The New Deal in New York City, 1933—1943


When President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took office in March 1933, one in four Americans was unemployed and millions were destitute. At his inauguration he declared: “Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously.”

The President’s promise of “direct, vigorous action” shaped the New Deal—a constellation of federal programs that put millions of people back to work, raised people’s hopes and spirits, and provided the country with much-needed new infrastructure.  It delivered a wealth of public works: schools, court­houses, roads, hospitals and health clinics, dams, power lines, libraries, post offices, bridges, and highways. New Deal funds built thousands of recreational facilities for all Americans to enjoy, including swimming pools, play­grounds, ball fields, hiking trails, and urban, state, and national parks. Out-of-work artists, writers, and designers were employed to enliven public places with murals and sculptures; actors, singers, and playwrights to create musical and theater perfor­mances; and skilled craftsmen to provide technical education. At the same time, New Deal legislation began strengthening the economy and pulling it out of the Great Depression with a host of programs to regulate banking, assist agriculture, and aid workers with the right to organize, earn minimum wages, obtain unemployment compensation, and enroll in Social Security.

New York – the largest American city with almost 7,000,000 people – was the single greatest recipient of New Deal public works in the country. Its leaders organized quickly to apply for funds for such monumental endeavors as the Triborough Bridge, LaGuardia Airport, the Lincoln Tunnel, the East River (FDR) Drive, and the nation’s first public housing projects. More than a dozen federal agencies paid for the labor and materials to build these and hundreds of other projects, to support the fine and performing arts, and to improve the health and welfare of city residents.  Federal agencies operated collaboratively with city departments and state government. President Roosevelt and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, both New Yorkers, came to the city on a number of occasions to dedicate and celebrate New Deal projects. Among its enduring achievements in New York, the New Deal reshaped the city physically for decades to come, nurtured the talents and aspirations of a generation, and demonstrated that the Constitution could, as President Roosevelt reassured Americans upon taking office, “meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and arrangement without loss of essential form.”


Hosting this exhibition at The Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College honors the legacies of Eleanor Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt in their former home, and highlights the important role FDR played in maintaining American democracy during a challenging era marked by the Great Depression and World War II.  Roosevelt House is very grateful for the collaboration of the Living New Deal (LND), its staff and contributors, including Gray Brechin, Richard Walker, Susana Ives, Linda Herman, Molly Roy, Shaina Potts, Frank da Cruz, and Evan Kalish. Thanks to Jeff Urbin of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library (FDRL) for the loan of exhibit items, and to Tullis Johnson and Scott Propeack of the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC), SUNY Buffalo State, for the digital version of the Peppino Mangravite mural. Thanks to the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and Millie Molina for permission to use historical images which were made available by Richard Lieberman and his staff at the LaGuardia and Wagner Archives, LaGuardia Community College, CUNY. Thanks to the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation (NYCHealth+Hospital) and Sylvia White for permission to reproduce Harlem Hospital murals. Materials have been drawn from the digital collections of the Library of Congress (LC) and the National Archives (NARA) with additional photography by Benjamin Waldman and Deborah Gardner (DG). Items have also been drawn from the Roosevelt House collection (RH). The exhibition was curated by Roosevelt House Historian Deborah Gardner and designed by Media Assistant Daniel Culkin. We also acknowledge valuable assistance from the staff of Roosevelt House and Hunter College, and Gregory Nolan. Special thanks to the Stepanski Family Charitable Trust for the generous grant that made this exhibition possible. 

Section One
FDR Becomes Governor, Then President: Early Models and Programs for The New Deal

Poster of FDR for Governor

“For Governor, Franklin D. Roosevelt” Poster, c.1928-29, FDRL

Franklin Delano Roosevelt returned to public office when he was elected Governor on November 6, 1928. Al Smith had left the position to become the Democratic candidate for the presidency and FDR was recruited to replace him in Albany. He campaigned vigorously by train and motor car around the state. On election night FDR returned to 65thStreet from Democratic headquarters at the Biltmore Hotel believing he had lost. By early morning, the tide had turned in his favor. He won by a slim margin, just 25,000 votes (out of 4,000,000 cast) over his opponent. At the same time, Republican presidential candidate Herbert Hoover defeated Al Smith, 21 million votes (444 electoral votes) to 15 million votes (87 electoral votes). When FDR ran again for governor in 1930, he won by 750,000 votes.

In combatting the dire consequences of the Great Depression during his second term as governor, FDR was influenced by the suggestion of his State Industrial Commissioner, Frances Perkins, to use public funds to create jobs. FDR recognized that unusual conditions — the vast numbers unemployed — required a new approach, and persuaded the legislature to allocate $20 million for relief and to create jobs and public works through TERA (Temporary Emergency Relief Administration). Harry Hopkins became its leader and noted that TERA was “the first enactment under which a State, as such, had accepted any liability for the support of its population.” As a social and legal experiment it laid the groundwork for FDR’s federal New Deal programs after he was elected president in November 1932. November 1932. He  and his advisors would take with them the optimism of his popular campaign song, “Happy Days Are Here Again”.

On March 2, 1933 FDR left 65th Street to travel to Washington DC for his first inauguration as president on March 4. Two months later, at FDR’s request, Congress created the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), modeled after TERA but with vastly more funding, and FDR appointed Hopkins to head it. During the next 2 ½ years, before it was succeeded by the Works Progress Administration, which was also lead  by Hopkins, FERA sent over $3 billion ($53 billion in 2017) to state and local governments resulting in the employment of 20 million people.

Harry Hopkins (1890-1946) was a social worker who progressed to administrative and leadership positions in a number of health organizations before he became the Executive Director and then President of TERA. It was a natural transition to lead FERA, CWA (Civil Works Administration) and the WPA. He continued as a close advisor to FDR during World War II, in charge of the Lend Lease program and meeting with Allied leaders. Hopkins lived in the White House with his daughter after the death of his wife in 1937 until he remarried in 1943.  He and Eleanor Roosevelt were also good friends and allies on civil rights.

The New Deal and The Social Safety Net

The real roots of the Social Security Act were in the great depression of 1929. Nothing else would have bumped the American people into a social security system except something so shocking, so terrifying, as that depression.  Frances Perkins

The New Deal employed millions of workers to rebuild America and the economy and passed legislation to aid those workers and their families. The President’s leader in this field was Frances Perkins, whose commitment to social justice and economic security characterized her entire career, including the years she worked on labor matters in the 1920s for New York Governors Al Smith and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  When she came to Roosevelt House in February 1933 to meet with President-elect Roosevelt and consider his request that she serve as Secretary of Labor, she brought a list of proposed programs to elicit his support.  Among them were unemployment insurance, health insurance, and “old age insurance.” With FDR’s agreement, and backing from other members of the Cabinet, she organized a committee of experts drawn from government, industry, and universities to study these issues and make recommendations. Out of their report, and in coordination with key members of Congress, including Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York, the new law passed overwhelmingly to establish Social Security and unemployment insurance. On August 14, 1935, FDR signed the authorizing legislation.

The Supreme Court upheld the law in three cases in May 1937, supporting the constitutionality of taxation to fund both programs. Justice Cardozo wrote in the majority opinions, “The hope behind this statute is to save men and women from the rigors of the poor house as well as from the haunting fear that such a lot awaits them when journey’s end is near.” He concluded “Together the two statutes now before us embody a cooperative legislative effort by state and national governments, for carrying out a public purpose common to both… The Constitution does not prohibit such cooperation.”

Frances Perkins gave Labor Department space and personnel to the new Social Security Administration to help establish the program.  IBM won the contract to set up a data processing system using punch cards and tabulating devices which were much larger and more complicated than anything that had been used before. IBM even invented new equipment for the huge task of signing up more than 30 million workers and employers by January 1, 1937, and recording their payments into the Social Security fund for later disbursement as pensions.  The original Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) taxes were levied on one percent of wages up to $3,000 a year (salary of approximately $51,000 in 2017). The retirement age was set at 65 and regular benefits became payable as of January 1, 1940 to retired workers and their dependents, and to survivors of deceased insured workers. The first monthly check was issued to Ida M. Fuller of Vermont for $22.54 in January 1940 at age 65; she continued collecting until her death in 1975.  In the following decades the pool of workers eligible to participate in the Social Security system was considerably enlarged and cost of living increases were introduced.

Social security banner, 1936. Reproduction. (FDRL)

Social security banner, 1936. Reproduction. (FDRL)

FDR signing the Social Security Legislation with Frances Perkins and members of Congress, August 14, 1935.

FDR signing the Social Security Legislation with Frances Perkins and members of Congress, August 14, 1935.

Unemployed workers signing up for unemployment benefits following passage of the Social Security Act. (NARA)

Unemployed workers signing up for unemployment benefits following passage of the Social Security Act. (NARA)

Advertisement for Social Security benefits.

