Archive for Sunday, June 27, 2004

The hunt is on for lost New Deal murals

June 27, 2004


— \ A Cajun town about 150 miles west of here is playing historical detective. It is offering a reward of $2,000 for the recovery of a New Deal mural its post office once had on its wall and lost.

But Eunice, La., is not on some looney chase. A wave of towns across the country are on similar pursuits to preserve public murals commissioned by government programs ushered in by Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal after his election in 1932.

"They're being recognized as cultural artifacts," Jon Donlon, a Louisiana tourism consultant who has worked on bringing attention to the state's murals, said. Donlon noted that there were few examples of such cultural artifacts in the country, where "things that are more Disney-like" seem to proliferate.

Artists -- like everyone else -- went broke after the stock market crash of 1929 and in the ensuing Depression, the government put them to work.

New Deal programs such as the Works Progress Administration, or WPA, paid artists solid wages -- $38.28 a week for a professional artist and $13.70 for a laborer -- to brighten a bleak world of factory layoffs and bloody strikes, train-hopping hobos and dispiriting soup kitchens.

They painted murals in Washington, D.C. -- at the Department of Interior and post office buildings -- and got sent to far-flung places, from Wauwatosa, Wis., to Selma, Calif., to adorn government buildings and schools.

About 1,400 murals were painted in U.S. post offices and an effort is underway to track down about 200 -- including the Eunice one -- whose status is uncertain, said Dallan Wordekemper, a preservation officer with the U.S. General Services Administration.

According to federal records, the 12-foot-by-5-foot Eunice mural was lost during renovations in 1967. The black-and-white mural by Laura Lewis, according to a reproduction, shows a woman standing along a wooden fence facing a small farm house and barn. Chickens forage in the grass and plowed rows recede into the distance under a wide sky.

"It tells another important piece of our community with its history," Celeste Gomez, director of the St. Landry Parish Tourist Commission, said.

The St. Landry tourism board has used magazine advertisements in its search. "Help Find This Louisiana Treasure!" one ad pleads.

The murals -- some by major artists including Thomas Hart Benton -- often portrayed hope and unity.

That time of trouble and the nation's ability to overcome adversity resonate with people today, Kathy Flynn, executive director of the National New Deal Preservation Association, said.

Flynn's organization is urging state governments to celebrate New Deal art for the 75th anniversary of the creation of the New Deal in 2008.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.