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Because the New Deal — now the Old New Deal — was a product of 1930s America, the youngest, end-of-the-alphabet generations probably don't know that when they go to a concert at Robinson Auditorium they're in a make-work project of their Uncle Sam.
Eighty years ago, President Roosevelt's Works Progress Administration, Public Works Administration, Civilian Conservation Corps and other agencies invested millions of dollars in Arkansas, building schools, stadiums, camps, even jails, and, of course, creating jobs. Pulaski County got $13.9 million in WPA projects, more than any other county in the state. In today's dollars, that would be $171.7 million. (Little Rock, North Little Rock and Pulaski County are asking for far more from the federal government this go-round.)
The stimulus package of the Great Depression built schools, gymnasiums and stadiums. Bridges and roads. Parks, county courthouses, public libraries. Paid for artworks, airport improvements and armories.
Thanks to New Deal dollars, Central High got Quigley Field. Baseball players got Lamar Porter Field. The School for the Blind was built. The Little Rock Waterworks at Knoop Park. The Old Statehouse, a 19th century structure, got a WPA fix-me-up. It housed the WPA's Arkansas office.
Thanks to the New Deal, Vol Walker Hall and Razorback Hall were built at the University of Arkansas.
In the battle to get President Obama's $787 billion stimulus package through Congress, a Republican senator from Oklahoma insisted that no dollars should go to museums, theaters, arts centers. He didn't want to see any dough going to zoos, golf courses or swimming pools. Wasteful spending, he called it. The senator lost on the arts venues, but his amendment against spending on zoos made it into law.
Had those things been considered wasteful in the 1930s, there'd be no Robinson Auditorium. There'd be no Little Rock Zoo. No Museum of Fine Arts — the predecessor of the Arkansas Arts Center.
Many of the buildings erected under federal work projects in Arkansas are in the recognizable, down-to-earth styles of the early 20th century — the Ouachita cut-stone buildings of the zoo, the rustic wood frame cabins of the parks, the Prairie-style, clean-lined courthouses — styles that reflect the non-nonsense aesthetic of hard times.
Amid the many projects for artists was a program in the Department of the Treasury that hired artists to create murals in post offices constructed during the period. Muralists (and two artists working in bas relief) captured, if romantically (some never put foot in Arkansas), the state landscape with scenes of cotton picking, tomato growing, timber cutting, in an art style uniquely American, in 21 post offices across the state. Nineteen works survive.
Unfortunately, no master list of all New Deal projects in Arkansas exists. But the post office murals have been documented, and the Department of Arkansas Heritage has created a driving tour guide to 145 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places. DAH's Historic Preservation Program has also documented the water towers built during the era, and is working now to identify bridges.
Times photographer Brian Chilson did a little documenting of his own, to show what the 1930s stimulus package brought to Arkansas.
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