Whether you know it or not, there’s a good chance that a New Deal program helped shape your community.
During the ‘30s and ‘40s, the public works and employment programs instituted by the Roosevelt administration, part of the government’s response to the Great Depression, put millions to work and created thousands of new buildings, infrastructure projects, and public artworks across the country.
The Living New Deal website, an atlas and resource compiling all the New Deal sites across the country, has chronicled more than 12,000 different examples, many of which are still serving the community nearly a century after they were constructed, including huge, landscape shifting projects, such as the Colorado River project, which dammed the waterway and helped electrify Las Vegas, and irrigation that helped the Imperial Valley in California bloom.
“It was really a quantum leap forward for the entire United States,” says Gray Brechin, an author who helps run the Living New Deal. “By building this vast physical and cultural infrastructure, the New Deal brought the country into the mid 20th century.”
Between the Works Project Administration (WPA), which focused on employment, and the Public Works Administration (PWA), which took on big infrastructure projects, the ‘30s was a boom time for building (and a constant reference for contemporary infrastructure projects).
Here are some of the most impressive examples of buildings from the era, chosen by authors and scholars who have studied these programs, including Brechin, Nick Taylor, author of American-Made, The Enduring Legacy of the WPA, and Dr. Sandra Opdycke, a historian, author, and professor at Vassar College.
Timberline Lodge (Clackamas County, Oregon)
An iconic Cascade Mountain lodge that still draws in more than 2 million visitors annually, this tourist mecca on the slope of Oregon’s Mt. Hood is “a monument to the skill and faithful performance of workers on the rolls of the Works Progress Administration,” according to FDR. From the foundation stones to the art on its walls to the hand-woven bedspreads, the entire building was a WPA creation, which put a crew to work for 18 months. Taylor calls it the “crown jewel” of the WPA.
River Walk (San Antonio, Texas)
Now the centerpiece of downtown, this array of riverfront paths and parks was once a flood-prone mess. The San Antonio River overflowed so disastrously in 1921, according to Opdycke, that city fathers began seriously considering a plan to divert the river away from the city.
Local architect Robert H. H. Hugman envisioned a different path, installing floodgates and transforming the once-dangerous river into a civic gathering place and park. Between 1939-1941, WPA workers realized Hugman’s vision, creating a public space that’s inseparable from most visitor’s conception of the city.
Bethpage Black Golf Course (Farmingdale, New York)
One of the most challenging courses in the nation, this site of major tournaments was built with WPA dollars and designed by famous course architect A.W. Tillinghast, who built more than a dozen courses on Long Island.
This was one of the hundreds of courses created during the New Deal era, a mini boom that helped spread and democratize the game. Roosevelt, like many presidents after him, was a noted golfer, but also loved that building courses was a quick and immediate way to get hundreds of people to work landscaping.
Aquatic Park (San Francisco, California )
This local favorite on the Bay Area waterfront was started by the city, but in the midst of the Depression, local government turned to the Feds for help in 1935. Nearly $2 million would be spent on the project constructing a seawall, building a zoo, and hiring artists and sculptors to decorate the site, including the Streamline Moderne Bathhouse, a playful, nautical-themed structure down to its porthole-like windows.
Dock Street Theatre (Charleston, South Carolina)
This detailed historical renovation in the charming Southern city brought a performing arts space back to the site where the first theater in the country once stood. The original theater, built in 1736, burned down a few years after construction, and in 1809, the Planter’s Hotel appeared on the site.
The antebellum architectural gem deteriorated after the Civil War, but in 1937, the WPA took control of the site, restoring historic design elements. It’s now a “vital element in the cultural life of the region,” writes Opdycke.
Vulcan Statue (Birmingham, Alabama)
Hailing from a turn-of-the-century iron and steel town, Birmingham’s leaders decided to showcase the city’s industry to the world, and in 1904, the city commissioned a 56-foot-tall iron statue of the Roman god of the forge, Vulcan, for the St. Louis World’s Fair.
The hulking advertisement for hometown industry was certainly a sight, but during its homecoming, the statue’s massive bulk turned off residents, and the gigantic blacksmith was sent to the fairground, ignored and even plastered over with ads. Between 1936 and 1939, a WPA crew moved the statue to the summit of the Red Mountains, constructing a proper pedestal for the steel colossus.
It now gazes down at the city and offers a monumental welcome to visitors.
Seattle Armory (Seattle, Washington)
Built on the eve of World War II, this Art Deco structure designed by William R. Grant and Marcus Priteca was a community project constructed with New Deal and military money. Perched on the edge of Lake Union, it’s a shining example of civic architecture. It’s since been updated and converted into the Museum of History and Industry.
Hoover Dam (Clark County, Nevada)
Built with an army of more than 21,000 men, this concrete colossus helped to electrify Vegas and may be one of the country’s most famous public works projects. The project, conceived of and worked on for years, was catalyzed and complete with an infusion of New Deal funds and labor. The towering dam is dotted with elaborate artwork and reliefs, including bronze sculptures, many of which reflect the designs and patterns of nearby Indian tribes.
French Market (New Orleans, Louisiana)
WPA workers helped restore an area long associated with Cafe du Monde, muffelattas, and jazz. A market has existed at this site in the Crescent City since the 1700s, but New Deal funds in the ‘30s helped bring badly needed infrastructure upgrades to the area, creating a unified design aesthetic and helping build up the Quarter as a major tourist attraction.
Zimmerman Library at the University of New Mexico (Albuquerque, New Mexico)
While it’s as thrilling from the outside, this campus library contains an incredible interior designed by local architect John Gaw Meem. The exquisite, Spanish Pueblo-style structure contains incredible murals, tin light fixtures, wood carvings and furniture, all part of Meem’s unifying vision.