WPA Today   

Historic Preservation 2



WPA Poster

The WPA Helped Preserve Our History!--Page 2
(See Photos Below!)

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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 sections below, or jump to the section you want to see:

1. Rossborough Inn
2. The Maryland Guide
3. The Carroll Mansion
4. Historic American Buildings Survey
5. Historical Records Survey
6. Church Records
7. Harming History?

 1. Rossborough Inn


Above: The Rossborough Inn was built in 1798 and is the oldest building on the campus of the University of Maryland College Park (see here).  The WPA's restoration work on the building began in the summer of 1938 and was project #3358.  This photo was taken in June of 1938, just before restoration work began.


Above: Here, works crews are repairing one of the side walls of the building.  Photo taken September 1938.


Above: Workers replacing the roof and chimneys, circa 1938.


Above: Note the change in chimney design, from the dual chimneys seen in the previous photos to the wider single chimney seen here.  Photo taken circa 1938.


Above: The Rossborough Inn today.  I don't know if the WPA added (or restored) the wings on each side of the building. (Photographed December 2011)

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 2. The Maryland Guide


Above: For each state, the WPA writers' program created a guide.  The scan above is "Maryland: A Guide to the Old Line State" (1948 reissue--without the dust jacket--published by Oxford University Press, 561 pages with index).  The guide is a history of Maryland, with dozens of photos, a removable road map, and a variety of suggested & described tour routes.  Maryland Governor Herbert O'Conor, in the foreword to the book, wrote: "It gives me pleasure on behalf of the State to present the Maryland Guide, which has been prepared by the Maryland Writers' Project, Work Projects Administration...this Guide presents a comprehensive record of the State, its people and their historical background.  Furthermore, there is included a complete inventory of the resources of Maryland, which should prove valuable for many purposes.  Not a few of the facts included herein are being presented for the first time in a work of this nature."  The WPA made a lasting contribution to the preservation of Maryland's heritage with "Maryland: A Guide to the Old Line State"; and the guide is often seen in bibliographies of historic inventory reports prepared for the Maryland Historical Trust.      


Above: A lesser known publication of the Maryland Writers' Program is "A Guide to the United States Naval Academy" (the above scan is the 1941 edition--without the dust jacket--published by the Devin-Adair Company, New York, 158 pages).  In the foreword to the book, the superintendent of the Naval Academy--Rear Admiral Russell Willson--wrote that the guide "fills a long felt want in providing the public with authentic information and attractive pictures of the Academy.  I feel that its publication at this time is most fortunate.  Rarely have their been so many and such interested visitors at the academy."  The book contains, among other things, a history of the Academy and brief biographies of superintendents and notable graduates of the Academy.       

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 3. The Carroll Mansion


Above: This is the Carroll Mansion on Lombard Street in Baltimore.  It was built around 1824, and was the last residence of Charles Carroll of Carrollton.  Charles Carroll was the last survivor of all those who signed the Declaration of Independence.  He died in this house in 1832 at the age of 96.  In 1936, the WPA repaired the house (it had been the victim of theft and neglect) and installed a modern heating system (see, e.g., Katherine Scarborough, "Baltimore's Forgotten Shrine," Baltimore Sun, April 5, 1953).  Photo taken 2012.

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 4. Historic American Buildings Survey

     HABS was created in 1933 by the National Park Service to document historic structures in America with sketches, diagrams, and photographs.  The Library of Congress states that the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), along with the Historic American Engineering Record (HAER), "are among the largest and most heavily used" collections in their Prints and Photographs Division (see here).

     The ideal behind HABS was described by long-time Secretary of the Interior (and director of the Public Works Administration) Harold Ickes: "Unfortunately, a large part of our early American architecture has disappeared.  It is inevitable that the majority will at some time outlive their ultimate usefulness.  And it admittedly is impracticable to preserve all buildings...It is possible, however, to record in a graphic manner and by photography, before it is too late, the exact appearance of these buildings and their surroundings"  (Harry Haller, "Recording Our Ancient Buildings," Baltimore Sun, August 9, 1936, p. MS2).     