Advertisement for Social Security benefits.

Frances Perkins Recalls the Origins of Social Security

We, of course had had a very recent experience with poverty. Since 1929 we had experienced the short, sudden drop of everything. The total economy had gone to pieces; just shook to pieces under us, beginning, of course, with the stock market crash. A banking crisis followed it. A manufacturing crisis followed it. Everybody felt it. In less than a year it was a terror…. the specter of unemployment–of starvation, of hunger, of the wandering boys, of the broken homes, of the families separated while somebody went out to look for work–stalked everywhere.

I suppose the roots–the idea that we ought to have a systematic method of taking care of the material needs of the aged–really springs from that deep well of charitableness which resides in the American people, and the efforts and the struggles of charity workers and social workers to handle the problems of people who were growing old and had no adequate means of support.

Before I was appointed, I had a little conversation with [President-elect] Roosevelt in which I said perhaps he didn’t want me to be the Secretary of Labor because if I were, I should want to do this, and this, and this. Among the things I wanted to do was find a way of getting unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, and health insurance. I remember he looked so startled, and he said, “Well, do you think it can be done?”

I said, “I don’t know.” He said, “Well, there are constitutional problems, aren’t there?” “Yes, very severe constitutional problems,” I said. “But what have we been elected for except to solve the constitutional problems? Lots of other problems have been solved by the people of the United States, and there is no reason why this one shouldn’t be solved.”

“Well,” he said, “do you think you can do it?” “I don’t know,” I said but I wanted to try. “I want to know if I have your authorization. I won’t ask you to promise anything.” He looked at me and nodded wisely. “All right,” he said, “I will authorize you to try, and if you succeed, that’s fine.”

“Well,” I said, “that is all I want.” I don’t want you to put any blocks in my way. We’ll see what we can do. There are plenty of people,” I said, “who want it badly and will work for it.” This was the way it all began.

Section Two
Housing in The New Deal

But here is the challenge to our democracy: In this nation I see tens of millions of its citizens—a substantial part of its whole population—who at this very moment are denied the greater part of what the very lowest standards of today call the necessities of life.

I see millions of families trying to live on incomes so meager that the pall of family disaster hangs over them day by day.

I see millions whose daily lives in city and on farm continue under conditions labeled indecent by a so-called polite society half a century ago.

I see millions denied education, recreation, and the opportunity to better their lot and the lot of their children.

I see millions lacking the means to buy the products of farm and factory and by their poverty denying work and productiveness to many other millions.

I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Second Inaugural Address, January 20, 1937

New Deal Housing

By 1933, the American housing market had fallen behind in providing decent housing to low and moderate income people. World War I and the Great Depression had slowed the replacement of seriously deteriorated, substandard units especially in cities like New York. It was calculated that there were 17 square miles of slums in the city, of which a quarter were deemed as “unfit for human habitation.” Thousands of tenement buildings–of which 65,000 had been built before 1901–housed 2,000,000 people, almost 30% of the city’s population. Private and quasi-public efforts to build new housing in the 1920s for this segment of the market produced few units. It was time for a new approach. In the National Recovery Act of 1933, the Housing Division was given authority to clear slums and repair or build low cost housing. Building new housing under public ownership, a radical innovation, would create jobs, clear slums, and rehouse people to modern standards.

The first public housing in the United States was constructed in New York with funds from the PWA and WPA.  The city’s first three projects are highlighted here: First Houses (1935-36), Williamsburg Houses (1936-37), and Harlem River Houses (1936-37). The New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), created in 1934 by state law to issue bonds and apply for Federal aid, was in charge. Langdon W. Post, who had long championed slum clearance and better housing and served as an aid to Harry Hopkins (head of the WPA), led the new agency which  oversaw construction and managed the new housing.  In 1937, Senator Robert F. Wagner of New York co-sponsored the Wagner Steagall Housing Act which ensured the permanent role of the federal government by creating  the United States Housing Authority (USHA) which initially provided half a billion dollars in loans for low-cost housing projects across the country.  By 1941, there were more than 500 projects financed by the USHA in the US and nine projects had been built in New York City with 11,570 units. In January 1944, during President Roosevelt’s State of the Union address, he announced a “second Bill of Rights” that included “the right of every family to a decent home.” In 2017, NYCHA has 176,000 apartments housing almost 400,000 New Yorkers. The three public housing projects featured in this exhibit have all been designated New York City Landmarks.

First Houses

First Houses. Between First Avenue and Avenue A, Third to Second Streets, East Village, Manhattan. 1935-36.

First Houses was the first public, low-income housing project in the United States. The original idea for First Houses was to demolish every other tenement building and significantly rehabilitate the remaining structures. Once work was underway it was apparent that all the buildings would have to be totally rebuilt from their foundations. One lot was left vacant for every two rebuilt and the interior courtyard landscaped as a pleasant seating area and playground with bas relief sculptures and several freestanding pieces by other artists. Their work was the first art commissioned by the Federal Art Project for public housing.

Frederick L. Ackerman (1878-1950) was the architect in charge with planning experience and a commitment to housing reform. He had previously designed government housing for ship building workers during World I and then several moderate income projects, including Sunnyside Gardens in Queens. First Houses comprised eight, 4-and 5-story buildings that covered only 41% of the land in contrast to 75% and more with the tenements.  Unlike the tenements, all rooms had windows and every apartment had its own modern kitchen and bathroom. There were laundry rooms for each building, and the project shared a nursery, a community room, and public health clinic. The construction was funded by the Public Works Administration and wages paid by the Works Progress Administration. Although costs far exceeded the original estimates, at completion NYCHA Chair Langdon Post said it was worth it. “In the first place,” he told The New York Times, “it has taken the question of public housing out of the realm of debate and into the realm of fact. Second, it has established the Authority as an agency for the issuance of slum-clearance bonds. Both Vincent Astor [sold his land for 50% less than market value] and Bernard M. Baruch accepted the Authority’s bonds to cover payments for the land — the first such bonds ever issued. In the third place, it provided an opportunity to test the Authority’s power to condemn land for slum clearance [eminent domain] — a test which we won.” First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended the dedication of the first building on December 3, 1935, along with Governor Herbert Lehman, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, WPA officials, and a very large crowd of neighborhood residents.  Mrs. Roosevelt brought additional greetings from President Roosevelt who had also sent a telegram of congratulations.  Mrs. Roosevelt, noted the New York Times, “said that there was urgent necessity today for low-cost housing and elimination of slums, because the slums bread crime and disease.”  She continued, “I hope the day is dawning when private capital will devote itself to better and cheaper housing, but we know that the government will have to continue to build for the low-income groups. This is a departure for us, other governments [in Europe] have done it. Low-cost housing must go on in the United States…This is the first time that rentals have been within the reach of the people who have formerly lived in this area.

First Houses had 122 apartments and received 3800 applications. Applicants were screened for need, ability to pay the rent, and condition of their current housing. Two-thirds of the selected families had no private toilets in their previous tenement units. The rent was $6.05 month/per room so a four room apartment would cost $24.20 (approximately $426 in 2017) which was less than neighborhood rents in substandard housing.

Current views of First Houses along Third Street and Avenue A.

Current views of First Houses along Third Street and Avenue A.

Current views of First Houses along Third Street and Avenue A.

Buildings demolished for First Houses. Avenue A (left) and East 3rd Street. 1935. (NYCHA)

Buildings demolished for First Houses. Avenue A (left) and East 3rd Street. 1935. (NYCHA)

Rear yards of demolished East 3rd Street tenements. 1934. (NYCHA)

Rear yards of demolished East 3rd Street tenements. 1934. (NYCHA)

Williamsburg Houses

Williamsburg Houses. Scholes to Maujer Streets, Leonard Street to Bushwick Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. 1936-37.

Williamsburg Houses set the scale for large housing projects in size and cost, about $12.9 million for land and construction financed by the PWA.  Twelve blocks (25 acres) of slums were cleared and replaced with 20, four-story buildings containing 1,622 apartments (housing about 6,000 people). The buildings occupied only about a third of the site allowing for a great deal of open space for landscaping, playgrounds, courtyards, and relaxation.  The buildings were angled 15 degrees off the street grid so that every room could have light and fresh air, the two elements lacking in old tenements.  In addition to the apartments, there were craft and recreation rooms, a nursery school, and laundry areas, all in the basement. A new junior high school was built and there were also commercial spaces for rent on the perimeter of the project. The apartments ranged from two to five rooms.  The average rent per month, which included utilities, was $8.47, about $33.88 a month ($595.00 in 2017) for a four room apartment with two bedrooms.  Tenants were selected based on income and previous residence in the area and there were 19,000 applicants for the apartments.

