PUBLIC ART AND ARCHITECTURE IN NEW MEXICO, 1933-1943
A Guide to the New Deal Legacy
This is a guide and reference book that will give readers information on New Mexico’s New Deal Public Treasures, sharing what was created, who created them and where those treasures are today. My goals have been to:
Provide helpful information for any researcher/scholar about the New Deal’s accomplishments in New Mexico;
Provide New Mexico citizens and tourists guidance on where to look for these treasures;
Assist communities all over the state to become aware of the treasures they have and preserve them and share them with the world;
Expose the younger generations to what their family elders provided for them today;
Honor and thank all those who made and left these treasures for us to enjoy, appreciate and respect how they improved their their lives and ours.
My earlier book on this subject, "Treasures on New Mexico Trails," was published by Sunstone Press in 1995, and I could not turn loose of a healthy addiction that focuses on finding the treasures: art and buildings, the artists, and their stories. Since then I have discovered much more through the sleuthing activities that came about as a result of this enjoyable “addiction or passion.” Unfortunately, those artists and artisans have virtually all passed on, leaving behind their creations. In some cases, their talents and techniques have also been passed on to their children and grandchildren to carry on their legacy. For that, we are thankful.
In despite of my efforts, there are many people who have never noticed most of our New Deal public art treasures in New Deal public buildings as they regularly venture in and out of them on business. Actually, most of these structures and their public art and interior fixtures are generally taken for granted but still continue to serve their citizens, as they have for the past seventy-five or more years. Others would never think about going to a courthouse, other county and federal buildings, or even local libraries to look for art in addition to searching out art galleries. Or who ever thinks or wonders about how their water or sewer systems got there? Or who has ever noticed the WPA stamp on their city sidewalks, or how many have even noticed the rock walls around cemeteries or football fields? The public buildings created then were the first examples of America’s own architectural style—leaving behind the massive European granite columns and other European features. All of these treasures were created by someone’s grandfathers, uncles and aunts and neighbors sometime between 1933–1943. That period was such a difficult time in the nation’s history, and yet beauty came out of it.
As a fifth grader growing up out here in the American Southwest, I remember the horrendous dust storms of that era in Portales that attacked our days and nights so severely. Some days it was even hard to see anything while I was sitting at my school desk next to an outside window. It was awful, but others, like those in northeastern New Mexico and the panhandle areas of Texas and Oklahoma, had even worse daily experiences because of that terrible drought and those ferocious dust storms that destroyed crops and livestock.
I hope that this guide to the New Deal Legacy will give the reader an insight into some of the ways we as Americans and New Mexicans dealt successfully with the economic problems that faced the country between 1929–1943. For many it can be a chance to refresh memories of that period when the federal government developed needed projects to employ its citizens who could use their skills and talents to support themselves and their families while maintaining their pride. For New Deal scholars, art historians and architecture students, this will serve as a guide to structures known and unknown. For younger folks, this book may provide a new view of a part of the state’s history by revealing the visual records that remain. For all, it should open our eyes to the quality and quantity of the varied accomplishments of that Depression Era. We still use many of the public buildings (schools, post offices, courthouses, etc.) roads, rock walls, campgrounds, dams and furniture; and in many of these public places there is outstanding fine art.
Over the years, many have asked how and why this author got into this project. Here are some of the answers.
Finding and organizing this information grew out of my compiling the "New Mexico Blue Book," which is published every two years by the New Mexico Office of the Secretary of State. New Deal information was featured in the 1991–92, 1993–94 and 1995–96 editions.
There was a enthusiastic response from readers. That response created the catalyst for developing and coordinating a series of local art exhibits around the state in May 1992 in conjunction with the National Historic Preservation Week and National Tourism Week. In order to utilize these designated weeks to showcase the state’s New Deal treasures, we met with state and local representatives of both groups, and soon thirteen communities began developing ways to show off their New Deal treasures during these first two weeks of May. Those communities included Alamogordo, Albuquerque, Clayton, Clovis, Fort Sumner, Gallup, Las Cruces, Melrose, Raton, Santa Fe, Silver City, Taos and Truth or Consequences. An exhibit in the Governor’s Gallery at the State Capitol kicked off the two week New Deal Treasure Hunt. Since then other traveling photo exhibits have continued to tour the state to reinforce the awareness of this little known gold mine.
