12 WPA Projects that Still Exist

Dealey Plaza in Texas was completed in 1940.
© Matt Musselman

In the darkest days of the Great Depression, the U.S. government stepped in to assist the needy and get the economy started again. Perhaps the widest-ranging and most productive New Deal measure was the Works Progress Administration. This group provided more than $10 billion in federal funds from 1935 through the early 1940s, employing millions of people in hundreds of thousands of jobs. Here are some of the most notable projects.


1: Doubleday Field in Cooperstown, New York

This minor league stadium -- which has hosted the annual major league Hall of Fame game every active baseball season since 1939 -- sits on the lot where Abner Doubleday supposedly invented baseball in 1839. A century later, the WPA refurbished the site's existing field, adding a grandstand, drainage system, wooden bleachers, and new fencing.


2: Camp David, Maryland

In 1936, the WPA began work on a recreational area in western Maryland's Catoctin Mountains, completing Camp Hi-Catoctin by 1939. For three years, it was used as a family camp for federal employees until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited in April 1942 and selected it as the location for presidential retreats. In the early 1950s, President Eisenhower renamed the camp for his grandson. Camp David has hosted dozens of visiting foreign dignitaries for casual meetings with U.S. presidents, but it remains closed to the general public.


3: Dealey Plaza, Texas

In 1940, WPA workers completed this park in the heart of Dallas. Named for an early publisher of the Dallas Morning News, the plaza lives in infamy as the location of President John F. Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963. There may be other "grassy knolls" in American parks, but none have gone down in history like the one in Dealey Plaza.


4: LaGuardia Airport, New York

The Big Apple's desire for a city airport was only a dream until September 1937, when the WPA joined with the city to build one. Soon after opening in 1939, it was named New York Municipal Airport-LaGuardia Field to honor mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. The name was shortened to LaGuardia Airport in 1947.


5: John Augustus Walker's Murals, Mobile, Alabama

The WPA commissioned John Augustus Walker -- a native of Mobile, Alabama -- to create a series of oil on canvas murals in the city's Old City Hall/Southern Market complex. They memorialize a range of Mobile's historic events, from the ship that brought the last payload of African slaves into the United States in 1859 to the importance of education and science to the city. Hurricane Katrina, which slammed into the city in August 2005, damaged the Museum of Mobile, where the murals are now located. The murals were not harmed, and the museum reopened in March 2006.


6: The American Guide Series

The Federal Writers Project was a WPA program that employed authors, playwrights, and poets between 1935 and 1943. The project used more than 6,000 writers -- including future award-winning authors like Saul Bellow and Ralph Ellison -- to produce travel guides for each of the (then) 48 states as well as the District of Columbia. Each book in the series described the state's geography, history, and culture and was filled with maps, drawings, and pictures. Today, collectors seek many of the original volumes, which can fetch hundreds of dollars. Not bad for a series that supposedly started after a casual conversation between the WPA administrator and a writer at a cocktail party!


7: Jackson Pollock, "Male and Female," Pennsylvania

Before he developed his famous drip method of painting -- a technique in which the canvas is placed on the floor and splashed with paint -- Pollock worked for the WPA's Federal Art Project from 1938 to 1942. He created Male and Female, one of his earliest paintings, in 1942. Now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the painting is an excellent example of Pollock's early abstract expressionism, characterized by vibrant color and texture.


8: The Mathematical Tables Project

Before the advent of computers, people created mathematical tables to compute complex calculations and formulas. The WPA's groundbreaking Mathematical Tables Project, which began in 1938 in New York City, employed hundreds of workers to mass-calculate the tables. Twenty-eight volumes of mathematical information were published, including navigation tables used by the Navy in World War II. The work was so valuable that the program was absorbed into the National Bureau of Standards in 1948.


9: Donal Hord, Aztec Statue, California

In 1936, San Diego sculptor Donal Hord was commissioned to carve a statue for the campus of San Diego State University. He completed the work, which he named Aztec, in 1937, and it soon became the inspiration for the school's mascot. Nicknamed "Montezuma," the statue makes its home in the university's Prospective Student Center. The funding for the project was twofold -- student groups raised $130 to purchase the one-ton chunk of black diorite for Hord to work with and the WPA Federal Arts Project supplied $6,000 to Hord and his assistants for their labor.


10: Outer Bridge Drive, Illinois

In the heart of the Windy City, this bridge, which crosses the Chicago River near Lake Michigan, was started in 1929, but the Great Depression prevented its completion until the WPA delivered funds in the mid-1930s. When completed in 1937, the bridge was 356 feet long and 100 feet wide, making it the world's longest and widest bascule bridge. Also known as the Lake Shore Drive Bridge, it still stands today, forming part of the scenic Chicago waterfront.

11: Alton Tobey, The Founders of Hartford, Connecticut

By age nine, Alton Tobey was a well-regarded artist who had won a scholarship to a class at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 1940, while studying at Yale's University School of Fine Arts, he accepted a commission from the WPA for a mural to adorn the East Hartford post office. Thus, The Founders of Hartford was born. His full-color preparatory painting for the mural is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's collection in Washington, D.C.

12: George Stanley's Muse Statues, California

One of the world's largest and most famous natural amphitheaters--with a capacity of nearly 18,000 -- has a WPA link as well. The Hollywood Bowl's entrance, a massive fountain structure designed by sculptor George Stanley, contains three granite art deco statues representing the muses of music, dance, and drama. From 1938 to 1940, the statue project cost the WPA $100,000 and was the largest of hundreds of WPA sculpture projects in southern California. Stanley is also known for designing the "Oscar" statuette that goes to Academy Award winners.


Helen Davies, Marjorie Dorfman, Mary Fons, Deborah Hawkins, Martin Hintz, Linnea Lundgren, David Priess, Julia Clark Robinson, Paul Seaburn, Heidi Stevens, and Steve Theunissen

Lots More Information