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Historic Preservation 1



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The WPA Helped Preserve Our History!--Page 1
(See Photos Below!)

      Most of the WPA's work was devoted to infrastructure projects, e.g., roads, bridges, parks, and dams; but it also engaged in a lot of non-infrastructure projects, e.g., art, music, writing, and theater.  The WPA involved itself in these non-construction projects because of the realization that not every unemployed person was suited for labor-intensive work.  In other words, a realization that the depression was affecting many professions, not just those we term "blue collar."

     One of the most interesting aspects of the WPA was its contribution to the preservation of our history.  Sometimes this involved physical labor, and sometimes this involved more sedentary, clerical-type work.  Either way, the WPA made a lasting contribution to the nation with its preservation work.  For example, librarian Bryan L. Mulcahy writes, "Under the auspices of the WPA, workers went to archives, historical societies, public and university libraries and compiled inventories of manuscript collections.  They went to courthouses, town halls, offices in large cities and vital statistics offices and inventoried records.  Besides compiling indexes, they also transcribed some of the records they found.  The impact on genealogical research in today's era has been profound."  (Works Progress Administration (WPA) Historical Records Survey, March 14, 2011.)

     As you look through the photos below, and read the captions, ask yourself, "Was the historic preservation work of the WPA worthwhile?" and "What could a modern WPA do, with respect to historic preservation?"     

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Photo credits: Unless otherwise noted, all black and white photos were taken by the WPA, are in the public domain, and provided courtesy of the University of Maryland College Park Archives.  All color photos--unless otherwise noted--were taken by Brent McKee.  Click here for more information on photo credits, permission to use, and exhibit descriptions.


 You can scroll through all the historic preservation projects below, or jump to the particular section you want to see: 

1. Antietam

2. Fort Howard

3. Fort McHenry

4. The Slave Narratives

5. Miniatures of Famous Buildings

6. Cataloging Art

7. Baltimore War Memorial

8. Historic Bridges



 1. Antietam


Above: On May 4th, 1941 it was reported that $36,728 (about $565,000 in 2011 dollars) had been approved for a WPA project to improve the Antietam National Battlefield.  The project included "grading, landscaping, rebuilding bridges, paths, walls and resetting monuments" ("Two Maryland Projects Approved By Roosevelt," Baltimore Sun, May 4, 1941, p. 21).  At this point, I'm not sure how much of this work was completed (perhaps all of it), but the WPA had been working at Antietam for several years (see following photos).  Photo taken in 2011.   


Above: According to a report prepared for the Maryland Historical Trust, the wall around Antietam National Cemetery was "repaired and repointed by the WPA in 1939."  Photo taken in 2011.


Above: The description card for this photo reads: "View of office at clerical project assisting in collecting information relative to the celebration in August."  Photo taken in June 1937.


Above: This "Exhibit of types of guns used during the Civil War" was part of the WPA Antietam Clerical Project (information is from the photo description card).  Photo taken June 1937.  A newspaper article, also from June 1937, describes the lead-up to the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam.  Sponsors for anniversary activities enlisted school children (and others) to go on a sort of Antietam memorabilia treasure hunt, and WPA workers were called upon to "examine and classify" incoming objects for suitability for a museum exhibit (Arthur B. Musgrave, "Hagerstown Recalls Antietam," Baltimore Sun, June 13, 1937, p. 84).  

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 2. Fort Howard


Above: On July 10, 1938, it was reported that Fort Howard (in Baltimore County, near Edgemere) was to receive $48,297 (about $775,000 in 2011 dollars) in WPA assistance for historic preservation work.  The work was to include "improving barracks, quarters, storehouses and various other buildings" ("Historic Places To Get WPA Funds," Baltimore Sun, July 10, 1938, p. 14).  In the above picture you see some older, seemingly abandoned residences at Fort Howard.  However, I have no idea exactly which structures the WPA worked on.  Photo taken in 2011.  


Above: Many of the older parts of Fort Howard seem to be begging for a new WPA to help preserve them.  It's always a shame to see historical areas suffer from vandalism and/or neglect.  A new WPA could clean up and preserve these places.  Unfortunately, there is little political interest in this type of public investment.  So, our heritage withers away a little more every day, while the long-term unemployed wonder if they'll ever find work again.  Photo taken in 2011.  

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 3. Fort McHenry


Above: On January 22, 1939, the Baltimore Sun reported that the WPA "already at work restoring Fort McHenry's powder magazines, also will redecorate the buildings erected at the fort for the Immigration Service..."  The article describes the buildings as never having been used for their intended purpose, since New York became the port of entry for immigrants.  With respect to the powder magazines, they had been damaged by nearby construction, filled with water, and closed to the public for decades.  ("Old Fort McHenry Buildings To Be Redecorated By WPA," p. 14)  Photo courtesy of the National Park Service.