Since then, various state and federal agencies have become involved in helping research the New Deal public art treasures for which they were responsible. However, this has not always been simple since there appeared to be no centralized official records of the accomplishments of that era. Therefore this New Deal detective was forced to go to Washington to research and unravel the stories relating to the public art and artists, some of whom were forgotten or unknown. At that time (1995) only 19 of the 165 artists identified were still alive and many of the records had big gaps since the federal government directed the states to destroy their copies of documents, believing that Washington had all the information. That turned out to be untrue, which frustrated this lead detective, but I would not and have not been deterred from my quest. Fortunately I was able to get each of their stories since today, they also are no longer with us. Those nineteen included Narcisco Abeyta, Harrison Begay, Pop Chalee, Ted Egri, Allan Houser, John Jellicoe, Nat Kaplan, Gene Kloss, Oliver LaGrone, Tom Lea, Abad Lucero, Bill Lumpkins, Ila McAfee, Eliseo Rodriguez, Jose Rey Toledo, Andrew Tsihnahjinnie, Pablita Velarde, Bill Warder, and James Ridgely Whiteman.
These New Mexico artists created public art treasures in the early years of 1930 based on employment in the various public art programs—the Public Works of Art Program (PWAP); the Treasury Section of Painting and Sculpture (The Section); the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP); and the Works Progress (and later Projects) Administration’s Federal Art Project (WPA/FAP). The majority were in the first programs and later (1935) looked to the WPA/FAP for employment. This last program continued for a longer period of time, even after World War II began when it transferred its focus to designing graphics for selling war bonds and other related war graphics.
After I finished my first book, doctoral student, Tey Mariana Nunn, successfully sleuthed records everywhere to locate all the Hispanic artists who worked in these programs. It was a challenge since most were frequently identified as “assistants” with little information as to who they were. She found 108 artists not included in my earlier book and has compiled an outstanding publication, Sin Nombre: Hispana and Hispano of the New Deal Era, which is rich with information previously uncovered.
But despite my and other’s efforts, there is still some public art missing. A chapter in the present book is included to share with you what paintings are still on what I call the Unsolved Mystery List. What happened to those paintings is unknown except for those that were burned in school fires or were painted over. Some may have “walked or been carried” into private homes and offices, but in those cases, they still remain public art owned by our citizens, paid for with public funds. I encourage the reader to help us solve the Unsolved Mysteries of New Mexico-New Deal public art identified in Chapter 4 and encourage any current “owner” to donate them back to public spaces. One unknown painting was found as recently as March 2011 up in the rafters of a public building in Gallup. Maybe there are others out in other hidden areas.
In addition to the programs focusing on public art, we found that there were many other programs with different focuses, all meant to provide work for our citizens and meet the enormous variety of public needs. There was a title and an acronym or name for every program (WPA, CCC, NYA, REA, TVA, PWA, CWA, FERA and FDIC to name a few) and all fell under the generic New Deal umbrella. Most of these programs were focused on building public facilities and/or caring for our land and other institutions.
In Chapter 1, each New Mexico town with known New Deal public art and buildings is identified, but there could be some we have missed. Within each town the information is organized so readers will be able to identify the New Deal buildings with New Deal art, other public buildings with New Deal art, and then the identification of other New Deal accomplishments. Some towns have a little or a lot of everything in every category while others are more limited.
The men and women in these other programs were hired primarily to do construction projects; those programs included the WPA program, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and National Youth Administration (NYA). The latter two programs were established to help find work and education for the state’s youth. Some 56,000 young men enrolled in the New Mexico CCC program were between the ages of 18 to 23, but in reality a number of the enrollees were even younger since they misrepresented their ages to get into the programs to help themselves and their families. The NYA enrollees were usually 16 to 24 and worked in their schools where their actual ages were known. All the CCC and NYA alumni have been pleased to be interviewed and given the opportunity to share about a time in their lives that “made them the stronger person they were to become.” Most felt it was the most important thing that happened in their lives. And the CCC participants have created an alumni association nationwide and the few remaining members continue to meet and share that memorable legacy.
Others who were also unemployed and needing work were architects and engineers. Charles E. Peterson, a young architect with the National Park Service, drafted a proposal in 1933 to develop a national program called the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) that would provide employment for architects and students in the field by having them survey America’s historical buildings and structures up to 1860 in a systematic and uniform manner. It was submitted, approved, funded and put in place within two months. Peterson became the director and the West got special attention since Peterson made sure that older structures like Native American pueblos were included despite the date cap. One might wonder if he was strongly influenced by one of his regional advisory board members, John Gaw Meem. Taos, Acoma and Chaco’s Pueblo Bonito pueblos were among the earliest sites surveyed along with Zuni villages. The survey results from those sites are included in the 28,226 building surveys done between 1933 and up to 1993 and are filed in the Library of Congress. These documents are reportedly the most frequently reproduced collections in that institution.
