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New Deal Art in Alabama Post Offices and Federal Buildings

Among the many alphabet agencies established by the New Deal government during the Great Depression, several were established to give relief to unemployed artists: TRAP (Treasury Relief Art Project), PWAP (Public Works of Art Project), The Section (Treasury Section of Fine Arts), and FAP (Federal Art Project). The PWAP and FAP were entirely relief measures, run through the CWA (Civil Works Administration) and the WPA (Works Projects, later Progress, Administration), which meant that all artists employed had to come from the relief rolls. The other two projects, TRAP and the Section, had relief and the production of quality art in small-town America as combined goals. The administration of the two types of programs was also different. The PWAP and FAP were administered locally in each state, while TRAP and the Section were administered by the Treasury Department from a central Washington office run by Forbes Watson and Edward Bruce. This office selected all the artists and reviewed the progress of work for quality control. TRAP was a fairly short-lived early New Deal program which sponsored easel painting and other smaller works of art for federal buildings. The program that produced the large numbers of murals and sculpture that can still be found across America was the Treasury Section of Fine Arts.

The Treasury Section of Fine Arts was established in October of 1934. It was to be a companion to the construction of federal buildings, which came under the Treasury Department at the time. Originally 1% of the cost of any new federal structure was to be set aside for the decoration of the structure, an arrangement which never worked. The two most common structures built under the New Deal were post offices and courthouses. In the end not all the buildings constructed during this period received decoration, but twenty-four works were created in Alabama (a typical number for a state of its size), twenty-three in post offices and one in a courthouse. Several other murals were proposed for Alabama but never completed.

The standard New Deal post office carried a decorative allotment of $650-750, covering a space about twelve by five feet above the postmaster's door. The courthouses, larger and more costly, could pay a commission of $3,000 and covered much more extensive surfaces. From the allotted funds the artist was required to purchase all the necessary supplies and pay the costs of installation and photographs. Payment to the artist came in three installments: when the initial sketch was approved, when a scale drawing was approved, and when the final panel was verified as in-place by the local postmaster.

Although the Section remained committed to many of its original ideals (to produce high quality art for small-town America, to use local talent whenever possible, and to encourage local participation) they soon realized that anonymous competitions were too difficult for the small post office commissions. No such competitions were ever held in Alabama. The artists who produced murals in Alabama received the award based on work submitted for other sites, or for work done previously in Treasury programs.

The largest competition undertaken by the Section, the 48 States Competition, was in 1939. Over 3,000 entries were judged and the winning entries were placed in one post office in each state. The winner for Alabama was the mural by Robert Gwathmey in Eutaw, although his submitted sketch was actually for his home state of Virginia. The winners of the 48 States Competition were exhibited around the country and then shown in Life magazine in December of 1939.

The Section suggested that they had no particular preference in style or school of painting, but their clear favorite was contemporary realism or regionalism. Symbolic allusions, social protest, or abstract works were generally critiqued by the Washington office as inappropriate for small-town America. The Section also had its favorite themes—themes that could easily be worked into their preferred style. On their list of acceptable subjects were local or historical places or events, people of local fame, or scenes of daily life or postal history.

An artist invited by the Section to produce a mural was encouraged in an initial letter to visit the site if possible or at least to write to the postmaster and important local citizens for suggested topics. The public, in most instances, was helpful and encouraging when asked, but occasionally demanding on the artist and the Section when their wishes were not met, and publicly critical when mistakes were found. In the vast majority of cases, at least in Alabama, the system worked well and both the artists and the public seemed pleased with the results. All but a few of the Alabama works were received with admiration when they were put in place and many of the artists reported to the Section that they had been well-treated during their stays in the towns. The murals generally remain sources of local pride and are well-preserved and well-liked. Of the twenty-four works produced in Alabama only one is missing today. Several have been moved to new locations, and several of the buildings have been given new functions.