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 4. The Slave Narratives


Above: This book was published by Applewood Books (Bedford, MA), in cooperation with the Library of Congress.  It is a "Folk History of Slavery in Maryland from Interviews with Former Slaves," created by the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938.  The Federal Writers' Project was a WPA program.  I highly recommend this brief but fascinating collection of oral histories.  The memories of the former slaves, as well as their feelings towards their former owners, will surely keep you reading to the last page.  Today, the Veterans History Project only has about 10% of their oral histories digitized, due to funding limitations (see here).  Why is there not a modern WPA to make these important oral histories more widely accessible?  As of late 2011, the unemployment rate for veterans was higher than the national average.  Why not hire and train unemployed veterans (and others) to digitize the oral histories of veterans?   

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 5. Miniatures of Famous Buildings

     On December 13, 1942, it was reported that "Fourteen models of famous buildings, restored to the last column, brilliantly painted and lighted with special spotlights, go on exhibition today (at the Baltimore Museum of Art)...the models were prepared with museum guidance by a WPA project under the direction of Benjamin T. Kurtz..."

     I don't have any pictures of these miniatures, and I don't even know if they still exist (if anyone has any information, please let me know).  The models were of...

1.
The Homewood House, Johns Hopkins campus (built by Charles Carroll in 1801).
2. Hypostyle Hall from the Temple of Amon (Karnak, Egypt)
3. Throne Room of the city palace at Knossos (Crete)
4. Ishtar Gate (Babylon)
5. The Parthenon (Greece)
6. The Arch of Titus (Rome)
7. Santa Sophia (part of), a Byzantine church (Constantinople)
8. Court of Lions (part of) (Spain)
9. Chartres Cathedral (part of) (France)
10. Palazzo Vecchio (Italy)
11. Ca d'Oro (Italy)
12. Stairway and Hall of Le Petit Trianon (France)
13. Chinese Temple (Canton)
14. Nunnery Court in the Mayan Temple at Uxmal (Mexico)   

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 6. Cataloging Art

      On February 3, 1937, it was reported that funds had been approved to continue a WPA project at the Walters Art Gallery: "The work, in progress for a year, is being directed by curators of the gallery and when finished will have created a catalogue listing 20,000 objects, with a photograph and description of each" ("WPA Funds Approved For Cataloguing Art," Baltimore Sun, Feb. 3, 1937, p. 24). 

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 7. Baltimore War Memorial


Above: This picture was in the WPA photograph collection at the University of Maryland College Park Archives, but unfortunately it did not come with much of a description.  It appears that the workers are working on the steps and/or sidewalk in front of the War Memorial in Baltimore (101 North Gay Street).  There also appears to be some sort of water or drainage pipes to the right.  In any event, improvements to the surroundings of a historic site or memorial aids in the historic preservation of that site or memorial.  

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 8. Historic Bridges

     The following are a series of "then-and-now" photos of bridges in Harford County.  It's unlikely that the WPA worked on these bridges with the intent of historic preservation (but it's possible).  More likely, they were simply repairing and fortifying the bridges, i.e., general maintenance.  Yet, the result is indeed historic preservation.  Had the WPA not worked on these structures it's possible they would have deteriorated to the point of needing complete replacement with a different type of structure.  I don't wish to overstate the role of the WPA here, because these bridges have probably undergone several repair jobs and everyone who worked on them deserves credit for their preservation.  Still, the unemployed did help preserve these bridges, even as they were insulted by politicians and critics on a daily basis.   


Above: Nobles Mill Bridge.  This picture was taken in December of 1935, and shows the deck removed and men scraping and painting the bridge.  Maryland WPA project #297.  (Another photo in this series shows the bridge re-decked)


Above: Nobles Mill Bridge today.  Photo taken in 2011.


Above: A plaque at the top of Nobles Mill Bridge, showing that the bridge is nearly 130 years old.  Photo taken in 2011. 


Above: Repair work to Prestons Bridge was performed in 1936, and was Maryland WPA project #298. 


Above: Prestons Bridge today.  The plaque at the top of the bridge does not show the year of construction, but late 1800s, early 1900s seems likely.  Photo taken in 2011.


Above: This is Whitakers Mill Bridge.  Repairs to the bridge were performed in 1936.  It was Maryland WPA project #551.


Above: Here, WPA workers are repairing and painting the Whitakers Mill bridge.  Photo taken October 1936.


Above: The Whitakers Mill Bridge today.  My information is that this is a replica of the bridge the WPA worked on.  And though the original bridge may be gone, the preservation aspect of the WPA's work is still (in my opinion) valid, for reasons I'll let the viewer consider.  Photo taken in 2011.

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