The architectural team was led by Richmond H. Shreve whose firm Shreve, Lamb & Harmon had designed the Empire State Building and would design Hunter College’s new Park Avenue building a few years later. His lead designer was William Lescaze who was a proponent of the modernism popular in Europe.  To this interest can be ascribed the horizontal character of the project with its bands of concrete between the floors, the brown brick, and the beautiful blue tiles accenting the stair towers which opened directly to landings with the apartments, in contrast to the horrible dark corridors of the tenements that they replaced.

One of the preeminent architectural critics of the day, T. F. Hamlin, wrote, “ “In every really important general matter of land usage-in air, in light, in a sense of green and growing things as a concomitant of living; in the creation of an atmosphere of humanity and decency, a place where children would be glad to grow up; in the development of a community that brings with it a new vision of democracy and progress, [Williamsburg Houses] has qualities that no money can buy.”

The FAP also commissioned mural projects for public housing projects. At Williamsburg Houses, they were destined for the basement community rooms. Four artists were selected: Ilya Bolotowsky, Balcomb Greene, Paul Kelpe, and Albert Swinden. By the 1980s, their work had disappeared behind walls and overpainting. The murals were rescued, carefully restored, and placed on display in 1990 at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. They were the first abstract style public murals in the country. Burgoyne Diller, the head of the FAP New York Murals Division, believed that the patterns and shapes, rather than realistic scenes of work, would be more conducive to relaxation and also relate to the contemporary architectural design. See one of the murals reproduced on the New Deal map in the West Gallery.

Courtyard of Williamsburg Houses. Scholes to Maujer Streets, Leonard Street to Bushwick Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. 1936-37.

Williamsburg Houses. Scholes to Maujer Streets, Leonard Street to Bushwick Avenue, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. 1936-37.

NYCHA Documents Old and New Housing

Old buildings, across the street from the Williamsburg Houses, similar to those torn down for the new housing.1939.

Old buildings, across the street from the Williamsburg Houses, similar to those torn down for the new housing.1939.

Family B. in old law tenement with bathtub in kitchen area. First Street. 1940.

Family B. in old law tenement with bathtub in kitchen area. First Street. 1940.

Family B. in new public housing, Vladeck Houses. Jackson Street, Lower East Side. 1940.

Family B. in new public housing, Vladeck Houses. Jackson Street, Lower East Side. 1940.

Family in old law tenement with windows cut through to provide light to interior bedrooms. 1940.

Family in old law tenement with windows cut through to provide light to interior bedrooms. 1940.

Family in tenement kitchen with coal burning stove (firebox on the right). The stand behind it is holding a galvanized iron water tank and the black unit on the side of the tank is a gas fired water heater with copper pipes inside. There was no safety or pilot system. This family moved to the Kingsborough Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1941.

Family in tenement kitchen with coal burning stove (firebox on the right). The stand behind it is holding a galvanized iron water tank and the black unit on the side of the tank is a gas fired water heater with copper pipes inside. There was no safety or pilot system. This family moved to the Kingsborough Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant in 1941.

Modern kitchen in the Kingsborough Houses with Mayor LaGuardia and Gerard Swope, Chair of NYCHA. 1941.

Modern kitchen in the Kingsborough Houses with Mayor LaGuardia and Gerard Swope, Chair of NYCHA. 1941.

Harlem River Houses

Harlem River Houses. Seventh Avenue to Macombs Place, Harlem River Drive, 151st to 153rdStreets, Harlem. 1936-1937.

From the start, public housing was segregated. The desperate need for better housing in overcrowded Harlem— described at the time as “the city’s most overcrowded community”– and the pressures from the Harlem riots of 1935 led to the first project for African Americans in New York; it was the third NYCHA development to be built. Harlem River Houses were designed by the Associated Architects, an 8-man team led by Archibald Manning Brown that included John Louis Wilson (1898-1989), the first African American to graduate from the School of Architecture at Columbia University in 1928.

The site was nine acres and had been purchased from John D. Rockefeller Jr for just over $1 million. Construction was funded by the PWA at a cost of $4.2 million and had 574 apartments.  Three groups of four-and-five story buildings, which occupied only 30% of the site, were organized around spacious courtyards that included park space, playgrounds, wading pools, a fountain, and a small amphitheater. There were several pieces of sculpture on the site commissioned by the Federal Art Project. The buildings were finished in red brick with courses of extra bricks for detail. Glass brick lit the stairwells and every room had cross ventilation.  Included in the project were community social spaces, where a tenants association organized activities, laundries, a nursery school for working mothers, and a clinic operated by the city’s Department of Health. John Wilson later recalled that the architects “tried to create a humane architecture.”

Only families living in substandard housing and able to pay the rents were accepted. Their average income was $1,350 ($23,713 in 2017); if a prospective tenant’s income exceeded five times the yearly rental they were ineligible.  No pets or lodgers were allowed and all tenants had to have their belongings fumigated before they moved in. The apartments rented weekly for $20.50 for two rooms to $29.04 for five rooms ($348 to $493 in 2017).  The huge need for better housing was demonstrated by the 13,000 people who applied for the 574 apartments.

At the dedication on June 16, 1937, Mayor La Guardia praised the New Deal: “We have had very generous government help. It represents a new theory in government-aiding Americans in distress-which was initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt.” Architectural critic Lewis Mumford wrote in The New Yorker magazine that “Here, in short, is the equipment for decent living that every modern neighborhood needs: sunlight, air, safety, play space, meeting space, and living space…. In essentials of plan and arrangement, these quarters are superior to any comparable area of residential apartments in the city.” The Federal Writers’ Project Guide to New York City (1939) concluded in its description that “A compact progressive community had emerged, and its very success made the plight of the less fortunate residents of Harlem seem by contrast more bitter than ever.” [emphasis added] Along the same theme, the New York Times declared that the “Harlem River Houses ought to serve as a stimulus. We ought to dedicate not merely one or two groups of low-rent apartments but a program, to be carried out over a period of years until the evils and hardships of substandard housing have been wholly eliminated.

A later public housing project (1948) for African Americans in East Harlem was named in honor of James Weldon Johnson, civil rights leader, poet, teacher, head of the NAACP, and author of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Architectural rendering for Harlem River Houses. 1936. (NYCHA)

Architectural rendering for Harlem River Houses. 1936. (NYCHA)

Current site plan and view of Harlem River Houses.

Current site plan of Harlem River Houses.

Current view of Harlem River Houses.

Tenements similar to those razed for Harlem River Houses. East Harlem. 1944.

Tenements similar to those razed for Harlem River Houses. East Harlem. 1944.

Tenements similar to those razed for Harlem River Houses. East Harlem. 1944.

One of several visits that Eleanor Roosevelt made to New York public housing projects as First Lady and as private citizen. Red Hook Houses, Red Hook, Brooklyn. 1940. (NYCHA)

One of several visits that Eleanor Roosevelt made to New York public housing projects as First Lady and as private citizen. Red Hook Houses, Red Hook, Brooklyn. 1940. (NYCHA)

Public Housing Mural

Blueprint for Living. Marion Greenwood (1909-1970). Dedication of the mural at Red Hook Houses, NYCHA, November 27, 1940, with the artist and Mary Simkhovitch, vice chair of NYCHA. (NYCHA)

Blueprint for Living. Marion Greenwood (1909-1970). Dedication of the mural at Red Hook Houses, NYCHA, November 27, 1940, with the artist and Mary Simkhovitch, vice chair of NYCHA. (NYCHA)

As part of its mission to provide art to public buildings, the Federal Art Project commissioned murals for public housing projects. Marion Greenwood was hired to paint this mural, one of three panels, in the Red Hook Houses community building. Greenwood had studied painting and lithography (with Emil Ganso, represented in this exhibit) in New York City, traveled to Europe to advance her art education, and then lived in Mexico for several years where she learned to do fresco murals and worked on major projects with Mexican artists. Shortly after her return to the U.S., she receiving the Red Hook commission from the FAP. She described usual process: “I had to do small color scale cartoons, then the large drawing and full scale and then finally the actual walls.” She also experienced the pressures that FAP mural artists felt at the time: “I had to change it and change it according to all the bureaucrats looking at it.” Many artists, including those at Harlem Hospital, had to negotiate the unusual circumstances of public patronage and scrutiny in a field where the artist was used to relative freedom to interpret their subject matter: “… and then the people of course were constantly criticizing the whole Federal Art Projects calling them boondogglers. And  there again too, painting for the poor American lower class was very different from painting romantically with the Mexican peasants watching me, who seemed to understand so much more about painting than the average white collar worker or slum dweller.”

Greenwood was pleased that Eleanor Roosevelt came to the opening of her murals. “Lovely woman and very gracious lady…. She was very kind and always aware of the struggle of the artist and always trying to help out with anything progressive.” 

