry building, the cattle barn ramp, the 4_H building, with improvements to the grandstand, parking areas and the grounds – all at a cost of $2 million federal funds.
Minneapolitans who walk, drive, fly, learn, play sports or just enjoy the beauty of a city park or other public space have a WPA worker and a progressive administration to thank for the vision that merged the economic vitality of the community with the needs of a family for a steady, if minimum, income and a worker who is proud of day’s work well done.
One chronicler of WPA notes that, “everyone can watch the construction of a new school or a bridge in his community, see the men at work, and recognize the value of this work to himself and his fellow man. The value of this [community service] work aimed at the educational, recreational, and cultural needs of the people as well as at their physical health and well being, is more difficult to determine.” Still, the reporter observes, it is essential to record “what this work means in time of peace and its increased possibilities in time of national emergency.”
A quick survey of the community service programs of WPA offers a superficial hint at the truth of this observation:
1) Education. High on the list of programs is adult education, broadly defined. Americanization classes were a key “defense activity.” Governor Stassen observed that “such classes are a distinct aid to national unity – they help to extend the friendly hand of a free people to those who desire to become one with us.”
Other adult education programs focused on literacy assistance geared to “making Minnesota the most literate state in the union.” Assistance went to local school boards to establish “Junior Extension colleges.”
Vocational courses such as shorthand and typing, navigation and life boat practices, first aid and safety, dressmaking and dramatics also got WPA support. Vocational courses included foreign languages, radio code, diesel engineering and just about anything related to national defense.
There were courses in practical skills such as public speaking and parliamentary law as well as special programs in handicrafts for “shut-ins” who learned skills to create products to sell. Homebound teachers reached children with disabilities who had never been to school
Numerous other programs came under the broadly-defined education activities:
- Nursery schools were another priority. By 1941 over 1000 “under-privileged children ages 2-5 were enrolled in 29 nursery schools in 22 communities including several Indian reservations.
- Children’s health was a major concern as WPA provided yearly examinations and other health measures including smallpox vaccinations, diphtheria inoculations and Mantoux tests for thousands of children.
- The women’s WPA sewing project employed nearly 500 women in Minneapolis. The efficient manufacturing organization was a model of efficiency, so efficient that it was threatened because the women had produced enough clothing to serve the relief department’s distribution needs for up to seven years. At one point it was rumored that the clothing might go to England as part of the lease-lend program.
- WPA played a significant role in the extension of public library service to a million unserved Minnesotans. WPA opened 167 new book stations, served nearly 3000,000 Minnesotans without nearby libraries and registered 37, 117 new borrowers.
- Under the supervision of Gratia Countryman and working at Trudeau School 183 WPA workers indexed the Minneapolis Star Journal from its beginning and microfilmed the Minneapolis Journal for the years 1878-1939. The project also provided braille textbooks and texts in large print.
- WPA workers were visible in school libraries. Though many were placed as librarians in the schools, others restored thousands of damaged books and magazines – everything from repairing book bindings to erasing finger smudges from the margins.
- Over 900 WPA workers served recreation projects serving 200 communities in 76 Minnesota counties throughout the state. Again, emphasis was on long-term recreation programming couched in terms of national defense.
2) Arts. The most lasting of the WPA community service are programs in the arts – visual arts, music, writing and museums. The impact of these programs is evident and powerful sixty years later. The Federal Writers Project and the WPA Artists Project clearly have lives of their own.
Federal arts Project: In Minneapolis the imprint of the Federal Arts Project is pronounced. WPA-supported visual artists created paintings, sculpture and murals in public buildings as well as easel paintings and graphic arts for public agencies. Artists worked in realistic styles and chose familiar subjects such as cityscapes, farm scenes, people at work and play to create a portrait of Minnesota life in the era. The murals at the Minneapolis Armory are perhaps the most evident. The Armory houses two of the few remaining examples of Federal Arts Project murals, large frescoed murals by local artists Elsa Jemne and Lucia Wiley. In recent years both the Minnesota History Center and the Weismann Museum have mounted exhibits of Federal Art Project works.
The program also included free classes for all age groups and rotating exhibits of national and local art works. At the Walker Art Center scores of workers conducted art classes and activities for hundreds of children and adults.