Today the program continues and is administered by the National Park Service. Architects are still being sent out all over the country to survey selected structures for a variety of reasons. Early in 2000, HABS surveyors were in Mesilla, New Mexico surveying the historic home of J. Paul Taylor, to whom we have dedicated this book. Mr. Taylor and his family donated the family home and its contents to the New Mexico Museum system upon his death and the museum attempted to determine what is included in this gift. A humorous tidbit shared with former Representative Taylor was there was so much “in” the house that the surveyors were having difficulty getting the measurements of the structure. For example, they determined that there are currently eighty-seven chairs of varying sizes located throughout the house.
In 2001, the New Mexico Historic Preservation Division of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs and the National Parks Service with financial help from many individuals and group sponsors published a book, Recording a Vanishing Legacy:The Historic American Buildings Survey in New Mexico. Today at least 100 detailed surveys of New Mexico buildings are referenced in this document. Also noted in this book are all the New Mexico repositories of the New Mexico HABS surveys. In Albuquerque they can be found at the University of New Mexico Fine Arts Library, University of New Mexico Center for Southwest Research/John Gaw Meem Archive and in Santa Fe, the History Library at the Palace of the Governors, Southwest Room of the New Mexico State Library, Collections Department, the National Park Service’s Intermountain Regional office and other Office of Cultural Affairs’ Historic Preservation Division. In Las Cruces they can be found in the New Mexico State University Library’s Special Collections Department.
This approach to problem solving is still a viable approach and/or alternative which needs to be seriously considered by our current administration. Learning from our past accomplishments and failures is always valid and as Roosevelt’s good friend, Winston Churchill once said, “A nation that forgets its past has no future.”
In my earlier book on the subject, we included forty-eight communities with New Deal Treasures that included 65 murals or large paintings, 657 easel paintings and other media offerings, 10 pieces of sculpture, 10 pieces of pottery, 43 wood carvings, numerous pieces of furniture and craft items and some buildings. In this edition you will find more artists and places and more information about some items that were in the original book. Now nearly ninety communities are included—almost no town has been left out. Based on my experience over the past seventeen years, I’m guessing that you will find even more as you begin your treasure hunt. You should also include a search in Washington, DC for New Mexico treasures, and even in other states. Some treasure hunters may select their home state, to pursue their New Deal Treasure Hunt. I can say with confidence that it will be equally challenging and rewarding. We recommend you keep the following goals in mind as you do your sleuthing:
• Locate and identify New Mexico’s or other states’ New Deal treasures;
• Celebrate the accomplishments of the New Deal projects in New Mexico and elsewhere;
• Give our citizens of today an appreciation of those accomplishments; and
• Instill that same sense of hope provided in that time of depression to be applied to our current times that are including some similar economic and social difficulties.
As noted earlier, this sleuthing caused this New Deal Detective to help form a national organization to feature, save, and protect these treasures nationwide. The National New Deal Preservation Association (NNDPA) was founded in Santa Fe, New Mexico in December 1998 by people from across the nation who were similarly addicted. The New Mexico Chapter of NNDPA has raised and spent over $500,000 as of 2011, conserving, preserving, and restoring New Deal public art. There is more to be done so you, the reader, are encouraged and welcome to join the non-profit organization and become a New Deal Detective. You can do so by contacting NNDPA at P. O. Box 602, Santa Fe, New Mexico 87504 or by visiting the group’s website at www.newdeallegacy.org. You can also call (505) 473-3985 or (505) 690-5845.
Why was the New Deal a good deal? In summary, we conclude that in New Mexico:
It was social purpose in action;
It provided the chance for our people to survive and produce with pride;
It recorded and presented the essence of New Mexico—geographically, culturally, artistically, architecturally, agriculturally and even environmentally;
It was the beginning of highlighting the unique New Mexico style, in particular assisting Hispanic artists in marketing their unique goods for the first time;
It exposed our citizenry to actual fine art for the first time rather than just seeing it as reproductions in books and calendars.
Today, that New Deal is still sharing its legacy. When you look at its buildings and fine art, you will know that each is a good reason why it was a good deal—then and now. It is important that in our appreciation of these treasures, we make sure we preserve and protect them from those who may or may not be aware of their significance and value, and for those young people who may want to know more about the past someday.
So go exploring in this Land of Enchantment and beyond and Happy Sleuthing!
—Kathryn A. Flynn
New Mexico’s New Deal Executive Director,
National New Deal Preservation Association—NNPDA