Courtesy of Kansas City Convention Center
By Charles Epting
2015 marked the eightieth anniversary of the Works Progress Administration. Although many people have a general awareness of the WPA, the program’s place in the American psyche has diminished greatly in the decades that have passed since its termination at the onset of World War II. However, even after all these years, the legacy of the WPA can still be seen if you know where to look.
To tell the full story of the WPA, though, we must first back up a few years. In 1932, Franklin Roosevelt was elected president; the cornerstone of his campaign was his “new deal for the American people.” These words—the New Deal— would quickly enter the American lexicon as the collective term for President Roosevelt’s relief agencies that were implemented while the country was at the height of the Great Depression. The WPA was just one of Roosevelt’s numerous New Deal programs. Some, like the Civil Works Administration and Public Works Administration, were short-lived; others, such as the Social Security Administration and Tennessee Valley Authority, are still with us today. Of all the New Deal agencies, two rise above the rest in terms of prolificacy and public awareness: the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps.
The CCC was one of the first programs Roosevelt debuted in the early weeks of his presidency. Very specific in its nature, it was aimed at giving jobs in rural areas, particularly in national and state parks, to single men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five.
During the CCC’s ten-year existence, more than three million young men were enlisted in the program nationwide.
In Missouri, the CCC had an incredibly long-lasting effect on the state parks system. Fifteen camps were established, employing three thousand men at the agency’s peak. Parks such as Meramec, Washington, Roaring River, Lake of the Ozarks, and Bennett Spring were drastically improved, giving Missouri one of the best state park systems in the entire nation. Much of the infrastructure—the trails, cabins, picnic shelters, and roads—that they built is still in place to this day because of the remarkable craftsmanship of the CCC workers.
Unlike the CCC, the WPA sought to provide employment to both men and women. Men were given construction jobs typically, while women were appointed such tasks as sewing clothes, running nurseries, and building toys. Many of the buildings that the program constructed have large plaques on them that bear the WPA’s name, and many of these buildings still stand or are even in use today. Whether people know it or not, the WPA is still a large part of American society.
Construction jobs were by no means the only facet of the WPA. Several divisions of the WPA were aimed at bringing the arts to the masses. The Federal Theater Project and Federal Music Project, for example, brought plays and orchestras to small towns that often did not have the resources for such high-brow performances. Millions of Americans were able to experience the works of Shakespeare and Mozart for the first times in their lives. Similarly, the Federal Art Project was tasked with ornamenting buildings, parks, and other public spaces with murals and sculptures.
The last of the WPA’s art programs was the Federal Writers’ Project, which put unemployed writers to work primarily through crafting a series of guidebooks for each of the forty-eight states, as well as various territories, regions, and cities. The Missouri section of the FWP released Missouri: A Guide to the “Show Me” State in 1941. The book documents the state’s rich history, economy, and culture and provides readers with a series of driving tours throughout the state.
As we celebrate the eightieth birthday of the Works Progress Administration, documenting and preserving the sites that the organization constructed seems more important. Obviously, not all historic sites can be saved; for example, the Amelia Earhart Memorial Bridge between Atchison County, Kansas, and Buchanan County, Missouri, was demolished in 2013. Despite being a WPA project, the bridge had become outdated over the years and was becoming impractical and unsafe.
For every project such as this, however, there are countless others that, although endangered, are still able to be saved. There were few communities in Missouri that weren’t impacted by the New Deal in one way or another, so keep an eye out in your own community for the way in which the WPA put many Missourians to work in the depths of the Great Depression.
Located in the shadow of the state’s Capitol, the Missouri Governor’s Mansion has been the home of every governor since 1871. Almost seventy years later, the WPA was recruited to install a sunken garden on the property just west of the mansion. Although construction began in 1938, it took until after World War II for the project to be completed due to a lack of government funding. The WPA was responsible for numerous walkways, ponds, and rock walls, but the most impressive features are a large staircase and stone pergola, which are still standing today. The site was chosen for its beautiful views of the Capitol building, and to this day, the site is popular for weddings and other events. Following the untimely death of governor and senate candidate Mel Carnahan in a plane crash in 2000, the gardens were renamed in his honor
Although established in 1922, Dickerson Park Zoo wasn’t fully developed until the 1930s. The WPA helped to construct a number of zoos across the country. In the case of Dickerson Park, the agency built walkways, stone walls, and bridges that are still scattered throughout the zoo. Furthermore, there are even several animal exhibits that are still in use today despite being almost eighty years old. The zoo’s primate building, parrot house, spider monkey exhibit, and former lion and tiger building all date from this time. Although the zoo has expanded considerably over the decades and now houses several hundred species of animals, the WPA’s architecture is still an integral part of the site. Projects such as the Dickerson Park Zoo demonstrate the WPA’s desire to not only put people back to work but also provide citizens with recreational opportunities to help boost morale during the Great Depression.
At one time, more than a hundred cities across the country had swimming pools designed by a man named Wesley Bintz. What made Bintz’s pools unique was his patented design that placed the pool above ground, with changing rooms underneath. When the WPA was established, many cities that would not have otherwise had the chance to construct such a pool were able to apply for government assistance. Fayette was one such town. In 1935, the city government came together with the WPA, Howard County, and the state of Missouri to build the municipal pool as the centerpiece of Fayette’s first park. What makes the Fayette pool so unique is that it is still in use as a pool; nearly all other Bintz pools nationwide have been demolished or repurposed since they were first constructed. A similar Bintz-WPA collaboration also exists in Chaffee.