Section Three
Health in The New Deal

Many new hospitals were built with New Deal funding but community health clinics also made care readily available in neighborhoods.  In New York, the clinics were often built in conjunction with public housing projects, either as separate buildings or located within the project itself. They were badly needed. For many New Yorkers, unemployment had translated into malnutrition, poor health, and rising levels of infant mortality. The clinics provided free health and dental care from the prenatal period and infant years to old age, and led immunization campaigns. Doctors and nurses worked in the clinics and made visits to homes and schools. Housekeepers were sent to help families where parents were ill.  For many city residents, it was their first experience of regular health care.  Services and activities promoting healthy living were offered through classes and reinforced by poster campaigns which were provided by the artists of the Federal Art Project. This huge investment led to a decline in infant mortality and serious diseases like pneumonia, and even brought down the levels of suicide which had increased during the early years of the Depression.

The federal government also invested larger sums in research at the National Institute of Health, where the principle of public funding had only been established in 1930, and the created the National Cancer Institute in 1937.  In 1940, at the dedication of new buildings at the NIH in Bethesda, Maryland, the President Roosevelt said “We cannot be a strong nation unless we are a healthy nation.” Carrying that theme forward, the President included a health clause in his “Second Bill of Rights” enunciated as part of his annual State of the Union address to Congress in January 1944: “The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health.”

Public health clinic, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. c.1936.

Public health clinic, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. c.1936.

Health Posters. Library of Congress

One Third of a Nation Poster Cure Delinquency Poster Better Housing Poster First Houses Poster Balanced Diet Poster Be Clean Poster Premises Clean Poster Be Fire Escapes Poster Don't Jay Walk Poster Don't Mix Em Poster Fight Tuberculosis Poster Don't Fight Cancer Alone Poster Old As Creation Poster No Creature Poster John is Not Dull Poster Lack Of Funds Poster

Harlem Hospital Murals

The Federal Art Project assigned mural painters to New York hospitals and care institutions, including Bellevue, Lincoln, and Kings County hospitals, and the Staten Island Farm Colony; several hundred murals were painted. Perhaps the most famous set of murals was painted at Harlem Hospital, now known as the Harlem Hospital Center, part of the New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation (NYC Health+Hospitals).

These extraordinary murals document the evolution of African-American life in the United States and changes in health care from traditional folk medicine to modern medical practice. When the African-American artists first presented their drawings, the head of the hospital, Lawrence T. Dermody, vetoed several of them, saying that there was too much ‘Negro’ content, that it might offend local residents and that Harlem might not be an African-American community in the future. Charles Alston (1907-1977), holder of a BA and MFA from Columbia and leader of the Harlem art community though the Harlem Artists Workshop, had organized the Harlem Artists Guild in part to ensure that the Federal Art project hired African-American artists. He was outspoken about the rejection and as the supervisor of the Harlem Hospital project he widely publicized the Dermody comments and the repudiation of them by the Guild and other groups, essentially accusing Dermody of racism. After much adverse publicity, Commissioner of Hospitals S.S. Goldwater overturned the Dermody decision and the artists proceeded with their murals. Beautifully restored, most of them can now be seen in the mural pavilion of the hospital.  Panels from three of the murals have been reproduced in this exhibit. Three other African-American painters also did murals for the hospital: Elba Lightfoot and Selma Day painted scenes with fairy tale characters in the children’s’ wards (1938), and Charles Alston created “Modern Medicine” and “Magic in Medicine” (1940). All the artists had assistants on their projects so that 35 people were employed on this largest FAP African-American commission. Alston, like a number of other muralists working for the FAP, had been influenced by the three great Mexican muralists of the era, Jose Clemente Orozco, Diego Rivera, and David Alfaro Sequeiros. He and other American artists avidly followed Rivera’s work at Rockefeller Center, later destroyed for its political content, and took cues from the social realist style of the Mexicans. Alston’s career included sculpture and graphic design, and he taught at a number of schools, including City College of New York (1970-77).

Murals reproduced courtesy of Harlem Hospital Center, NYC Health+Hospitals

Alfred D. Crimi (1900-1994). Modern Surgery and Anesthesia. 1936. (NYCHealth+Hospital)

Alfred D. Crimi (1900-1994). Modern Surgery and Anesthesia. 1936. (NYCHealth+Hospital)

Like many other New Deal artists in New York Alfred Crimi was an immigrant. Born in Sicily, he came to the US as a child. After studying art in New York and working in Florida, he traveled in Europe and studied fresco mural technique in Italy. During the early years of the Depression he received work through several New Deal programs, TERA and FERA (Public Works of Art project). In 1936 he applied for relief to qualify for employment with the Federal Art Project/WPA and was accepted in the Mural Division. His salary was approximately $23 a week ($405 in 2017). He was assigned to paint five fresco panels at the Harlem Hospital and chose the history of medicine for his topic. To prepare, he observed and sketched doctors and nurses during several operations at the new Kings County Hospital, fascinated by what he termed “the psychological aspect created by the coordinated orchestration of the participants.” His mural was placed in the Medical Board Room at the hospital. Crimi was the only White artist employed for the hospital project but felt the brunt of Director Dermody’s disdain for government artists whom he termed “dole collectors and free loaders.” On a personal level, Crimi got along well with the other artists on the project, advising those without previous mural experience, and remained a friend of Charles Alston. Crimi never completed his other four murals, leaving when he won a competition to paint murals at the Washington, D.C. Post Office. There he worked down the hall from Reginald Marsh whose mural is displayed in this exhibit over the fireplace in the West Gallery.

Vertis Hayes (1911-2000). Pursuit of Happiness. 1937. (NYCHealth+Hospital)

Vertis Hayes (1911-2000). Pursuit of Happiness. 1937. (NYCHealth+Hospital)

Born in Georgia, Hayes came to New York to escape the constrictions of Southern life for talented African Americans. He studied mural painting with French artist Jean Charlot before being hired for the Harlem Hospital project. Hayes 8-section mural in the new Nurses Residence illustrated the African-American journey from Africa to the New World, the migration from the South to the North, and the movement from agricultural work to industrial jobs. The sample section shown here depicts several professions: at left, a sculptor at work, nurses and doctors in the center, and a surveyor at right. Hayes left Harlem to go to Memphis, TN, where he became head of the Federal Art Center. He also taught art at a number of colleges in Tennessee and California while continuing his own career as an artist.

Georgette Seabrooke (1916-2011). Recreation in Harlem. 1937. (NYCHealth+Hospital)

Georgette Seabrooke (1916-2011). Recreation in Harlem. 1937. (NYCHealth+Hospital)

Seabrooke studied art at Washington Irving High School and then became an award-winning student at Cooper Union where she was introduced to mural work by instructor John Steuart Curry. She also participated in activities at the Harlem Community Art Center (funded by the FAP) which featured young artists in its exhibits and offered classes in lithography, etching and photography. Seabrooke studied at the Harlem Art Workshop where she met other aspiring artists like Jacob Lawrence, and Augusta Savage, a leader in the Harlem art community, who referred her to the FAP/WPA.  At Harlem Hospital, Seabrooke was the youngest member of the team. Her mural design was one of the rejected group even though she portrayed both African Americans and Whites. She later recalled “The Superintendent of Hospitals saw a white neighborhood. We knew the neighborhood was changing. Most of the Black people were moving up from downtown.” The mural was originally located in the recreation room of the new Nurses Residence at the hospital.  The artist chose to depict many scenes of Harlem residents from youth to aged, enjoying themselves, singing, dancing, playing, chatting, and more. In the center a visiting nurse comes to see a young infant and mother. After finishing at Harlem Hospital Seabrooke painted another mural at Queens General Hospital.  While continuing as an artist to paint and do collages, she also secured training to work as an art therapist and educator.

Section Four
Education During The New Deal

The breadth of New Deal educational programs was remarkable, including the hiring of thousands of teachers, sponsoring preschools, adult vocational classes and work-study programs for youth, library classes and traveling libraries, driving lessons, and constructing schools for African Americans in the rigidly segregated South.  In New York City the New Deal paid for the construction of many new schools from kindergarten to college.  With a wealth of talent, the city’s Federal Arts Project hired dozens of artists to paint extraordinary murals in their halls. In addition, many public education programs in the city were underwritten by New Deal programs. They were held in libraries, trade union headquarters, settlement houses, park facilities, community centers — even English language classes were broadcast on the radio — and other locations providing all generations with opportunities for knowledge, recreation, acquiring new skills, and employment.  New Deal funding paid for new buildings at Brooklyn College and Hunter College (at both the Manhattan and Bronx campuses), and renovations at the New York State Merchant Marine Academy at Fort Schuyler in the Bronx.

Free Classes Poster Learn English Poster

Education and The New Deal 

Italian Women with Flag. Marjory Collins. New York, NY. January 1943.

Italian Women with Flag. Marjory Collins. New York, NY. January 1943.

Original caption: Class in citizenship and English for Italians, given free of charge at the Hudson Park Library on Seventh Avenue near Bleecker Street.