     As you might imagine, it was not long before the WPA was participating in the HABS project, and employing jobless architects, photographers and draftsmen to record historic American structures.  Reporter Harry Haller wrote
, prophetically, in 1936: "...when restorers of the future...seek information on old buildings, they will find considerable assistance in the files of the HABS.  And, meanwhile, this WPA project, in addition to training and rehabilitating a needy professional class, is effecting the education of owners in the community value of their property, with the resultant care for preservation of historic monuments" (see previous citation).  

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 5. Historical Records Survey

      The Historical Records Survey (HRS) was a WPA project to inventory various federal, state, and local records, e.g., census records, cemetery records, and courthouse records.  According to librarian Bryan L. Mulcahy, "From the standpoint of genealogical and historical research, the WPA Historical Records Survey produced a tremendous legacy of information that may have otherwise been lost due to age and neglect" (see here). 

     Genealogist Loretto Dennis Szucs explains:

"Massive bibliographies, inventories, indexes, and other historical materials were prepared by out of work historians, lawyers, teachers, researchers, and clerical workers...Family historians continue to reap the benefit of these works, which survive in original, microfilm, and published forms in libraries and archives all over the United States...In addition to compiling magnificent works, the WPA fulfilled its economic purpose by providing work and paychecks for thousands of needy, unemployed writers and researchers.  The U.S. investment in the WPA of the 1930s and 1940s continues to pay rich dividends to family historians--and more directly to the individuals and families who were able to keep body and soul together because of the work the agency provided." ("The WPA: 60-Year-Old investment Still Yields High Dividends," Ancestry Magazine, May/June 1995, Vol. 13, No. 3, pp. 20-21)

     Maryland State Archivist Edward C. Papenfuse wrote some interesting information about the WPA's Maryland HRS program in the article "'A Modicum of Commitment': The Present and Future Importance of the Historical Records Survey" (American Archivist 37, April 1974, pp. 211-221):

***  "...the Maryland HRS program was begun in February 1936..."

***  After a year of little or no progress, a new director, Walter F. Meyer,
"had the project well under control."

***  "At most, 500 people worked on the Maryland HRS between 1936 and 1942..."

***  There was an average of about 48 people working on the Maryland HRS,
"a labor force allocated to archival work unparalleled at any time before or since in the state's history."

***  "...the HRS set another successful example deserving careful scrutiny.  As the final report on the Maryland HRS explained, the project's greatest technical accomplishment was the 'demonstration of the ability of inexperienced and untrained workers, under careful supervision, to accomplish worthwhile results.  Contrary to the judgment and accepted standards of experts in the field of history and archives, persons not previously familiar with such tasks were able to execute work in these fields in such a manner that the results exceeded the sponsors' fondest hopes.  Without sacrifice of any of the high standards which had become traditional with the archivist, more was accomplished during the six years of life of this project than in all the previous years of the nation's existence." (Citing "Maryland Research and Records #XIV," [p. 4], Box 11, Works Progress Administration, Historical and Cultural Records Survey, Record Group 6g, National Archives Building).

     That last observation is the most interesting to me.  Often, the unemployed are cast as unwilling to work, or undeserving of work, or mentally incapable of doing a good job.  Of course, this is nonsense, as the workers of the WPA and CCC proved ad infinitum.  But, unfortunately, the myth continues, decades after it was disproved.   
 
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 6. Church Records


Above: Part of the Maryland Historical Records Survey (see previous section) was this publication.  It is an inventory of records of all Protestant Episcopal churches in Maryland.  Essentially, the book contains a brief history of 260 churches (or church organizations) and a list of the records contained therein.  In the preface, the state supervisor of the Maryland Historical Records Survey program writes: "A similar program will be followed for each denomination in the State.  The inventories are fundamentally designed to serve the clergy, members of religious organizations, students of the social sciences, and those engaged in genealogical research."  I don't know how many other denominations were done, if any.  This book was published in November 1940.

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 7. Harming History?


Above: The WPA was not perfect of course, and sometimes they may have demolished buildings that should have been preserved, as some scholars have noted.  The description card for the above photo reads, "Demolition old Washington Academy."  The photo was taken in Princess Anne, Somerset County, in June of 1938.  I don't know the background to this project--perhaps the building was unsafe and/or the community simply wanted a more modern school--but it could have been one of those "we-should-have-saved-it" buildings. 

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