Locations of Alabama's Section murals and sculptures with name of artist, date of production, and descriptions:
(* indicates an Alabama artist)

Alexander City: "Cotton, Tobacco, and Wheat," Franc Epping, 1941.
The Alexander City work is one of only three sculptural works produced in Alabama. Epping produced three terra cotta reliefs showing the main agricultural products of the state--tobacco, wheat, and cotton--along with depictions of seasonal activities. The Section praised her work as handsome in form and sensitive in modeling and the town of Alexander City was well pleased with the results.

Atmore: "The Letter Box," *Anne Goldthwaite, 1938.
Goldthwaite, a Montgomery artist, used the suggested Section theme of postal history for both of her Alabama murals, this one and her panel in Tuskegee. In this panel she shows a group of rural children eagerly gathering to await the daily mail delivery.

Bay Minette: "Removal of the County Seat from Daphne to Bay Minette," Hilton Leech, 1939.
Leech chose a local scene of history for his panel, the removal of the Baldwin County seat from Daphne to Bay Minette. The event took place on October 1, 1901, when a group of citizens from Bay Minette went to Daphne, by dark of night, and gathered all the records of Baldwin County to take them to Bay Minette. For years before 1901 Daphne had served as the county seat. When the state changed the county seat to Bay Minette the citizens in Daphne refused to give up the records, so they were "stolen." This is one of the murals which has been moved from the original post office to a new location, the new post office. When the painting was moved, it was also cleaned and restored.

Brewton: "Logging," John von Wicht, 1939 (missing).
The Brewton mural is the one mural which today is missing. Originally from Germany, but in 1939 a resident of New York City, von Wicht chose as his theme the early history of the lumber industry in the area around Brewton. When it was installed it was met with many favorable comments by the postmaster and the citizens in Brewton.

Carrollton: "Farm Scene with Senator Bankhead," Stuart R. Purser, 1943.
Several local groups from Carrollton and the postmaster had written to Washington to request that their town be given a mural and that it honor and depict U. S. senator John H. Bankhead, Jr., who had helped them secure the federal building/post office it was to decorate. The mural was awarded to Stuart Purser of Louisiana, who complied with the thematic choice of the citizens of Carrollton. The final panel shows Bankhead talking with a farmer in front of a typical Alabama farm using the newer methods of terracing and field rotation introduced by the Bankhead farm programs. When the mural was completed the head of the Carrollton Civic Club wrote to the Section: "We are very proud of the mural and it looks so well in place. I think Mr. Purser caught the idea we had in mind and has put in the picture not only the atmosphere of our county but conveys as well the thought that Mr. Bankhead was particularly interested in that part of life."

Enterprise: "Saturday In Enterprise," Paul Arlt, 1941.
Arlt, of Richmond, Virginia, received the commission on the basis of an entry in the 48 States Competition. Arlt produced a cityscape of downtown Enterprise at the corner of the famous boll weevil monument.

Eutaw: "The Countryside," Robert Gwathmey, 1941.
The panel by Gwathmey was the Alabama winner of the 1939 48 States Competition. Although Gwathmey had entered the competition with a panel designed for the post office in Phoebus, Virginia, he was invited to rework his design for the Alabama site. Gwathmey wrote to the postmaster and the local newspaper editor for ideas. When he got no reply from them he visited the site and discussed a possible theme with the local county agricultural agent. He settled on a local lumber industry scene: the method of stacking pine boards for drying. Although today considered a very nice work, this was one of the few Alabama works which did not receive an enthusiastic initial review. When the postmaster at Eutaw wrote to the Section to verify the panel's final installation he included a short note: "We have but one newspaper and I asked the editor to give the mural a write up in the next issue, and was told that he had nothing to say."

Fairfield: "Spirit of Steel," *Frank Hartley Anderson, 1938.
Anderson, an Alabama artist, produced probably the most direct illustration of a local industry. The scene and its relationship to Fairfield were described by Anderson in a letter to the Section: "Fairfield itself is entirely devoted to steel and iron, this covering of course the mining of coal and iron and the quarrying of limestone and dolomite, bringing them together and making iron, then steel, and into the finished bars, plates, structural steel, wire and nails. The central motif, in the center, rear, is the converter 'up,' which Fairfield knows to mean 'all's right with the world.' The flaming torch it makes as air is blown in lights up the sky for miles around. . . . At the right and left are the stacks of the steel mill, with cooling towers, and the furnaces making pig iron. Below, at right and left, are the coal mines and the iron ore mines, both entirely underground. In the center, right and left, are the scenes 'changing the furnace' and 'making bottom,' both important parts of the needed processes." Anderson also wrote the Section office that 99% of the people using the post office were connected with the local steel industry and all seemed pleased with the mural.

