When the day comes that library buildings reopen to the public, we can all revisit the complete history of the printed word.
It’s all right there on the walls of the main branch of the Brockton Public Library: In the early 1940s, the artist Fritz Fuglister painted a sprawling mural around the second-floor rotunda called “A History of Books and Printing.”
Fuglister was one of thousands of artists employed by the Works Progress Administration, the New Deal agency created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The WPA’s massive public works projects, designed to provide employment for millions of out-of-work Americans from 1935 to 1943, left a legacy of parks, athletic facilities, and public artwork across the country, many of which are still in use around Greater Boston.
Along the west wall of the Brockton rotunda, Fuglister’s mural wraps around a door. The door used to lead to the director’s office; now there’s a maker’s space inside. Above the door, the artist inscribed a dedication: “The Public Library. The People’s University.”
“That’s the thing I love the most about the mural,” says Paul Engle, director of the library, which has been closed since March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
In our current time of economic distress, it’s food for thought to consider how a program like the WPA could help the un- or under-employed today, creating another legacy of landmarks for future generations to enjoy.
"They can serve as a model in troubled times,” says Fern Nesson, a Cambridge-based fine art photographer who contributes to the Living New Deal, a website documenting and preserving the legacy of public works from the era.
“The spirit of those times was a liberal and subtle spirit,” Nesson says. “The people who commissioned the work said, ‘This is for the public good. We want to hear the unvarnished truth, in the most inclusive way.’ So many of the murals have a message: ’Look at what everyone can contribute to society.’”
Today there is a renewed effort in Massachusetts to expand support for public art. A pending bill would set aside 1 percent of the new construction and substantial renovation share of the state’s capital budget — about $2 million annually — to fund public art on state property.
The legislation is now before the House Ways and Means Committee, where action has been delayed because of the pandemic, according to MASSCreative, an organization advocating for arts and culture.
“Part of the New Deal was about getting people back to work and that included artists, artisans, and craftspeople,” says Emily Ruddock, MassCreative’s executive director. “It was about taking their skill set and applying it to make our communities more beautiful, and more vibrant, and telling stories to the people who live there.”
Similarly, the proposed public arts program would bolster the state’s creative economy that is now struggling, and “use artists’ skills to think about more inclusive ways to express who our community is,” Ruddock says. “Public art has the power to lift up the stories of people and communities often left out of the history books and our public discourse.”
There are many examples of WPA murals still displayed around the Commonwealth, most of them in local post offices. The administration also commissioned major works of infrastructure — highways, bridges, sidewalks — as well as civic buildings.
WPA workers, for instance, built the Stage Fort Park Sea Wall in Gloucester. They built a new clubhouse at the Mount Hood Golf Club in Melrose, and they built the former Manning Bowl in Lynn, where a rain-shortened Rolling Stones concert ended in a riot in June 1966.
Legend has it that the baseball Hall of Famer Josh Gibson once hit a 500-foot home run at Fraser Field in Lynn. The park, which today hosts the collegiate summer league North Shore Navigators, was built as a WPA project in 1940. It was once home turf to two of the most celebrated baseball prospects ever produced in Massachusetts, Harry Agganis and Tony Conigliaro.
In Quincy, Veterans Memorial Stadium, built by WPA laborers beginning in 1937, plays host to the Boston Cannons professional lacrosse team. Since the 1930s, the stadium also has hosted the annual Thanksgiving game between the Quincy High School Presidents and the North Quincy Red Raiders, which Sports Illustrated once named one of the country’s best high school football rivalries.
In Medford, another WPA project, the Greek Revival-style Chevalier Theatre, opened in 1940 as the city’s high school auditorium. John F. Kennedy spoke there, and Frank Sinatra sang on its stage. The theater fell into disrepair after the old Medford High School burned down, but the city eventually committed to its restoration. In 2017, the event producer Bill Blumenreich, who runs the historic Wilbur Theatre in Boston’s Theater District, entered an agreement with the city of Medford to operate the Chevalier, where he has promoted shows with Jay Leno, Trevor Noah, and the Monkees, to name a few.
After the Metropolitan District Commission purchased the 600-acre Breakheart Hill Forest in Saugus in 1934, WPA workers built a camp for the Civilian Conservation Corps on the site. About 250 young men lived in the barracks, reportedly earning a dollar a day as they cut paths, planted trees, blasted rock, and otherwise transformed the Breakheart Reservation into a public space.
But the murals may be the most immediately recognizable legacy of the WPA. The post office in Concord features a chaotic scene from the American Revolution called “Battle at the Bridge,” painted by the Provincetown art colonist Charles Anton Kaeselau. Somerville’s post office is home to “A Skirmish Between British and Colonists Near Somerville in Revolutionary Times” by the social realist painter Ross E. Moffett.
The mural in the Brockton Public Library underwent a complete restoration in 2003, conducted by the local artist John Arapoff. The painter has been back a few times in recent years to patch up his work, Engle says.
“We’ve certainly had people come here just to see the mural,” Engle says. Public libraries, he says, are community centers; beyond finding a new book to read, patrons can take classes, learn English as a second language, and experience art.
“It’s the humanity we share,” he says.