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In a city well known for historic preservation, several 1935-1943 Works Progress Administration projects stand out in San Antonio: Alamo Stadium, the Olmos Park Basin, the Hipolito F. Garcia Post Office and Federal Building downtown, the Stinson Field Terminal Building, and perhaps best known, the River Walk, with its winding, stony paths and colorful tile work.
The Stinson terminal, built in 1936, will play host to a Historic Preservation Month Seminar honoring the Works Progress Administration – or WPA as the Depression-era jobs program is commonly known – on Saturday, May 19.
The seminar will address how the WPA transformed San Antonio, featuring a talk on the topic by former San Antonio Conservation Society President Nancy Avellar, author Susan Toomey Frost speaking on WPA-era clay tile, and noted San Antonio author and historian Lewis Fisher speaking on the River Walk.
Conservation Society Executive Director Vincent Michael helped prepare Avellar’s slideshow, and spoke to the importance of WPA-era projects to San Antonio’s past and present.
“If you can imagine San Antonio without the River Walk, which is hard to do, then you can imagine San Antonio without the WPA,” Michael said.
The WPA contributed $450,000 to building the River Walk. Architect Robert H. H. Hugman’s liberal use of stonework – a hallmark of many WPA-era projects – met criticism at the time, as Fisher notes in Saving San Antonio, his comprehensive book on the origins and work of the Conservation Society.
The River Walk is now regarded as “a premiere example of a WPA project,” Michael said, but many others were less glamorous, infrastructure-based projects.
The plain, concrete-and-steel Mitchell Street Bridge, for example, connected the East and West sides of the city south of Interstate 10, and the Olmos Park Basin was built for flood control.
“Some of these projects I’m sure saved hundreds of lives,” said labor leader Linda Chavez-Thompson, executive vice president emerita of the national AFL-CIO, citing frequent flooding before the Olmos project, “and not only put food on the table.”
The WPA had its origins in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, a range of economic stimulus programs to get the country back on track during the depths of the 1930s Great Depression. Under its first leader, Harry Hopkins, and successors, the WPA employed 600,000 Texans during its eight-year existence from 1935-1943.
“You can employ a lot of people building bridges and roads and digging ditches,” Michael said.
Chavez-Thompson agreed. “An idea like that by President Roosevelt, coming at the right time, infused the country with people who could make a decent living, and that is what workers are supposed to be doing,” she said.
Harold Ickes, secretary of the interior for FDR, was appointed to run the Public Works Administration, and voiced negative views of the similarly-named WPA and Hopkins. Ickes regarded Hopkins as a “spendthrift,” who would create “thousands of inconsequential make-believe projects in all parts of the country,” as quoted by author H. W. Brands in his 2008 FDR biography Traitor To His Class.
Hopkins recognized that along with construction workers, builders, and architects, artists, writers, theater workers, and artisans would benefit from work. “Hell,” Hopkins is quoted, “they’ve got to eat just like other people.”
As noted by the Tile Heritage Foundation, 60 tile artists worked with the Mexican Arts and Crafts workshop of noted San Antonio artisan Ethel Wilson Harris on WPA tile murals, including those adorning the entrance of Alamo Stadium, and the River Walk mural depicting a Mexican sniper in the famous “Twin Cypress” tree between Houston and Commerce streets. Colorful decorative tile is a hallmark of the River Walk, visible throughout its winding stone paths, and the plinths of the Houston Street bridge.
After Hopkins left the agency in 1939, FDR renamed it the “Work Projects Administration.” The less well-known name is visible on a plaque identifying the John Twohig House on the grounds of the Witte Museum as a WPA project. In 1941, the house was moved “brick by brick” from its original location on the river – coincidentally next to the Twin Cypress mural – to the museum grounds, where it is still visible today.
The Twohig House has been used in the past as administrative offices, but today is in need of preservation and repair work, said Marise McDermott, executive director of the Witte.
McDermott said the building has proved ideal for meetings and special events, and the museum is currently raising funds for its restoration.
Nearby Brackenridge Park contains many practically-minded WPA projects, Michael said, including roads, public restrooms, bridge improvements, the San Antonio Zoo’s reptile farm, the golf course starter house, with the exception of the aesthetically-minded stonework entrance gate off of Broadway Street.
Michael spoke to the idea that aesthetic value and practical value, in WPA projects and beyond, are incorrectly considered as separate qualities.
“I don’t think you can somehow separate pure use value from beauty,” Michael said. “I don’t think you want to.”
The River Walk is a perfect example, he said, which could have been a plain, paved path along the river, with simple stairs up and down. However, due in part to its beauty, it has spurred private investment in the billions of dollars, he added. The design is both practical and beautiful, and like La Villita and the Mission Reach, “it will have a huge spinoff effect,” Michael said.
The Great Depression made a massive jobs program a necessity, Chavez-Thompson said, and infrastructure projects on the scale of the WPA might not be possible today.
The Depression was “a devastation in the lives of so many. [The WPA] was needed to put the hope back in the people, to put some energy back into the workforce in this country, and it worked,” she added.
But with hope for the future, she said, “If we were to do this today, this country would be so rich, the city and county coffers would be so full, because people would be working and contributing their skills together to projects that San Antonio needs badly.”
In the meantime, San Antonians and tourists from around the world continue to use and enjoy the infrastructure and aesthetic benefits brought to the city by a one-time, eight-year economic spur, with most existing WPA projects publicly accessible throughout the year.