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RENÉE LOTH

When public buildings were revered

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff

Ross Moffett’s 1937 mural adorns the former Union Square Post Office in Somerville.

By Renée Loth Globe Columnist 

Ross Moffett was a popular artist in the Modernist tradition who lived in Provincetown for much of his working life. His paintings of Cape fishermen and cranberry pickers are collected in the Smithsonian Institution. Like nine million other Americans, Moffett got support during the lean years of the Great Depression from the government’s Works Progress Administration, which commissioned him to produce patriotic artwork for the WPA’s new federal buildings. His 1937 mural, “A Skirmish Between British and Colonists Near Somerville in Revolutionary Times,” depicting a clash that helped ignite the Revolutionary War, still graces the wall of the post office in Somerville’s Union Square.

Moffett’s mural, and the building that houses it, are a tiny part of our national patrimony — proceeds of the country’s last major investment in the public realm. In the decade between 1933 and 1943, the WPA and other New Deal programs supported tens of thousands of artists, funding 2,566 murals and 17,744 pieces of sculpture. That’s in addition to constructing 65,000 buildings, 46,000 bridges, and countless parks, train stations, dams, housing developments, and roadways. Historic structures range from Johnny Cash’s boyhood home in Arkansas to (irony alert!) the Ronald Reagan National airport near Washington.

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Now a California-based group called The Living New Deal has mapped thousands of the program’s public spaces — including 219 in Massachusetts alone — in an effort to preserve both the physical structures and the civic impulse undergirding the program. Just within Route 128, a quick scroll locates the metal truss bridge at Farwell Street in Waltham, the George Wright Golf Course in Hyde Park, the Great Blue Hill observation tower in Milton, the Mary Ellen McCormack housing project in South Boston, and US post offices in Everett, Arlington, Brookline, Dedham, Milton, and more. All of these projects put idle Americans to work and modernized the nation’s infrastructure so it would be ready when the recovery came.

Sturdily made, architecturally significant, the New Deal’s public buildings project a sense of authority and even grandeur, but with the clean, stripped-down lines of the Art Deco style. Even simple cabins in state parks creatively used natural materials to blend in with their settings. They are artifacts of a time when government institutions — schools, courthouses, even waterworks — commanded a certain respect, and the quality of design and craftsmanship reflected that.

Many WPA-era buildings are still in use, but others are in jeopardy. We can’t seem to find the money to repair our crumbling public works, so several are on a demolition list. The facades of those on the National Register of Historic Places can’t be altered without official approval, but the interiors are fair game. One historic WPA post office in Greenwich, Conn., was sold in 2011 to a private developer who turned it into a Restoration Hardware store.

We have traveled a long way from a time when public buildings were revered precisely because they belonged to everyone. Now public facilities from schools to swimming pools are being privatized. Corporations “adopt” highways that the taxpayers won’t pay to maintain. We rely on private developers to pay for roads and streetlights. The disdain for government intervention in the economy was evident in the reception President Obama’s rather tentative stimulus program received in 2009. The idea that government might be “here to help” is a lame punchline.

Today, the Union Square post office and Moffett’s patriotic mural have been sold, as the US Postal Service embarks on a liquidation program to reduce its $20 billion deficit. The building was purchased for $2.75 million by the music impresario Don Law, who is expected to develop it into an arts or entertainment venue, and who promises to preserve the painting. Still, it’s unclear what kind of access the public will have to the property.

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Robert Reich, the former US labor secretary who sits on the board of The Living New Deal, has written that “we need a new WPA to rebuild the nation’s crumbling infrastructure and put jobless Americans back to work.” True enough. But we also need it to restore a sense of shared pride in a demeaned public sector that is, after all, a reflection of us. Deferred maintenance doesn’t just damage bridges and highways. It chips away at democracy, too.

Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.