Fort Payne: "Harvest at Fort Payne," Harwood Steiger, 1938.
Steiger, of New York, admitted he had never been as far south as Fort Payne when he received the invitation to produce a mural there. Steiger did make a trip to Fort Payne within a month and found the postmaster most helpful as he prepared his sketches. The postmaster, in fact, told Steiger that he was pleased to be getting a mural although he had never heard of one before and he drove Steiger out into the country to see waterfalls. Steiger proposed two different sketches for the mural: one showing the cotton industry in town and the other a landscape. He and the Section both chose the "pretty landscape" as more pleasing.

Guntersville: "Indians Receiving Gifts from the Spanish," Charles Russell Hardman, 1947.
A very late addition to the program, little information about the Guntersville mural is known. There are no files or documents in the National Archives relating to it. Hardman was a Florida artist who had done some earlier work for the Section, including a mural in Miami Beach on a similar theme.

Haleyville: "Reforestation," Hollis Holbrooke, 1940.
After he made a trip to Haleyville, Holbrooke chose to paint a scene of recent conservation work in the area of the Black Warrior Forest. He consulted both the postmaster, who wanted a picture of wildlife feeding in a forest setting, and the local forest ranger,who thought the picture should mean more to the people of the area than simply a pretty picture. Holbrooke seems to have agreed and chose to document the benefits of both reforestation programs and land terracing to combat soil erosion, which he compared to the older, less effective methods of erosion control. Holbrooke also wrote a lengthy explanatory note for the local newspaper about the mural and benefits of reforestation. The two figures in the panel represent a C.C.C. worker and the forest ranger, Mr. Thomas Wilson.

Hartselle: "Cotton Scene," Lee R. Warthen, 1941.
Warthen, of Washington, D.C., produced the Hartselle panel as the result of his entry into the War Department Building Competition. Warthen did extensive research for the panel, wrote the local postmaster, and talked with U.S. House member John Sparkman, who was from Hartselle, about the local industry and activities used in the final panel.

Huntsville: "Tennessee Valley Authority," Xavier Gonzalez, 1937.
The Huntsville mural was the largest and most expensive panel commissioned in Alabama and the only one placed in a federal courthouse rather than a post office. Gonzales received the invitation for the panel based on designs he had submitted for a competition in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1936. He originally proposed a rather odd allegorical panel that the Washington office criticized for both its style and its lack of meaning for the people in Huntsville. Instead of making allegorical allusions it was suggested that Gonzalez place emphasis on the realities of life. Using a realistic style and basing his new theme on the work then being done by TVA in northern Alabama, he redesigned the panel several times. It was ultimately put in place in October of 1937 and described by Gonzales: "Huntsville, Alabama is situated in the lower angle of the Tennessee River and has profited immensely by the benefits derived from the Muscle Shoals Project. Before this undertaking was begun, the country, being unprotected, was at the mercy of floods and calamities. The benefits of electricity were a privilege of the few who could afford the exorbitant price, the soil of the country was being washed away by the floods, and industry and agriculture were underdeveloped due to the uncertainty of land conditions. Since the completion of this project tremendous benefits have been received . . . the control and proper use of water resources; . . . conservation and preservation of land resources; . . . [and] the disposition of surplus electric energy created as a by-product of the irrigation and flood control."

Luverne: "Cotton Field," Arthur Getz, 1942.
Getz received the commission for Luverne on the basis of designs he had submitted for a competition for the War Department building. As a northern artist he was warned by the Section when he proposed the theme of cotton: "It will be necessary for you to acquaint yourself thoroughly with the appearance of a cotton plant as the individuals using this post office will be especially observant on this point." Getz consulted southern painters as well as researching the growing of cotton while he worked on the mural. The story of the completion of Getz's mural was all too familiar late in the Section program. He had received the commission for the Luverne mural in May of 1941. In February of 1942, while completing the project, he needed a letter for his draft board from the Section to allow him to finish the work. Getz seems to have managed to complete the mural and send it to Luverne for installation only a week or ten days before he was to be inducted into military service.

