FDR’s New Deal brought many public projects to our region, but what’s lesser known is the impact these programs had on local artists. You can still find their works at post offices around the nation, including numerous spots across Illinois and Wisconsin. Here’s a helpful guide.
Back in 1933, America was in the grip of the Great Depression. It was during this time of struggle that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt initiated the New Deal to help our nation.
Most folks are familiar with the WPA (Works Progress Administration), CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps), and other popular government programs during this era. These various programs provided relief for many Americans and gave us new roads, bridges, parks and federal buildings.
Through several lesser-known programs, writers, artists and musicians also benefitted from New Deal programs. Through the Section of Painting and Sculpture (later renamed the Section of Fine Arts), funded by the Treasury Department, talented artists gave us murals at our nation’s post offices. It is through these New Deal programs that the government set aside approximately 1% of the construction cost for the embellishment of government buildings, most notably our nation’s post offices.
Throughout our country there are approximately 1,100 post offices decorated with wonderful works of art. Local competitions, as well as direct commissions, were awarded to artists to raise the morale of a nation gripped by the Depression. Artists were advised to visit the local post office, at which time they could call on the postmaster for subject matter in their designs.
During these visits the artist was also advised to confirm the dimensions of the wall space allocated for the decoration. Oftentimes the dimensions of the walls were different than what the artist received from the Section of Fine Arts.
The following Wisconsin towns represent a few of the murals found in our nation’s post offices. They offer a glimpse into our nation’s past and provide a fascinating account of the artist and subject matter chosen.
Artwork: “Winter Landscapes,” by George A. Dietrich
Not every community was thrilled with the idea of having artwork installed in their post office. Lake Geneva was one such town.
In a letter to the Section of Fine Arts, the postmaster stated he had received protest from the local residents. The president of the local Chamber of Commerce also sent a letter to the Section of Fine Arts protesting the decision to install a mural.
An interesting discovery found in the letters and correspondence of the time reveal the artist actually visited Lake Geneva and called on the postmaster before the Section of Fine Arts could send notice to the postmaster. One wonders if this situation may have caused pushback and protest from the local postmaster and residents.
The artist, George Dietrich, initially sent two sketches to the Section of Fine Arts for its review. Of his two designs submitted, the Section selected his “Winter Landscapes,” design.
The artist wrote, “My idea was to create a mural which depicted a typical Lake Geneva farm as well as a view of the countryside on the outskirts of town.”
Dietrich, a resident of Milwaukee at the time, was awarded a $900 commission for the mural in Lake Geneva.
Artwork: “Wild Ducks,” by Boris Gilbertson.
Although my work focuses on “murals,” this term is used inclusively. Wisconsin also received art commissioned in aluminum, plaster and limestone. This aluminum panel of wild ducks is just one of four that were originally installed in the Janesville post office on Dodge Street. All four panels have since been moved to the newer post office building on Milton Street. They reside in the retail section of the lobby.
Artist Boris Gilbertson, of Herbster, Wis., was awarded a $2,350 commission. He was born in Evanston, Ill., in 1907 and died in 1982 in Santa Fe, N.M.
Gilbertson chose to use wild ducks as the theme for the four panels based on his observations of the fauna found in Janesville. His designs show the birds nesting amidst water grasses, hunting in shallow waters off the lake, taking flight and moving in mid-flight.
Gilbertson also won the commission for the limestone reliefs on the exterior of the former Fond du Lac, Wis., post office.
Artwork: “Pioneer Postman,” by Tom Rost
The mural commission for the Elkhorn post office was awarded to Tom Rost of Milwaukee, who was paid $560. It was installed on June 11, 1938.
Rost submitted three sketches to the Section of Fine Arts. The first included bur oaks, the second portrayed the Walworth County Fair, and the third, which was selected by the Section of Fine Arts, tells the story of the earliest mail service in town. In Elkhorn’s early days, mail was brought to town in the postmaster’s hat.
This mural shows the postmaster in the center of the mural, with his horse standing behind him. Residents are seen going about their daily business. The mural is representative of a typical day in Elkhorn during the era.
The postmasters at the time sent word to the Section that the mural was well received and appreciated by the residents of the town. The response from Elkhorn is a stark contrast to the reception received by the residents of Lake Geneva.
Rost was born in 1909 in Richmond, Ind., and died in 2004 in Cedarburg, Wis. Rost was also awarded the mural commission for the Lancaster, Wis. post office, a job that earned him $800 when “Farm Yard,” was installed in October 1940.
Go for a Visit
With the advancement of modern communication, such as email and electronic commerce, there are fewer reasons for people to physically visit their local post office. With the passage of time, fewer people are aware of the art available to them in their own post offices.
The works of art created in our post offices during the New Deal are even more accessible to everyday Americans than the typical art museum. Chances are there is at least one decorated post office within a day’s drive – and more, all around our country.
About the Author
David W. Gates Jr., author and post office enthusiast, has traveled thousands of miles and photographed hundreds of post offices nationwide for his blog PostOfficeFans.com.
His most recent book, “Wisconsin Post Office Murals,” provides history on all of Wisconsin’s post office murals. It includes full-color images of the artwork and buildings where they have been installed. David is also the author of “Wisconsin Post Office Mural Guidebook,” which provides the status and current location of the artwork.
For more information about David’s work, or to order a copy, visit davidwgatesjr.net.