In the land of FAA, FDA, FHA, GSA and EPA, the walls remember a time when stockholders sold apples on streetcorners, factory workers stood on bread lines and no one had much use for artists.
With the country in the throes of Depression, over 20,000 artists were put to work when the governemtn went into the art business and created a new genre -- New Deal art. In the years between 1933 and 1943, the government-subsidized program gave birth to 225,000 works of art -- everything from murals to Navajo blankets.
Some of the works have been lost. Most of the murals, fortunately, were too big to lose. Many of them are right here in the Washington area -- not in museums, but in the post offices and government building they were created to adorn.
Constructing new government buildings was one of the prime New Deal weapons against hard times: almost 2,000 were built between 1933 and 1937. And one percent of the cost of each building was set aside for artwork -- mainly sculpture and murals.
Under some programs, artists were paid salaries -- starting at $22 a week. But for the grand edifices of the Federal Triangle -- the Justice Department and the "New" Post Office building -- a by-invitation-only competition was held and the winners were awarded commissions. One of the first commissions went to the person who'd suggested the program to FDR -- George Biddle, a lawyer-turned-artist from a wealthy Philadelphia family.
Biddle's fresco for the Justice Department, a triptych called "Society Freed Through Justice," was stalled on the drawing board, according to Karel Yasko, the government official who now serves as curator, historian and guardian of government murals.
"The Fine Arts Commission was shocked when they saw the sketches and held it up for months," he says. "Up until that point, murals had been alegorical. This was in the style of social realism. It addressed social problems and brought art to the level of the people."
Department officials decided to ignore the Fine Arts Commission and social realism became the theme of most New Deal murals. There were women breaking their chains, skeletal-looking child laborers emerging from dingy factories and prisoners being rehabilitated.
Most of the murals attempted to show social ills being cured by the agency whose headquarters they adorn. The murals in post offices usually portray some local scenes or some aspect of local history.
Sometimes the artist's interpretation of local history incurred with wrath of local citizens. On the walls of the Rincon Annex Post Office in San Francisco, for example, rough-and-ready scenses of old California narrowly escaped a congressional resolution for removal.
A greater threat today, according to Yasko, is from remodeling and repair. When the Department of Health, Education and Welfare knocked down a cafeteria wall that once held a mural, Yasko rolled up the artwork and gave it to the National Collection of Fine Arts. And a workman installing a fixture in a bathroom at the Department of Justice once put a screwdriver through the hindquarters of a cow in Biddle's fresco. The workman gathered up the pieces of plaster in a handkerchief and give them to Yasko, who had the mural restored. A MURAL MINI-TOUR D. C. RECORDER OF DEEDS OFFICE, 515 D Street NW. There are six murals on the ground floor, most of them portraying contributions made by black Americans. Included are: "Crispus Attucks, First Patriot Killed in the Boston Massacre," by Herschel Levit; "Battle of New Orleans," by Ethel Magafan; "Frederick Douglass Appealing to Lincoln to Enlist Negro Soldiers During the Civil War," by William Edward Scott; "Courageous Act of Cyrus Tiffany in the Battle of Lake Erie," by Martyl Schweig; "The 54th Massachusetts Regiment in an Attack onFort Wagner, 1863," by Carlos Lopez; and "Benjamin Bannecker," by Maxine Seelbinder. DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH, EDUCATION AND WELFARE, Third and Independence SW. As you enter through the Independence Avenue door, you'll be facing a mural by Seymour Fogel on the general theme of health, education and welfare. For health, there's a bowl of fruit and a pitcher of milk; for education there's a girl at a blackboard; and for welfare, a man playing tennis.
Continue down the main corridor and on both sides see murals by Ben Shahn. One of the most striking panels, on the left, shows a little kid with a big head, sad face and crutches, emerging from a factory. In the mural on the right, a farm worker is filing out an application for Social Security. In the auditorium, off the main corridor t the right, is a mural by Philip Guston, who later became an abstract expressionist. It's on the stage, behind a curtain, and one panel has been removed to accommodate a movie screen. GENERAL SERVICES ADMINISTRATION, Regional Office, Seventh and D Street SW. Harold Weston, who won the commission to paint the 22 murals in the lobby of this building, had as his subject the seemingly unpromising one of government construction and procurement. Weston, best known for landscapes of the Adirondacks and of Persia, managed to put excitement and humor into it.
On the south wall, left of the elevators, is "Architecture Under Government -- Old and New." To show the contrast between old and New Deal-era architecture, Weston gathered together on canvas a melange of government buildings from different parts of the country. Among the old are the Treasury Department, the Washington Monument and the Paterson (New Jersey) Post Office. Examples of "new" architecture include the National Archives, the Federal Trade Commission and the San Francisco Mint. The west wall, above the elevators, celebrates various aspects of construction work, including contouring the land, laying foundations, raising steel beams and putting a brick exterior on a New England post office. The north wall, right of the elevators, deals with a topic dear to the hearts of bureaucrats -- the procurement of supplies and services for the government. Included are a government coal yard, a government warehouse crammed with everything from spittoons to baseball bats, the inner workings of an elevator and a government bidding office.