4920 Fort Street, Missouri, Missouri
Fort D, located on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River just south of Cape Girardeau, was one of four Union forts constructed in the region in 1861. Of the four, Fort D was the largest and most important strategically; despite this, the fort didn’t see any fighting in the 1863 Battle of Cape Girardeau. Within a few decades, Fort D was the only fort remaining, and by the early twentieth century, a housing development threatened the site. Fortunately, the American Legion intervened in 1936 and bought the property to preserve it. The WPA was enlisted to restore the fort’s original earthworks based on original plans supplied by the War Department and to construct a limestone building on the approximate site of Fort D’s original powder house. Today, Fort D is open to the public as a historic site and often features Civil War reenactments.
Like any major City, St. Louis has a large number of New Deal improvements, but, arguably, none are as unique as the Jewel Box—a five-story, fifteen thousand-foot greenhouse renowned for its stunning Art Deco design. The New Deal was not responsible for the construction of many greenhouses across the country, and the Jewel Box is almost certainly the most impressive example. The building’s architecture has been praised ever since it first opened to the public in November of 1936. Although primarily built of patinated metal and glass, the building’s roofs are actually made of wood in case of a hail storm. The original cost of the building was $125,000, almost half of which was provided by the Public Works Administration. Recently refurbished for $3.5 million, the Jewel Box is open on a daily basis and features a new display of flowers each season.
There are very few wooden baseball stadiums left in the United States; there are even fewer that were constructed by the WPA and are still in use. Liberty Park Stadium in Sedalia is one such site. Currently home to the Sedalia Bombers of the MINK Baseball League, the stadium has been in constant use since it was constructed in 1936 and 1937. A plaque on the front of Liberty Park Stadium commemorates the WPA’s involvement in the project. Some historians say this was the first baseball field west of the Mississippi River to belighted. While this claim can’t be confirmed or refuted, it has become part of the folklore of the park. Many fans who sit in the stadium’s original wood grandstand to watch a game remark that it’s as close as you can get to going back to baseball’s earliest days.
Mark Twain's Boyhood Home has been a tourist attraction for over a hundred years, but few visitors realize the significance of the stone building that houses the museum’s gift shop. In 1935, as part of the centennial celebration of Mark Twain’s birth, the WPA stepped in to provide additional exhibition space and living quarters for the museum’s caretaker. When it was dedicated in 1937, several actors from United Artists’ The Adventures of Tom Sawyer film made a special appearance. A stone wall that now surrounds the museum’s garden yard was another WPA project. Additionally, as part of the centennial in 1935, the WPA constructed a decorative lighthouse atop nearby Cardiff Hill. Although a windstorm destroyed the original lighthouse in 1960, an exact replica still stands today. Elsewhere in Hannibal, Clemens Field baseball stadium and the Hannibal Armory were both built by the WPA from locally quarried stone.
Kansas City is, in many ways, a textbook New Deal city. With the onset of the Great Depression, local politicians—headed by “Boss Tom” Pendergast—quickly laid out a ten-year plan for Kansas City, which would not only reduce unemployment through the creation of construction jobs but would also provide the city with much-needed infrastructure. Through a mix of local bonds and federal assistance, the WPA was able to construct a new police headquarters at 1125 Locust Street, City Hall at 414 E. Twelfth Street, and the Federal Courthouse and Post Office at 811 Grand Boulevard. Out of all of the buildings the WPA constructed in Kansas City, the most impressive building is the Municipal Auditorium, which was constructed at a cost of $6.5 million. An Art Deco masterpiece, the building was recently named one of the five hundred most important buildings in the United States by the Princeton Architectural Press.
One of seventy National Fish Hatcheries run by the Fish and Wildlife Service, Neosho National Fish Hatchery is not only the oldest hatchery open today, but it is also one of the only hatcheries to have a public visitor center. The center is tasked with protecting and restoring populations of endangered species of fish that are native to Missouri, and since it was founded in 1888, more than 130 species have been raised there. In 1938, the WPA was contracted to install new stonework around the hatchery’s ponds; the craftsmanship was so impressive that it was immediately praised by the local press. Despite recent developments, much of the WPA’s original work is still in place today, undoubtedly due to the high quality of work. Elsewhere in Neosho, the city hall, municipal auditorium, post office, and county courthouse were other New Deal projects from this same time period.
The WPA Stock Barn and Pavilion at Eastside Park in Trenton is a shining example that not all WPA projects were large-scale public works; many were simple and utilitarian, though no less important to helping America through the Great Depression. Built for local agricultural fairs, the Stock Barn is an octagonal building surrounded by livestock pens. It was constructed from native stone, which makes it unique in the region. Other projects included landscaping, the construction of a thousand-seat stadium, and the installation of a football field and baseball diamond. Although all of Eastside Park was improved by the WPA, the barn is the most interesting feature architecturally. An apocryphal story exists around the structure. Although most of the stones used in the building’s construction were rectangular or triangular, there is a sole heart-shaped stone, leading some to believe that one of the WPA workers may have been homesick