Federal Writers Project. In Minnesota as in other states the emphasis in the Writers Project was to communicate the state’s history, folklore, stories, culture and more to the written page. Writers collected manuscripts and plumbed the memories of pioneers. They recorded and organized thousands of stories that live today in books, libraries and particularly in the American Memory Project sponsored by the Library of Congress.
Of particular interest to Northeasters is one of these books, The Bohemian Flats, first published through WPA in 1941. It’s the story of a small, isolated community that lay on the west bank of the Mississippi, tucked underneath the Washington Avenue bridge From the 1779’s to the 1940’s the village was a home to generations of immigrants – Swedish, Norwegian, Czech, Irish, Polish and especially Slovaks. The book continues to be published, expanded and read.
Another visible WPA project is publication of Minnesota: A State Guide, part of the American Guide Series and still in print. A fascinating story about the Guidebook is the controversy it caused when right wingers charged that it and similar guidebooks from other states were actually community propaganda.
Hundreds of photographs taken by WPA workers are now digitized and online through the Minneapolis Central Library. Photographs of neighborhood churches, monuments, landscapes and more are an essential visual record of the city as it was in the late 1930’s.
Music project. Emphasis of the Minnesota Music Project was to bring the educational, cultural and entertainment values of living music to communities who could not otherwise had had these advantages. The project included summer band concerts and music for community singing, band clinics for young musicians, and radio concerts broadcast over the University of Minnesota radio station.
250 musicians were employed oin twelve units throughout the state – one symphony orchestra, two concert bands, one “negro” chorus, a teacher’s project, a copyist project and six small bands. In addition WPA supported an experimental project in music therapy at the University of Minnesota Hospital
3) Research and records. Though the work sounds tedious, the impact of the research and records programs of WPA are used every day by Minnesotans. The project included several elements focused on arranging, indexing or improving essential records; neglected in boom times the records are of long-time importance for administrative and research purposes as well as to Minneapolis-born residents who want to find their own birth records or those of their forbearers.
One major records project was the Historical Records Survey designed for the use it gets today by public officials, attorneys, students of political scientists and researchers. WPA workers surveyed public archives, the records and history of organizations, from churches and cemeteries to social organizations, objects and places, including monuments, historic sites, trails and Indian burials and mounds., manuscripts and more. Today the Survey is a research staple.
Some 800 workers were employed at the state and county levels to refurbish, list, revise, extend, index and otherwise improve private records. Workers also created a variety of maps for every incorporated village and city in the state, including maps of real property. Today Minneapolitans can research their house history by referring to the WPA survey of Minneapolis homes and residents including the condition of the building and yard, the type of heating, whether the house had running water, sewer connections, mechanical refrigerator or ice box, the number of residents in the home, their ethnicity, nationality and occupation.
Minnesota’s Historical Records Survey identified and organized local public records such as the names of local officials, the function of each office and the records of historic buildings and sites. WPA workers assisted in the development of research studies including surveys of the safest routes for school children, real estate activity surveys, income studies and the Minneapolis fire hazard survey which revealed and led to the correction of thousands of fire hazards.
Research was also a priority at public higher education institutions. WPA supported technical undertakings, many related to national defense. The main and “farm” campuses of the University of Minnesota were at the forefront of WPA implementation. Some 460 WPA workers worked on over one hundred project in the fields of science, history, medicine, technology and others. Workers assisted in research several projects tied to national defense, including studies of sulfa’s use in treating wounds, burns and infections, elements of high explosives, the strength of aircraft materials.
Whether or not a WPA-type project is appropriate to meeting the economic and social challenges of today, the history of the initiative is a rich sources of ideas proposed, projects planned and implemented, concrete results that can be measured in terms of the degree to which they have met the test of time.
Note: This article was written for and published in The Northeaster, the community newspaper of Northeast Minneapolis. Much of the material in this article is based on reports by and to WPA officials. Of particular value was the 1041 report to the Federal Works Agency, Works Projects Administration, published by the Work Projects Administraton of Minnesota. Also important was a 1939 report by the State Administrator, Linus C. Glotzbach, prepared for Colonel F.C. Harrington, director of WPA. A 1942 guide prepared for Social Studies Teachers, prepared with the assistance of the WPA, was also very useful
These reports and countless others are available at Minneapolis Central Library Special Collections.