Roosevelt’s New Deal – The WPA & Iowa City.

The Great Depression began in October 1929 with the collapse of Wall Street. President Herbert Hoover did all he could to turn things around (see one of Ding Darling’s political cartoons above), but by 1932, the nation had decided it was time to turn the reins of the U.S. presidency over to a new leader – Franklin D. Roosevelt.

(C-0216) 1945-46 Franklin Roosevelt Memorial Set After guiding America out of the Depression and through most of World War II, Franklin Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, just 11 weeks into his fourth term and less than a month before Germany’s surrender. To honor Roosevelt, an avid stamp collector, the Post Office issued four stamps in the months following Roosevelt’s death to honor his service to America.

In a concentrated effort to stir the U.S. economy, Roosevelt initiated numerous federally-funded projects throughout the 1930’s – all under the larger theme of offering struggling Americans a New Deal. Our goal here on this page is to give you an abbreviated overview of how Iowa – and specifically Iowa City – benefited from some of Roosevelt’s WPA projects – all of which were designed to play an integral part in FDR’s New Deal.

During the depression – WPA work projects such as this in my hometown of Wayland, Iowa helped keep people employed. Read more here.

Formed by presidential order on May 6, 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) – renamed, in 1939, as the Work Projects Administration – employed 8.5 million people across America between 1935 and 1943. Most WPA jobs around the country were involved with construction projects, with records showing that WPA workers built 4,000 new school buildings, erected 130 new hospitals, laid roughly 9,000 miles of storm drains and sewer lines, built 29,000 new bridges, constructed 150 new airfields, paved or repaired 280,000 miles of roads, and planted 24 million trees to alleviate loss of topsoil during the Dust Bowl.

Watch this short video – The New Deal Brings Relief – from PBS Iowa.

There were several major WPA construction projects in Iowa City – here’s just a few…

WPA Project City High School was built in 1937-1938 through the Public Works Projects, one of many other programs formed in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal package. City High would become the second high school to be built in Iowa City, as the older one was becoming overcrowded as the population of the city increased. To determine the new location of the school, Iowa City residents had to vote whether to build the school in a central location, closer to the existing high school, or out of town on the city’s east side. The far east Morningside location was favored, and the school was built on top of a large hill near what was once the city fairgrounds. Read more here.
WPA ProjectIowa River Project – this 1930’s project – costing $60,000 dollars – focused on dredging and widening the Iowa River from City Park to Burlington Street, while “beautifying” it along the way. The plan included 1) dredging soil from the riverbed north of the University Theater and filling land where Iowa Field once stood, preparing it for future construction, and 2) protecting Dubuque Street from flooding. With this project, levees and stone retaining walls were built by WPA workers and the river was widened from 25 to 100 feet. Click here for more.
WPA ProjectIowa River walk – circa 1933. In the mid-1930s, the University envisioned and initiated a series of beautification projects, starting with both buildings and scenic structures such as walls, walkways and skating ponds. On the west side of the river between Iowa Avenue and City Park Bridge the Maybee Theater Building and the Arts Campus were built atop a series of abandoned quarries. More on that below. The senior class helped build and fund a shelter house near now nonexistent skate ponds. Below: The Memorial Union Foot Bridge and Fountain were added in 1935. Read more here.
WPA ProjectCity Park/Iowa River – Because of constant flooding, Iowa City – in 1939 – hired workers through the Works Project Administration (WPA) to redirect the Iowa River north and east of City Park. The soil from the dredging, widening, and redirecting of the river influenced much of the city’s current geography. Where once a very sharp bend existed in the corner of City Park (see map above), now there is a curved northeast corner. Much of the mud and water removed from that sharp corner was pumped into Lower City Park, raising the land three feet. Of the two City Park ponds that residents used for ice skating, only one remained while the north duck pond was filled with dredges. And sadly, the project also eliminated The Island. Click here for more.

Many don’t realize that the WPA also sponsored the lesser-known Federal Project Number One (FPNO) – five programs in one, where the WPA hired writers – The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), historians – The Historical Records Survey (HRS), actors & directors – The Federal Theatre Project (FTP), musicians – The Federal Music Project (FMP), and artists – The Federal Art Project (FAP).

