My first submission to Living New Deal was January 2013, and I logged 62 that first year, all of which involved road trips to 5 states to take photographs.
Although not the first of the mural photographs I took, the mural from the Houston, Mississippi post office was the first one I submitted to the Living New Deal. I spent hours trying to understand this mural, what it symbolized, and looking at it piece at a time. It took a great deal of research to finally understand it, and by then, my passion for this new research had a firm grip on me.
Later that month, I discovered the bridge at Possum Kingdom, where I grew up, had been a WPA project, and dug out my photographs taken in 1980 with my Minolta 35 mm. The bridge was described as the longest and most substantial masonry arch bridge in Texas; engineers chose the design to withstand flood waters released from the dam a mile above the bridge.
Politically speaking, the best of all landscapes, the best of all roads, are those which foster movement toward a desirable social goal. (John Brinkerhoff Jackson, in Discovering the Vernacular Landscape)
While the New Deal Administration, and its goals, had its critics then and now, many of us thought then and think now that the “movement toward a desirable social goal” was well represented in the efforts of the programs: to employ people who were unemployed through no fault of their own, and to build and restore the infrastructure of the United States. That bridge built in 1942 has seen many flood waters rush under its eighteen spans that were constructed from the abundant local stone in the area, quarried by the unemployed former coal miners who had learned to cut stone underground. The project employed 250 unskilled workers and 74 skilled workers (many of whom were stonemasons).
One of my favorite post offices–architecturally speaking–is the Crossett, Arkansas building. Crossett was a company town, founded by a lumber company, who donated the land for the new post office and wanted it to “reflect new progressive ideas” (Arkansas Historic Preservation Program).
When construction was completed in 1940, Crossett reveled in the addition of the ‘pleasing green’ stucco building that was designed using a combination of Art Deco, Greek Revival, and International architectural styles. (Arkansas Historic Preservation Program)
Some of the research was easy and fast, and for others, I spent hours, months, and in four cases, two years to ferret out the details to prove, or rule out, that it was a New Deal construction. While in three cases, I could substantiate and celebrate, there was after all, something satisfying last night to finally have the indisputable evidence that the Weatherford Power and Light was not a New Deal construction. Although they tried, with both PWA and WPA applications as early as 1933 and through 1939, they finally gave it up in 1940, and passed the revenue bonds to construct it themselves.
Most of the time, my photography of the New Deal buildings elicits little or no interest, but it has had its moments: the woman who emerged from the police department in Philadelphia, Mississippi to ask me what I was doing and ended up elatedly telling me about the work of my colleague in the community, the postmaster in DeWitt, Arkansas who came out to ask me about my research and ended up taking me on a tour of the building, and perhaps, my favorite, the couple in Oak Grove, Arkansas who came out to talk and told me a lot about the gymnasium built during segregation.
Travels would take me to the middle of a street and the middle of nowhere, as I wandered down unfamiliar paths less traveled by the common tourist, trying to figure out where I was and where I needed to go, fueled by my pronoia, rapt interest in communities, and the desire to document this part of our history. While many communities value their historic buildings and infrastructure and work to preserve, others see them only as “eyesores” to be demolished without second thoughts.
In late November and December, I would answer the call to help Living New Deal push a few state submissions over the 100 mark. I logged 21 submissions (with all the required research) for Louisiana over a 5 day period, 44 submissions and research for Tennessee over a 9 day period, and tacked on 3 for Arkansas, 1 for Texas, and 12 for Mississippi in the last 7 days of the year.
Many of my “discoveries” were the good fortune to spot a building detail–in this case, the center of the fabulous Art Deco/Moderne school in Ruston, Louisiana that I glimpsed while refueling after one of my many marathon trips to Texas in the past year. All in all, it has been a fulfilling year, and during the summer, I will be organizing it into a coherent series of research articles. Meanwhile, I have already moved forward in the new year with six sites for Alaska–one of our states that had relatively few submissions with only 13 at the end of 2014, and plotting out my travels for the summer to add Alaska to the road trip–ambitious, yet totally possible in my pronoid world.
Now, if it would only stop raining in Mississippi (going on over a week of it now), I could get back on the road and get busy with the photographs to enhance all the research. Happy New Year, ya’ll, and if you find yourself with some spare time on your hands, lend some help to documenting the New Deal work in your neck of the woods…or city. Head on over to Living New Deal for rules of submission, and check out the map to see what has already been documented for your state or city.