As America starved in the throes of the Great Depression, which is generally understood to have lasted from the stock market crash of 1929 until the economic boom of World War II, millions of Americans were out of work. The government of Franklin Delano Roosevelt undertook a massive jobs program, known as the Works Progress Administration. All across the U.S., millions of people went to work. Laborers built public works projects of all shapes and sizes. Artists, too, were paid by the federal government to fan out across the country and take a record of a “soul of a people,” as one book puts it. Musicians, writers, painters and playwrights created timeless works of art, many of which are still with us today. The height of the program was in 1938, when more than 3 million people were employed by the project. In marking 80 years since then, here’s our list of WPA projects in Connecticut worth visiting today as an example of living history.
Saville Dam, Barkhamsted
This dam on the Farmington River in Barkhamsted is a beautiful example of the kind of ambition and vision of the Depression-era employment programs. It was built between 1933 and 1940 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and cuts a striking figure against the backdrop of the surrounding scenery, where tourists and locals alike come to see it amid the colors of fall. (This magazine even put it on our cover in March 2016.)
Sleeping Giant State Park Tower, Hamden
As much or more than any of the WPA projects in the state, the tower atop Sleeping Giant captures the oddity and idiosyncrasy of the WPA program. The tower, known to generations of children who come across it as nothing less than a castle, has no real utilitarian purpose, other than it provides some level of enjoyment to the people who hike this state park, and jobs to the people who built it.
Of course, the most famous and biggest WPA project in the state is the one we perhaps take for granted today: the Merritt Parkway. It is a living artifact, harkening back to when automobiles were only really supposed to go about 50 mph. As such, the parkway is peppered with relics: grassed-over turnoffs where one might have stopped for a picnic on a Sunday drive, and a majestic collection of bridges, each done in a different architectural style of the 1930s and ’40s. Even though it can be difficult, the next time you drive the Merritt, slow down and appreciate it.
One of the most enduring legacies of the WPA is that which came from the Federal Art Project. All across Connecticut (and the U.S.), there are publicly funded murals, painted on the ceilings and walls of buildings accessible to the public. One of the most famous is the mural on the ceiling of the lobby of Rockefeller Center in New York City. Many of the paintings are done in a sort of para-socialist realist style. The idea behind many of the murals is plain to see: American workers are strong and proud, and will overcome whatever challenges they face.
Across Connecticut (mostly in post offices) are murals depicting scenes — and this is crucial — that are locally important. In New London, the1938 Thomas La Farge mural Cutting In in the post office on Masonic Street depicts men adjusting the rigging on a whaling ship. A classic New London scene if ever there was one.
In the Westville section of New Haven, a Karl Anderson mural in the Fountain Street post office portrays the legendary Pursuit of the Regicides, when three judges fled up West Rock to hide from those who wanted their heads for having signed a 1649 writ of execution of King Charles I. Today New Haveners know the names of the three judges well: Dixwell, Whalley and Goffe.
Norwalk has a particularly good collection of some 50 murals, the majority of them found at City Hall. There are three surviving murals at the Norwalk post office as well. Bridgeport’s post office has a mural, by the famous Arthur Covey, of Bridgeport manufacturing. Covey has another mural — of abolitionist John Brown — in the Torrington post office.
For a more complete list of New Deal projects in the state, go to livingnewdeal.org.
This article appeared in the February 2018 issue of Connecticut Magazine.
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