In one of these panels, Weston poked gentle fun at the whole subject of government's getting involved in art through the mural program. In the last panel on the north wall he painted a takeoff of a controversial mural in the New Post Office Building showing nude women stripped by marauding Indians. The artist in the picture is a caricature of Weston himself, although he didn't paint the offending Post Office mural. DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, Tenth an Pennsylvania Avenue NW. Some of the best New Deal murals are in here, but unfortunately, the building is closed to the public for security reasons. The only way to get past the guards is to enter with someone who works there. If you succeed, take No. 9 elevator to the fifth floor and look at Biddle's fresco, "Society Freed Through Justice." The tall, balding man standing up in the tenament scene is Biddle's brother Francis, who was later to become attorney general and occupy an office down the hall.
To the left of the Biddle fresco in the library, which contains 20 paintings by Maurice Sterne under the umbrella title, "The Search for Truth." One of the paintings, subtitled "Cruelty," aroused the ire of the Roman Catholic hierarchy since it showed someone walking on hot irons during the Inquisition. The practice, church-officials insisted, stopped when it was out-lawed by a 16th-century treaty.
Take the elevator back down to the first floor, and as you step off you'll see Emil Bisttram's harbinger of the women's liberation movement, "Contemporary Justice and Woman." The center panel shows a woman with a sword symbolically cutting the chains of all women, while the bottom panel shows women carrying babies, weaving and doing traditional female chores. Vignettes along the side show women in their new roles; chemists, artists, secretaries and golfers. BENJAMIN FRANKLIN STATION POST OFFICE, 12th and Pennsylvania Avenue NW. At the east end are two murals by Alexander Brook, "The Family Letter" shows a little girl writing a letter while her brother teases the cat and her mother holds a baby. The other panel, very much of its era, depicts a scene in a Civilian Conservation Corps camp: "Worker in Camp Reading Letter from home While Other Workers Discuss a Point About Surveying." NEW POST OFFICE BUILDING, 12th Street between Pennsylvania and Constitution, next to the Federal Triangle Metro Station. Tell the guard at the desk you just want to look at the paintings, and he'll sign you in.
Start in the south lobby and climb the spiral staircase to the second floor to see two murals by Rockwell Kent: In "Mail Service in the Tropics," very dark people, clad all in white, reach upward for their mail. And in "Mail Service in the Arctic," an Eskimo postman delivers mail by dogsled. On the fourth floor, Alfred D. Crimi painted "Mail Conveyors" and "Mail Delivery," peopled with grim faces that reflect the hard times of the '30s. On the fifth floor, Ward Lockwood's "Consolidation of the West" shows the pageant of the West, from the conquistadors to the cavalry, complete with strong pioneer women, all of whom look constipated. When you get to the seventh floor, go down the corridor to the north end of the building to see William C. Palmer's "Mail Coaches Attacked by Bandits and Indians." Palmer studied fresco painting in Paris; he used big Impresionistic strokes and sepia and ochre tones.
Go down the north spiral staircase to the sixth floor to see two paintings by Doris Lee, "Mail Boxes at Crossroads" (four of them mounted on a wagon wheel) and "Inside a Country General Store." Through the window of the general store the gas pump is visible outside: price per gallon, 16 cents. Men sitting around a potbellied stove inside are reading a newspaper with the headline "Farmers Organize."
On the fifth floor is Frank Mechau's "Dangers of Mail," the controversial painting showing nude white women and attacking Indians. On the fourth floor, a fresco by Reginald Marsch shows mail from all over the world being sorted in a boat in New York harbor with the skylines rising in the background. On the second floor, in Eugene Savage's "The Post as a Connecting Thread in Human Life" letters spill from planes and trains into the hands of a grateful populace. DEPARTMENT OF THE INTERIOR, C Street between 18th and 19th Streets NW. Tell the guard at the desk you want to look at the paintings and ask the way to the cafeteria. Just outside the cafeteria is "An Incident in Contemporary American Life" by Mitchell Jamieson. The incident is Marian Anderson's concert at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939, and the painting focuses on the audience crowded on the grass to listen.
Along the corridor on the main floor are four paintings on blacks in the arts, religion, education and science, and murals celebrating forestry, farming, apple-picking and ranching. As you walk down the corridor you'll face a large mural by William Gropper on dam construction. SILVER SPRING POST OFFICE, 8412 Georgia Avenue. "The Old Tavern," a loal history landmark, is depicted in a 16-foot mural by Nicolai Cikovsky. BETHESDA POST OFFICE, 7400 Wisconsin Avenue. "The Farm Women's Co-op Market," a local institution that still exists, was painted by Robert Gates; the mural was recently cleaned and restored with funds provided by the Farm Women's Co-op.