Marjory Collins (1912-1985) was one of many women photographers to be employed by New Deal agencies. She had already worked for magazines when she was hired in late 1941 to join the famous photographic documentary unit headed by Roy Stryker of the Farm Security Administration (FSA) and begin work for the Office of War Information. The goal was to capture the lives of ordinary Americans and the full integration of ethnic groups in American society, so-called ‘hyphenated Americans,’ to use in wartime propaganda.

Russell Lee wrote in 1941, “I am a photographer hired by a democratic government to take pictures of its land and people. The idea is to show New York to Texans and Texas to New York.” The FSA asked its photographers to record daily life, the work of New Deal agencies and programs, and also consider doing topical series. Among the best known photographers who worked for the FSA were Dorothea Lange, famous for her portraits of migrant workers, Berenice Abbott, associated with her “Changing New York” series, Ben Shahn (better known as a painter), Walker Evans, and Arthur Rothstein, a New Yorker who captured indelible images of the Dust Bowl.

Brooklyn College originated in 1930 as a branch of Hunter College in rented space in downtown Brooklyn.  It quickly became independent and a new Georgian-style campus designed by Randolph E. Evans was built, funded through the Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration. The architect took advantage of its large site, formerly used as a golf course and circus grounds, with its spacious central greenspace and a library building resembling Liberty Hall in Philadelphia. On October 28, 1936, President Roosevelt traveled to New York and went directly to Brooklyn College to lay a cornerstone for one of the campus buildings. He wished the college “the fine and successful future that it deserves.” Later that day he affirmed his belief in America’s multi-cultural heritage when he participated in ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. During the next few years New Deal funding would repair the statue in time for the crowds of visitors expected for the 1939 World’s Fair in New York.

Brooklyn College Campus. Bedford and Nostrand Avenues. Boylan Hall on the central green, 1936.

Brooklyn College Campus. Bedford and Nostrand Avenues. Boylan Hall on the central green, 1936. (DG)

Prior to designing the campus Randolph Evans (1901-1974) had designed suburban homes and worked at numerous firms in Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, and Louisiana before settling in New York. He opened his own office in 1932. Brooklyn College was his  largest project.

President Roosevelt at Brooklyn College. Foundation stone dedication of Roosevelt Hall, 1936.

President Roosevelt at Brooklyn College. Foundation stone dedication of Roosevelt Hall, 1936.

The building housed classrooms, a gymnasium, and a cafeteria where many student groups socialized.

FDR at Hunter College

FDR at Hunter College

Hunter College, founded in 1870, lost its original 1873 building at 68th Street and Park Avenue in a fire on February 14, 1936.  It was not long before Mayor Fiorello La Guardia obtained $6.5 million from the Public Works Administration to rebuild. The new 16-story, Moderne-style building, designed by Shreve, Lamb & Harmon (known for the Empire State Building), served 10,000 students with a 2600-seat Assembly Hall, one of the largest in the city, 50 sparkling new science labs, numerous class rooms, a library, a pool, and a small theater; there was also space for an elementary school for training teachers.  On October 28, 1940, President Roosevelt joined Mayor La Guardia to celebrate the opening of the building, urging students to train as teachers and to keep alive “the patriotism, love of our nation, that began many, many generations ago, and that is still with us, as we know, in this great city.”  In a lighter vein he recounted how La Guardia would come to Washington “and tell me a sad story. The tears run down my cheeks and tears run down his cheeks and the first thing I know he has wrangled another $50,000,000.

Of course FDR was familiar with the college, just a few blocks from his 65th Street home, and he and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt had gotten to know its president, George Schuster. Eleanor also befriended its students, a relationship that would endure for the rest of her life.

Hunter College, North Building, 695 Park Avenue. Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, 1940.

Hunter College, North Building, 695 Park Avenue. Shreve, Lamb & Harmon, 1940.

While not all New Deal agencies were able to break the bonds of pervasive racist policies, especially in the South, African Americans fared better with others, especially in employment programs. Both the Public Works Administration and the WPA had policies which supported the hiring of African-American workers, and the Federal Music, Art, Theater and Writing Projects also had talented African Americans on their payrolls.  President Roosevelt had a “Black Cabinet” of advisors, including Mary McLeod Bethune, whose friendship with the President and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt dated to 1924 when she first came to their home on 65th Street.  Bethune also held a post in the National Youth Administration ensuring that a fair share of funds went to African-American youth for education and work.  Under President Roosevelt, who declared lynching “a vile form of collective murder,” African Americans were hired in the federal government, reversing the racist policies of President Woodrow Wilson that had excluded them. Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior and head of the PWA, was an outspoken supporter of civil rights. The Democratic Party convention in 1936 included African-American speakers and delegates for the first time. Those changes, plus New Deal programs and Eleanor Roosevelt’s advocacy of equality, led to sweeping change in the election of 1936: 75% of African-American voters chose FDR, leaving behind their decades of loyalty to the Republican Party.

Section Five
Art and The New Deal: Federal Art Project

In 1935 the scope of the Works Project Administration (WPA) was expanded under Federal Project Number One whose various divisions comprised:  the Federal Art Project (FAP), the Federal Music Project (FMP), the Federal Theatre Project (FTP), and the Federal Writer’s Project (FWP). In the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 that funded the WPA, Federal Project Number One was allocated $27 million ($480 million in 2017). First Lady Eleanor Rooseveltstrongly supported employing artists, writers, musicians, and performers; she wanted to see arts and culture available for all Americans. She persuaded President Roosevelt to endorse Federal Project Number One as well as FDR’s trusted and down-to-earth associate Harry Hopkins, head of the WPA. Hopkins reportedly said, in reference to artists, “Hell, they’ve got to eat just like other people.” FDR believed in the fundamental importance of giving people the opportunity to work. In his July 1936 nomination acceptance speech at the Democratic Convention for a second presidential term he said: “Liberty requires opportunity to make a living–a living decent according to the standard of the time, a living which gives man not only enough to live by, but something to live for.

The national director of the Federal Art Project was Holger Cahill (1890-1960) whose background in journalism, publicity, and as a museum curator and director made him an ideal choice. He knew the art world, he was familiar with every artistic current, was a staunch supporter of artistic freedom, and was able to negotiate the politics of art locally and nationally.  He initiated a series of discussion forums titled “Shall the Artist Survive?” and his skilled administration of the FAP saved a generation of artists.  Cahill appointed Audrey McMahon (1898-1981) Director of the New York Region composed of New York City, New York State, New Jersey, and Philadelphia. She had previously been the director of the College Art Association and in 1932 she organized a CAA program to help artists get relief, funded by then Governor Roosevelt’s Temporary Emergency Relief Administration. The CAA program became the model for the FAP. Within a year of its founding, McMahon’s FAP region employed a third of all artists working nationally.

The FAP hired artists and craftspeople to paint (murals, easel paintings, watercolors), to produce graphic art (posters, lithographs, prints, etchings), to make sculptures, to take photographs, to design theater sets, and to engage with various other arts and crafts such as quilt making, pottery, metalcraft, and traditional Native arts and crafts. In addition, the FAP set up 100 community art centers around the country for education, exhibits, and studios for artists. Also part of the FAP was The Index of American Design which documented the history of American decorative and folk arts from colonial times through the end of the 19th century.

Like other WPA projects, the goal of Federal Number One/FAP was employment. In order to be hired for an FAP project an artist had to demonstrate financial need (a means test) and show evidence of artistic talent. It is estimated that the FAP employed more than 10,000 artists and craftspeople nationally in various projects during its seven years of operation.

FAP products were destined for display in public buildings and public spaces, making art available to everyone, not just those who went to museums and galleries. There were no restrictions on style although only a limited amount of art was abstract in style. Realistic depictions of the “American scene” were encouraged and often shaped by local advisory groups, and occasionally there was controversy about content. Artists depicted historical and contemporary scenes, local and national events, urban and rural life, work and play, landscapes and cityscapes, factory workers and farmers — just about every American activity.

In New York City there was such a concentration of artists that their FAP work was displayed frequently in galleries, museums, and the city’s own Municipal Art Gallery which Mayor Fiorello La Guardia had sponsored. In July 1941, Edward Devree, the New York Times art critic, reviewed a show of 90 FAP paintings, prints, and sculpture — already allocated to various public institutions — at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He wrote “It is a large and representative collection, and makes up an impressive argument for the value of government-sponsored projects.” He noted that many of the artists had won awards, prizes, fellowships, and other honors, “testifying further to the caliber of the work . . . The show is not merely a cogent argument for the WPA, but an exhibition deserving wide attention in its own right.”

Employment activities poster American design poster Art week poster Artist survive poster East Side:West Side poster  Exhibition posters Have a date poster Indian Art poster Paintings by children poster Print making poster Sculpture exhibition poster Treasure show poster Women painters poster Craft school poster

Artists and photographers also contributed to the guidebooks and other publications commissioned by the Federal Writers Project. Their wok could be found in the 100 plus volumes of the FWP State and City guide series, as well as unique books.