Monroeville: "Harvesting," *Arthur Leroy Bairnsfather, 1939.
A.L. Bairnsfather, of Birmingham, submitted three initial sketches to the Section after his invitation to do the Monroeville mural. The Section chose a harvesting scene even though Bairnsfather suggested to them that there was actually very little grain grown in the area. The mural was installed in January of 1939 and the postmaster and public were so pleased that they requested another panel for the opposite wall of the lobby.

Montevallo: "Early Settlers Weighing Cotton," William Sherrod McCall, 1939.
McCall, at the time from Jacksonville, Florida, received the invitation to do the Montevallo mural in 1938 on the basis of designs he had submitted for a competition in Miami. He immediately visited Montevallo and chose the theme of cotton and settlement of the region because,in his words, "Montevallo was a very important little town to the cotton industry of the State in the early days." The postmaster, in the letter written to verify the installation of the mural, commented: "I would like to state that the citizens find the work a beautiful addition to our building and wish to thank the Federal government for this contribution. The heads of the Departments in our Alabama State College, as well as those students who are able to comment upon Mr. McCall's workmanship, join me in saying that it is one of the best pieces of work seen in the State." McCall wrote a final letter to the Section in which he commented upon his royal treatment in Montevallo.

Oneonta: "Local Agriculture—A.A.A. 1939," Aldis B. Browne, 1939.
Browne's Oneonta panel depicts a series of local scenes, all of them suggestions from the people of Oneonta. Also noteworthy about the Oneonta mural was the working method used by Browne. He came to Oneonta from Connecticut and painted the work directly on the wall to the delight of the local citizens, who apparently came by daily to inspect his progress. Browne reported to the Section office that he was "nuts" about Oneonta, and that the greatest debate going on was whether the jug on the wall held corn whiskey, since Blount County was dry. Included in the scheme, behind the central figures, are the specific local scenes and buildings requested by the postmaster and local citizens: to the left the city of Birmingham dam, which was located seven miles from the town, and on the right a local strip mine. Across the top are local Oneonta buildings: the Baptist and Methodist churches, the post office, cotton warehouse, sawmill, courthouse and jail. Finishing the background is a house and a covered bridge. Browne was pleased to report to the Section that the central section, comparing a terraced field to one neglected and worn by erosion was already being used by the local agricultural office to show farmers the benefits of modern scientific methods of planting. The letter written by the postmaster to verify the final installation of the panel was effusive in its praise for the Section, Browne, and the mural.

Opp: "Opp," Hans Mangelsdorf, 1940.
Opp received a very nice sculptural commission by Mangelsdorf, a New Orleans artist, who within a month of receiving the invitation visited Opp. He sent not only sketches to the Section office but also his assurance that he had tried to include everything the people of Opp suggested as important for a representation of their town. The final piece was described in a local newspaper after installation: "In the relief agriculture is personified by the woman holding a basket of corn in one hand and flowers in the other hand, and the church in the background indicates home, life, and education. The goldenrod, the State flower, and the Flicker, the State bird, are also shown on the relief. Industry is personified by the man holding a spool, symbolizing the main industry of the town, the cotton mills. The water tower, symbol of the industrial progress, shows in the background, and in the back of all is the long leaf pine."

Ozark: "Early Industry in Dale County," *Kelly Fitzpatrick, 1938.
The Ozark panel was the first of two murals painted by Wetumpka artist John Kelly Fitzpatrick, with Phenix City the second. Fitzpatrick was awarded the commission on the basis of work he had done under TRAP, an earlier Treasury program. He actually proposed several different themes, including a scene from local history depicting a famous battle between Samuel Dale and local native Americans, a decorative and allegorical panel, and a postal history panel. The Section however wanted him to try a local industry theme. They suggested as a model the easel painting of a mill that he had previously produced under PWAP, and which was then hanging in the White House. That sketch was ultimately approved and used. When the mural was installed a notice in the local paper complimented it highly.