Of the $4.88 billion allocated to the WPA, $27 million was approved for the employment of artists, musicians, actors, directors and writers under the WPA’s Federal Project Number One, and in its prime, FPNO employed up to 40,000 people – because, as Secretary of Commerce and Director of the WPA Harry Hopkins – put it – “Hell, they’ve got to eat, too”.

The FPNO project had three main principles: 1) that in time of need the artist, no less than the manual worker, is entitled to employment at the public expense, and 2) that the arts, no less than business, agriculture, and labor, are and should be the immediate concern of the ideal commonwealth. Finally, 3) all FPNO projects were to operate without discrimination regarding race, creed, color, religion, or political affiliation.

The State University of Iowa Theatre Building was completed in 1936 during the depths of the Great Depression through partial funding of the FTP.

Actually The Federal Theatre Project (FTP), part of Federal One, was formally announced in Iowa City at the National Theatre Conference in July 1935. That year’s conference was brought to SUI by E.C. Mabie, head of the Speech and Dramatic Art Department, in part for the occasion of the laying of the cornerstone of the new University Theatre Building.

Harry Hopkins – FDR’s appointed head of the WPA and a native Iowan – spoke at the Iowa City conference of his high hopes for the FTP, and announced the appointment of Hallie Flanagan, director of the Vassar College Experimental Theatre, to head the FTP.

In 1934, Iowa’s own Grant Wood (below left) – living in Iowa City at the time – was offered the position of Director of the Iowa Public Works of Art Program, WPA’s work relief program for artists across the Hawkeye State. In this role, working for The Federal Art Project (FAP), Grant assisted many other artists and art students in producing murals for state institutions such as post offices, public buildings, and colleges. It’s here, Grant Wood became a mentor to Mildred Pelzer (below right), creator of eight Iowa City-themed murals used in the Jefferson Hotel.

Breaking the Prairie Sod (below). In 1936-1937, this massive mural was created for the FAP Project by Iowa’s own Grant Wood. In the background of this beautiful mural, is a man plowing up the ground using a team of five oxen. Grant Wood, who hailed from Anamosa, Iowa, was obviously offering a tip of the hat to Lyman Dillon, the Cascade man who first broke the prairie sod between Dubuque and Iowa City in 1839.

A Letter from Home in 1856 (above). In 1937, Iowa City’s own Mildred Pelzer won the federal commission (WPA) competition to complete a post office mural for Waverly, Iowa, as part of the Section of Painting and Sculpture′s projects. The mural depicts a scene of a couple on their farm, where the wife had brought a letter from their previous home to the field. As her husband paused his plowing, the wife read the letter to him, as their child grasped at her mother’s skirts. Read more here.

As we mentioned, two other departments of the FPNO were The Federal Writers’ Project (FWP), and The Historical Records Survey (HRS). Under the guiding eye of Benjamin Shambaugh – supervisor of the State Historical Society of Iowa (below right) – the FWP and HRS produced a beautiful 583-page volume entitled – Iowa – A Guide to the Hawkeye State. Published in 1938 – just in time to celebrate Iowa’s Territorial Centennial Celebration – the book has now become a classic for those who not only want an excellent overview of Iowa’s early history, but it also gives a wonderful look at Iowa as it was 1938.

In closing, allow me to give you a brief look at some of the book’s highlights…

Here’s the book’s Preface and Primary Index…

In the front of the book is a small map of Iowa, and maybe the pièce de résistance was the large fold-out map of Iowa giving us a great view of the Hawkeye State in 1938.

Here are the eight pages, plus a two-page map – that gives the book’s readers an overview of our fair community in 1938. Enjoy!

Iowa City – in 1938celebrating Iowa’s Territorial Centennial.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Works Progress Administration (WPA), Wikipedia

The New Deal Brings Relief video, PBS-Iowa

Federal Project Number One, Wikipedia

Iowa City Projects, The Living New Deal

Harry Hopkins (1890-1946), The Living New Deal

Theatre Arts Mission & History, University of Iowa

Click here to go on to the next section…

Click here for a complete INDEX of Our Iowa Heritage stories…