Books Exhibit Case

Birds of the World Book Cover Cavalcade of the American Negro Book Cover

New Deal Art: Murals

view of fireplace wall with post office mural and music murals

View of fireplace wall at Roosevelt House with post office mural and music murals.

Before the New Deal, there was a strong tradition of mural painting in New York in hotels, civic buildings, courts, museums, restaurants, office buildings, theaters, and even in public high schools among other sites.  But renewed interest came in the late 1920s and early 1930s with commissions by the Radio City Music Hall, Rockefeller Center, and the New School for Social Research. American artists admired, and were influenced by, the technique and socially conscious subject matter of Mexican muralists, learning from them and studies in Italy. Americans’ travel in France and Germany introduced them to modern European art. Using centuries-old methods and experimenting with new ones, New Deal artists revitalized and democratized the craft of mural painting. As New York Times art critic Anita Brenner wrote in 1938, “Space, precision, concreteness, homeliness, humor and imaginative techniques- these are the character germ of the new American mural art.”

During the New Deal there were two major mural programs. The Federal Art Project (FAP) had a Murals Division. To qualify for its work assignments artists had to pass a means test showing little or no income. They were paid a salary of about $23 to $28 a week ($409-$497 in 2017). The U.S. Treasury Department administered its Section of Fine Arts to commission murals and sculptures for post offices and new federal buildings. Artists obtained assignments through competitions and the skilled and better known were often favored for contracts. They were paid a lump sum for their work out of which they purchased materials and paid for assistants as well as their own labor. The most famous Section projects were the post office murals to be found around the country, from small towns to large central city facilities.

The art critics of the New York Times wrote frequently about the revival of mural painting in New York and elsewhere under the aegis of the Federal Art Project. Edward Alden Jewell termed it “an undertaking so vast and complex . . . the American mural is finding its way, becoming conscious of its own innate power, gaining momentum.” He also admired the FAP leadership of Mrs. Audrey McMahon, “guiding encouraging educating–the creative drive of an organization intelligently directed, alert, responsive to new currents, realistic in its acknowledgement of problems that must be faced in a changed and ever-changing social order.” The Whitney Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art both featured murals (preparatory sketches, paintings of sections) in exhibitions, as did the Federal Art Gallery in New York. The Museum of Modern Art commissioned the great Mexican muralist Jose Clemente Orozco to paint a mural on site and arranged for visitors to observe him at work.

Artists used several techniques for murals.  Fresco is the term used for painting on plaster. With dry, or fresco secco, the paint is applied to a dry plaster wall that has been specially treated. With wet or buon fresco (true fresco), a thin layer of plaster is applied to the wall and the artist paints directly on that so the color binds with the plaster and the image becomes part of the wall. The image must be completed before the plaster dries. There were also murals painted on canvas and then attached to the walls.

The murals reached huge sizes and even for medium size works the artists had aspiring assistants. At one New York high school there were two mural panels, each 65 feet long by 17 feet high, totaling 2,000 sq. feet of imagery. At the Marine Air Terminal (once called the Sea Plane Terminal) at La Guardia Airport, the 12-foot high mural encircles the room for 235 feet above the heads of passengers and visitors.  Most murals were in a realistic or naturalistic style which was promoted generally among all the divisions of the FAP. However, there were some murals that were completely abstract in linear or biomorphic design, others with allegorical or symbolic figures, and some hybrids. Many were historical narratives, “a picture book, the pages of which are tuned one by one” with many ‘chapters’ while some featured specific historical incidents. By June 1940, 160 projects had been completed or were underway in New York, and there were almost that number of additional requests for murals as the Times reported, “Instead of having to fight for walls upon which artists might be put to work, the WPA Art Project now has more orders than it can seem to catch up with.”

Murals were painted everywhere in New York City: in courtrooms, prisons, neighborhood post offices and libraries, borough halls, hospitals, public housing, and at many, many schools in all the boroughs. Among the high schools that had New Deal murals were: Abraham Lincoln, Brooklyn Technical, Curtis, DeWitt Clinton, Evander Childs, George Washington, Girls Commercial, Central High School of Needle Trades (later the High School of Fashion Industries), and Samuel Gompers Technical High School.

In New York City, proposals for murals in public buildings were subject to a multi-step review process that included the head of the institution (who might also have an advisory committee), neighborhood groups, and most importantly, the Municipal Art Commission (now known as the Public Design Commission). The Commission reviewed all proposals to build or alter public artworks and monuments as well as public structures and open spaces. In most cases, mural sketches and proposals were approved without much discussion, or accepted after revisions were made. Occasionally controversy arose. The Harlem Hospital murals was one instance: most of the discussion took place before the Commission had to pass on the proposed subject matter which it finally did in 1936.  The Commission was more engaged and confronted a larger controversy with the murals proposed by Ben Shahn for the new Rikers Island Penitentiary. Shahn had visited and studied other prisons as background for his work.  His subject matter for Rikers included a history of punishment.  Everyone weighed in, pro and con, from the head of Rikers to prisoners interviewed by the newspapers to art critics and finally one of the Art Commissioners, Jonas Lie, who said they should be whitewashed.  Suffice to say, Shahn’s murals did not move forward and other artists were hired for the project. Shahn’s landmarked murals survive, painted with his wife Bernarda Bryson at the former Bronx General Post Office (Grand Concourse and 149th Street).

New Deal Art: Murals

Sketch of ‘Development of Jackson Heights.’ Peppino Mangravite. 1940. Jackson Heights Post Office, 78-02 37thAvenue, Queens. (BPAC)

‘Development of Jackson Heights.’ Peppino Mangravite. 1940. Jackson Heights Post Office, 78-02 37th Avenue, Queens. (BPAC)

Post office murals often depicted the history of the postal service. But many illustrated the history of the local community, a topic promoted by the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts and subject matter that appealed to local advisory committees, making such mural projects most likely to win approval.  Mangravite described his mural: “Jackson Heights was once a ‘corn field’. This was cleared away to make possible the construction of the Elevated [train] – thus the development of a residential town, which has been described as the ‘bedroom for business men who work in New York.’”  The completed mural was 15’ 8” wide by 6’ high and the artist was paid $1,500 for his labor. He had previously painted post office murals in Atlantic City, New Jersey and Hempstead, Long Island.

Peppino Mangravite (1896-1978), like numerous New York-based artists employed by the Federal Art Project, was an immigrant. He arrived in the U.S. in 1914 from Lipari, an island off the coast of Sicily, having already studied art including fresco techniques. He continued his studies at Cooper Union and the Art Students League. He soon began a long teaching career, including mural painting classes, while continuing to paint and exhibit his work, winning prizes and fellowships. He published articles and interviewed some of the most prominent artists of the era – Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Giorgio De Chirico, Henry Moore, and Georges Rouault — asking them about art, life, and education. Mangravite’s paintings are in numerous collections including those of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum.

Sorting the Mail. Reginald Marsh. 1936. U.S. Post Office Department Building (now the Ariel Rios Federal Building), 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington DC.

Sorting the Mail. Reginald Marsh. 1936. U.S. Post Office Department Building (now the Ariel Rios Federal Building), 12th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington DC.Reginald Marsh won the commission from the Treasury Department’s Section of Fine Arts to paint two murals at the main Post Office in Washington DC.  “Sorting the Mail” and “Unloading the Mail” were each 12’6” wide by 6’7” high. Marsh actually researched these murals at New York’s General Post Office (now the James A. Farley Post Office Building), 31st– 33rd Streets and Eighth Avenue. He interviewed and sketched the muscular workers and also deftly captured the massive overhead equipment that moved the mail, portraying the energy of men and machine. In New York, Marsh’s best known murals, commissioned by the Treasury Relief Art Project/WPA  in  1937, are the marvelous New York harbor maritime scenes of commerce and travel in the Rotunda of the United States Custom House (now the National Museum of the American Indian) at Bowling Green. They cover 2,300 square feet and Marsh had eight young painters assisting him. To prepare, he applied the same observational techniques as in the post office project as Mary Fife, one of his team, recalled: “I would get up at three in the morning on a cold spring day and take the Broadway bus to the Battery, where Reg would be waiting in the dark to board the tugboat which was going out to meet an incoming liner… Reg wanted details of lifeboats, davits, hawsers, ventilators, stacks, mats and rigging, sirens, bells, deck-chairs – everything.”