Phenix City: "Cotton," *Kelly Fitzpatrick, 1939.
The Phenix City panel was the second of two murals by Fitzpatrick, a Wetumpka artist, with Ozark the first. Its theme is the southern cotton crop. Before it was installed in the Phenix City post office it was exhibited at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and described in the local newspaper: "The subject of the mural is a cotton growth cycle showing the various steps from the planting of the seed to weaving it into cloth. The scene is a typical east Alabama landscape where one gently rolling hill rises above another and on each succeeding level a period of growth is depicted." The Phenix City mural is still in place although the building is now the public library.

Russellville: "Shipment of First Iron Produced in Russellville," Conrad A. Albrizzio, 1938.
The mural for Russellville turned out to be one of the most controversial in Alabama. Albrizzio submitted two sketches of local industry shortly after he was invited to undertake the commission. The Section office chose the scene of a local quarry over that of an early iron mine. The Section apparently made their decision in early July 1937 and by the end of the month they had received numerous telegrams in protest from Russellville clubs and business concerns. The local population proposed a slightly different theme of the old Alabama Iron Works, the first iron furnace in Alabama, built in 1817. Similar letters were also sent from Alabama to Senator John H. Bankhead, Jr., in Washington. One of the letters described the general theme and the details the Russellville businessmen wished to have included: "We know the beehive shape of all charcoal furnaces erected at the date. We know that the furnace and forge were motivated by water power through a race that still exists. We know they used a five hundred pound hammer to shape the pig--we have the hammer. We know the ore was collected by slave labor and hauled in ox carts to the furnace. We know the pig iron, much of it, was hauled by ox wagon thirty-five miles to the Tennessee River and shipped to Liverpool, England, and we have the records where it was sold at one hundred dollars a ton. The rock wall foundation of the warehouse still stands along the creek bank." After a series of letters between Albrizzio, Bankhead, the citizens of Russellville, and the Section, Albrizzio redesigned to the wishes of the local population and eventually went to Russellville and painted the mural in fresco on the walls of the post office.

Scottsboro: "Alabama Agriculture," Constance Ortmayer, 1940.
Ortmayer was teaching at Rollins College in Florida when she received the invitation to do a panel in Scottsboro. She chose a theme based on Alabama agriculture, especially cotton and corn. She described the final images: "Three phases of cotton growing form the theme of the central panel. On the right the cultivation of the crop is symbolized by the young man working with a hoe among the new plants. Opposite a young woman is depicted picking ripened bolls, and for the background, the processing and shipping of cotton is represented by the bales and the strong figure of a second young worker standing between them. Both of the flanking panels interpret the growing of corn. The young man and woman shown on the right are examining the fruit on the ripened stalks and the couple on the left are represented as workers who have harvested the new crop." The Section office wrote about the work in these words: "In a sculpture characterized by clean, flowing lines, Miss Ortmayer gives an exceptionally effective representation of the youthful strength and grace that each new generation brings to the agriculture of the south."

Tuscumbia: "Chief Tuscumbia Greets the Dickson Family," Jack McMillan, 1939.
McMillan, a New York artist, chose the theme of his mural after visiting Tuscumbia shortly after receiving the commission. The Section had proposed that he consider using Helen Keller, but the residents of Tuscumbia suggested the arrival of Michael Dickson and his family. McMillan actually produced sketches using both themes and the Section office chose the Dickson panel as "unusually handsome in its simplicity and plastic qualities." The mural seems to have been very well received by the residents of Tuscumbia. A long newspaper article appeared after the mural was installed elucidating the story of the Dickson family who arrived by river in Tuscumbia after fleeing the Johnson massacre in Tennessee. Chief Tuscumbia greeted them and sold them a large tract of land for $5.00 and two pole axes.

Tuskegee: "The Road to Tuskegee," *Anne Goldthwaite, 1937.
In addition to depicting local scenes, Goldthwaite, a Montgomery artist, used the suggested Section theme of postal history for her Tuskegee panel, as she did with her other mural in Atmore.