Reginald Marsh (1898-1954) found inspiration for his craft in his family. Both parents were artists – his father painted murals – and after Reginald graduated from Yale University he worked as an illustrator for magazines and newspapers in New York, including drawing cartoons for The New Yorker while also studying painting at the Art Students League. He made several trips to Europe to acquaint himself with the Old Masters who influenced his later work. By the 1930s he had begun to have gallery shows and worked in various media, including watercolors, paintings, lithography, etching, and engraving. He was best known for his depictions of New York City and the rich variety of its urban life, especially entertainment venues like night clubs and vaudeville halls and he is often categorized as one of the “American Scene” painters, successors to the earlier realists known as the Ashcan School. He started teaching and branched out to book illustration. During World War II he was an artist correspondent for Life magazine. He received many awards for his work which is well represented in museum collections around the country.

A number of other post offices in New York City have New Deal murals. At the General Post Office at 32nd Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan, Louis Lozowick, a Russian immigrant, painted Triborough Bridge and Lower Manhattan. The Bronx General Post Office, located on the Grand Concourse at East 149th Street, has a series of thirteen murals by Ben Shahn and Bernarda Bryson Shahn entitled Resources of America (these have not aged well). Shahn also decorated the post office in Woodhaven, Queens with a mural honoring the First Amendment. Additional murals can be found at the Wakefield Post Office in the Bronx, Madison Square Post Office on 23rd Street between Lexington Avenue and 3rd Avenue, and the Flushing Post Office in Queens. Sculptures and bas relief panels were commissioned for other post offices in the city including the Forest Hills Post Office, the Bronx General Post Office, and the Canal Street Post Office at Church Street.

Paragon Boys’ Club. c.late1930s. Photograph. 136-40 38th Avenue, Flushing, Queens, NY. (NARA)

Paragon Boys’ Club. c.late 1930’s. Photograph. 136-40 38th Avenue, Flushing, Queens, NY. (NARA)

Boys work on a mural supervised by artists enrolled in the Federal Art Project. Original caption, “Some of the novices are showing real talent according to instructors.” The first boys’ club in New York City was founded in 1876 on the Lower East Side to provide activities, a safe haven, and social skills. Others followed in low income neighborhoods. This Queens club may have been sponsored by the family owning a local business, Paragon Oil, which was a pioneer in building oil heaters for residential buildings.

New Deal Art: Posters

The Poster Section of the Federal Art Project/WPA grew out of a 1934 New York City initiative by Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and the New Deal’s Civil Works Administration. The next year it became part of the Federal Art Project and expanded nationally with the most prolific output in New York, California, Illinois, and Pennsylvania. Posters publicized the activities of other New Deal programs, including art, health and safety, education, travel and tourism, entertainment and recreation, local and special events, as well as the services of all levels of government. For the most part artists were free to use whatever style they chose. Posters were originally done by hand but the use of silkscreen, lithography, and woodcut made it possible to make multiples of them quickly. The first silkscreen workshop in New York was set up by artist Anthony Velonis (1911-1997) who then trained the staff to assist poster artists by cutting stencils and applying the various layers of paint. One source noted that 600 pieces could be made in a day. When the United States entered World War II, the Poster Project was absorbed into the Graphics Section of the War Service Division in the Defense Department to make posters and design camouflage patterns.  Posters are used throughout this exhibit to highlight the diversity of art work and the New Deal activities they promoted in New York City. With a few exceptions the posters on display were prepared by the New York unit which also made posters for a number of federal agencies, including the National Park Service and the U.S. Public Health Commission.

Forging ahead Poster Foreign trade zone Poster Municipal airports Poster Work pays America Poster WPA logo

History 1656 Poster History 1658 Poster History 1658 2nd Poster History 1731 Poster History 1750 Poster History 1841 Poster History 1936 2nd Poster History 1936 Poster

New Deal Graphic Art

Still Life. Emil Ganso. c.mid 1930s. Woodcut engraving.  

Still Life. Emil Ganso.  c.mid 1930s. Woodcut engraving. (RH)

Ganso probably produced this engraving with the Graphic Arts Division of the Federal Art Project. The division was created in New York City in 1936 and it was the first and largest workshop in the nation for printmakers. It was outfitted with good equipment operated by skilled artisans.

Emil Ganso (1895-1941) emigrated from Germany to the U.S. in 1912, working first as a baker and then studying at the National Academy of Design (1915–16) and the Beaux Arts Institute of Design (1917–18). By the mid-1920s he was exhibiting regularly, working in multiple media, including oil and watercolor paintings, and especially admired for his etchings, woodcuts, and lithographs. One of his favorite subjects was the female nude.  In 1933 he was awarded a coveted, year-long Guggenheim Fellowship for “creative work in painting and the graphic arts.” He was a part of the Woodstock, NY art colony and took various teaching assignments away from New York in the later 1930s. He died suddenly of a heart attack during his first year as member of the University of Iowa faculty. His work can be found in many American museum collections.

Ropes and Chains. Beatrice Mandelman. Late 1930s. Lithograph.

Ropes and Chains. Beatrice Mandelman. c. Late 1930s. Lithograph.

A simple landscape, possibly drawn in the Rockaways or near Coney Island, popular destinations on day trips for New York City artists.

Beatrice Mandelman (1812-1998) absorbed progressive social values and encouragement for an arts education from her immigrant parents in Newark, NJ. She began her studies in art early and throughout her teens and 20s met and was influenced by European and American modernists.  She was employed by the Federal Art Project (1935-1942) where she painted murals and learned printmaking, joining the Graphic Arts Division and the silkscreen workshop. The FAP sent her to Montana to teach art, often “loaning” its artists to underserved areas that lacked local practitioners. Mandelman’s work reflected currents of the era, from social realism to abstraction, cubism to expressionism, all part of the emerging “New York School” that included painters like Jackson Pollack, Willem de Kooning and Stuart Davis. Her prints were often featured in exhibitions at galleries and museums.

A few years after marrying artist Louis Ribak in 1942, his friendships with more left wing associates led the couple to relocate to Taos, New Mexico, to escape FBI harassment. There they found a thriving artists’ colony, opportunities to teach and experiment, foster a “Taos Moderns” group, and engage with a new generation. Influenced by her colleagues as well as the New Mexican light and landscape, Mandelman’s Modernist paintings became more colorful as did the lively collages that she started making in the 1950s, and she continued to make prints. She taught, exhibited, traveled, and created until her death. Always passionate and engaged, one of her Taos friends remembered she “was a consummate painter. She loved to talk about art and in particular her most recent paintings . . . Bea was driven to paint. It was her oxygen, her total life . . . A burst of sales and recognition just months before her death gave her joyous vindication for her long pursuit of excellence in her work and her unrelenting passion for color and form.”

Section  Six
Music, Dance, and Theater In The New Deal
Music and The New Deal: Federal Music Project

The Federal Music Project employed musicians, music teachers, composers, and performers of instrumental and vocal music. It was estimated that during the seven years the FMP was funded, it sponsored 250,000 concerts attended by 150 million people, which was quite impressive given that the U.S. population was 130 million. Americans clearly found entertainment and solace in music and individually attended many events. Musicians played in almost every type of musical organization, including orchestras, small ensembles, and bands. The public could hear them at the theater, the opera, at schools, in parks, and at free concerts in every borough of New York.  Musicians taught music appreciation in the public schools and other community settings. It was possible to sample many kinds of music from classical to folk, jazz to light opera, and everything in between. Composers and lyricists worked with theater groups sponsored by the Federal Theater Project.  One contemporary source provides a sense of the full range of FMP activity: “symphony orchestras, small orchestral ensembles, string quartets, chamber ensembles, dance orchestras, bands, theatre orchestras, music teaching, music copying, maintenance of music libraries, piano tuning, vocal ensembles, vocal soloists, operatic and light opera ensembles, vocal quartets, grand opera, opera comique and chamber opera.”

Theater of Music Poster Symphony Concerts Poster Piano Music Poster Music Project Poster Beethoven Poster

Music Mural

The Evolution of Music and Musical Instruments. Lucienne Bloch.

The Evolution of Music and Musical Instruments. Lucienne Bloch.

The Evolution of Music and Musical Instruments. Lucienne Bloch. (1938). George Washington High School Music Room. 549 Audubon Avenue at 193rd Street, Fort George, Washington Heights. Permission to reproduce this mural courtesy of the New York City Department of Education.

Lucienne Bloch’s mural surrounds the Music Room just below the ceiling and celebrates music from around the world, depicting African and South Asian instruments and performers, historical instruments as well as modern western orchestras.  Edward Alden Jewell of the New York Times wrote in 1938 “there seems little doubt that it will prove the best thing that she has ever done.” Two years later he again praised her work, in true fresco, as “warmly and communicably abstract, abstract in the sense that applies to music itself.”

There is nothing better than Lucienne Bloch’s description to understand how she planned her mural.

When I came into the room for the first time, I asked myself, ‘What in music is visual?’ I went to the library, and while there I suddenly realized that music is composed of sound waves. So I made an oscillating pattern to run through the whole fresco and tie it together. That’s visual. I decided to put in instruments representing music from all over the world. My father, Ernest Bloch, was a composer, and he used to give us children records so that we could learn about music from Arab countries, from Polynesia . . . everywhere. My sister became fascinated by medieval European music, and, because of her interest, she learned to play the lute. So I painted her over there in the medieval section with her instrument.  Then comes the modern orchestra, with the prima-donna conductor, all the lights trained on his beautiful hair. That’s [Leopold] Stokowski. Next to this you see the composer writing music in the dark. That’s my father. Then come a group of black hands clapping, just the way you see them back there in the African section, but with white gloves on–jazz.  It ends with barbed wire. Remember, this was 1938, and Hitler was in power. I saw war coming and showed it. But I had a little bit of optimism, and on top of a wire I put one bird.

Lucienne Bloch (1909-1999) emigrated from Switzerland in 1917 with her family. Although both parents were musicians — her father, Ernest, was a well-known composer and conductor — they encouraged her interest in the arts. Her art education began at the Cleveland Institute of Art and then continued in Paris. From the start of her career she kept acquiring new skills, including photography, painting, glass sculpture, woodblock, lithography. When she met and worked with Mexican painter Diego Rivera she learned how to do fresco murals, first in New York at his Museum of Modern Art project (1931), then in Detroit, and again back in New York at 30 Rockefeller Center.  There she took the only photograph of his controversial mural “Man at the Crossroads” before Nelson Rockefeller ordered it painted over because Rivera had included a portrait of Lenin and other radical images; soon the plaster was destroyed too. Lucienne was influenced too by Rivera’s wife, artist Frida Kahlo, and they became close friends. Lucienne worked with the Federal Art Project for five years (c.1934-1939) and during that time she painted well-received murals at the Women’s House of Detention on Riker’s Island, “The Cycle of a Woman’s Life from Childhood to Womanhood,” followed by her great project at George Washington High School. She spoke at the Hunter College Art Club about murals on January 8, 1937 as part of a series of talks sponsored by the Lecture Division of the Federal Art Project. Lucienne had married fellow artist Stephen Pope Dimitroff and they worked together frequently the rest of their lives, as mural painters, teachers, and portrait artists, in New York, then Michigan, and finally in California from the 1960s onward.

Dance and New Deal: Federal Dance Project

In early 1936, Hallie Flanagan, Director of the Federal Theater Project, authorized the Federal Dance Project as an independent unit of the FTP. Don Oscar Becque was appointed to head the New York division, one of the first three units organized. The Dance Project produced performances, provided dancers to theaters, and gave free dance instruction. Many of the productions featured modern dance since that was the form most amenable to expressing the issues of modern American life, a theme that was well represented in the other federal creative projects. The FDP employed dancers and choreographers, and drew on other federal programs for musicians, composers, stagehands, and costume and set designers. Dancers were hired with training in ballet, modern dance, vaudeville, and teaching experience and earned about $23.86 a week ($420 in 2017). Similar to the Federal Theater Project, African American dancers were segregated to their own productions.

The first production was Salut au Monde in the summer of 1936. Its title was taken from a poem by Walt Whitman and regards the desire to bring many groups together across ethnic and class and social boundaries. Another production that year was Young Tramps. What could be more timely than a play about the young unemployed men who took to the road? It was presented at the Majestic Theatre in Brooklyn.

The Eternal Prodigal opened at the Ritz Theater on November 29, 1936, and was the first Broadway production of the Dance Project.  It drew on the Biblical story but the setting was modern, the story of a young boy wandering the world looking for change.  It was experimental in combining modern dance, a narrator, special costumes, and changing of scenes and props by the dancers themselves. The director described is as “surrealistic dance drama” and it was also characterized as a “jazz ballet.”

Salut au Monde Poster The WPA Federal Dance Theatre presents "The eternal prodigal"

WPA Federal Theater Project in New York:Dance Theater:"Eternal Prodigal"

Eternal Prodigal. Felicia Serel (center) with three of the ensemble in Eternal Prodigal. WPA Federal Theater Project, Dance Theater Unit, New York City. 1936. Photograph.  (NARA)

Theater and The New Deal: Federal Theater Project

In 1935, the Federal Theater Project (1935-1939) was authorized by Federal Project Number 1, along with projects in the arts, music, and writing.  The programs were under the Works Progress Administration headed by Happy Hopkins. He appointed Hallie Flanagan, a Vassar professor, writer, and theater director who had attended college with him, to lead the Theater Project.  The FTP encompassed hundreds of productions around the country, and encouraged the development of community theater. Traveling companies toured to rural areas, small towns, and even Civilian Conservation Camps where there were not enough resources to mount productions. A National Service Bureau oversaw the distribution of scripts, equipment, and technical help to educational groups and local theaters.  Over the life of the FTP, almost 12,000 to 15,000 people were employed each year in every position relevant to theater, with half of them actors, and then numerous playwrights, designers, musicians, dancers, and the technical workers needed to run the theater. It is estimated that 30 million people attended FTP productions and more than two-thirds of them were free.

New York was one of the three largest theater projects, along with Chicago and Las Angeles. There was a vast array of productions in New York, including full Broadway realizations of classics, as well as new drama, musicals, and comedy. Children went to see fairy tales, puppets, marionettes, and the circus, while adults could also treat themselves to vaudeville or listen to plays, music, books, interviews, and public service programs on the radio. There was also support for Yiddish and German theater in New York.

Experimental drama included the Living Newspaper plays which focused on a social problem (and its solution) such as the ills of tenement housing and greedy landlords in New York, One-Third of a Nation, or the abuses of power companies and the work of the TVA, Power. The controversial musical critical of capitalism written by Marc Blitzstein, The Cradle Will Rock, was not allowed a live performance. Not surprisingly, such radical theater offended some members of Congress who would eventually use their powers to end FTP funding.

Like other aspects of New Deal programs–and American life–African-American actors in New York were generally restricted to segregated theater units although white directors did occasionally work with them and their theater units led to the development of African American theater companies that had a long term influence. The Negro Theater Unit of the FTP sponsored new drama and classics. One of the most famous New York productions was in 1936 when a very young Orson Welles directed an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, moving the action from Scotland to 19th century Haiti, and replacing witchcraft with Haitian voodoo. After months of rehearsal, the play opened on April 14, 1936, at the Lafayette Theatre in Harlem, and was an instant success. After a few months it moved to Broadway, and then toured the country. Wells later recalled, By all odds my great success in my life was that play. Because the opening night there were five blocks in which all traffic was stopped. You couldn’t get near the theater in Harlem. Everybody who was anybody in the black or white world was there. And when the play ended there were so many curtain calls that finally they left the curtain open, and the audience came up on the stage to congratulate the actors. And that was, that was magical.

Many names that would become part of the pantheon of 20th century American theater were involved with the Federal Theater Project. Sinclair Lewis adapted his novel, It Can’t Happen Here, about the rise of dictators to a stage production. The careers of Arthur Miller, John Houseman, and Elia Kazan also benefitted from the Theater Project

Power Poster Young Tramps Poster Trojan Incident Poster The Dictator Poster Rur Poster Macbeth Poster Native Ground Poster Noah Poster Prologue to Glory Poster Horse Eats Hat Poster High Tor Poster A Hero Is Born Poster Hansel And Gretel Poster It Can't Happen Here Poster The Emperors New Clothes Poster Faustus Poster Haiti Poster Big Blow Poster On The Rocks Poster Battle Hymn Poster Androcles And The Lion Poster

New Deal Today

The New Deal continues to shape life in 21st century America and New York.  In public works, New Deal funded highways were a model for the Interstate Highway system that emerged under President Eisenhower. Bridges and tunnels connecting all of the five boroughs and the city with New Jersey still carry millions of cars each year. New Yorkers get health care in city clinics built during the 1930s while more than half a million New Yorkers live in affordable housing constructed by the New York City Housing Authority, founded in 1934.  New Deal murals have been restored in many public buildings and schools and remain admired and valued. The City University of New York was given a major boost with the construction of new colleges to employ thousands and widen educational opportunity.  New Yorkers still consult the Federal Writers’ Project guide to New York City. New Yorkers on Social Security or collecting unemployment insurance benefit from the visionary policies of the New Dealers, and the principles of care established then are reflected in succeeding waves of legislation for Medicaid, Medicare, and Affordable Care. A number of the stamps issued in March 2017 in honor of New Deal posters were designed by New York artists.  In almost every aspect of daily life in New York, the New Yorkers experience the influence of the New Deal.

Many New Deal projects in New York City can be found on a 2017 map produced by the Living New Deal ( a nonprofit organization founded in 2007 in California to document New Deal  programs and projects around the country and to make this information available through digital, print, and social media, public programs, and exhibitions. A New York Chapter was founded in 2018 to promote the city’s New Deal legacy and provide public programs.