Built by FDR: How the WPA Changed the Lay of the Land

San Francisco, January, 1990

Ivy periodically covers the tarnished bronze plaque at the San Francisco playground where I swim: Improved by Works Progress Administration 1935-1936. An identical tablet marks the Sloat Avenue entrance to Stern Grove. But for the most part, the immense legacy of landscape design created during the half-decade of Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal remains unmarked, uncatalogued, and unsung. Within those five or six years, the Bay Area was enriched as it has not been before or since.

During the depths of history's greatest depression, Roosevelt entered the White house determined to try almost anything to get the economy moving again. With the power of the presidency and a popular mandate, he undertook the regeneration of a continent.

Roosevelt's alphabet soup agencies — especially the Works Progress Administration (WPA) — produced an avalanche of art, plays, guidebooks, swimming pools and airports. His Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) planted thousand-mile windbreaks and entire forests. For the first time, landscape architects were recruited en masse into the public domain and given armies of workers to help change the land.

Roosevelt wanted not only to regenerate the landscape but the society that occupied it. Public design, he hoped, would produce a greater community too often absent in the competitive life of the United States. "We are definitely in an era of building," he said, "the best kind of building — the building of great public projects for the benefit of the public and with the definite objective of building human happiness."

Americans, in short, would be brought together in the landscapes of the New Deal. Financially strapped cities could apply for federal funds and manpower to create parks and playgrounds out of weed-grown lots. Bay Area cities were quick to claim their share of public improvements and try to build for themselves better tomorrows.

Among the first was Berkeley's John Hinkel Park at Southampton and San Diego roads. In a lovely canyon studded with live oaks, the Civil Works Administration in 1934 built a four-acre park with an intimate Greek amphitheater, trails, and rustic clubhouse. The eater was used by the Berkeley Community Players for many years and then by the Berkeley Shakespeare Festival, though next year the festival moves to Orinda because of traffic and space problems. Today, the theater's tree-shaded terraces seem more Druidic than Greek.

Decidedly more Hellenic is the Mountain Theater near he summit of Mount Tamalpais. Plans for the theater were drawn up in 1925 by landscape architect Emerson Knight, but it was begun only in 1934 with help from the CCC. While Knight envisioned a Grecian formula, he also hoped to create something distinctively Californian, and so left oaks and rock outcroppings to block some sight lines. Work crews used winches to hoist two-ton boulders into place, creating broad stone terraces. Seating 6,000, the Mountain Theater has as its backdrop a 70-mile panorama of bay and hills. It has served for decades as a summer venue of pageants and musicals, attracting regional crowds up the winding roads and trails of the mountain. A recently placed plaque commemorates the CCC workers who toiled for nearly four years on the theater.

On the other side of the bay, high in the Oakland hills, another theater was taking shape. Gertrude Mott, wife of former Oakland mayor Frank Mott, led the California Writers' Club to champion an "open-Air Theater and Temple of Honor" dedicated to the state's past and future writers. Theater and temple were to be sited on land once owned by poet Joaquin Miller. With the aid of WPA crews, what is now known as Woodminster took shape on that land between 1938 and 1940.

Woodminster includes a vast, open-air theater designed by Edward Foulkes. Home to festivals and plays during the summer, the amphitheater, approached via a series of symmetrical ramps, terraces, and stairs from Joaquin Miller Road below, seats 1500 and faces a stage backed by a molded concrete wall. Colossal Modern sculptural groups embellish the rear of the wall.

But Woodminster is more than a mere amphitheater. Landscape architect William Penn Mott, Jr. (recently retired director of the National Park Service) created an environmental ensemble fusing images from Italy and California. Although the Woodminster Cascade has been allowed to deteriorate over time, one can still envision how water welled forth from the base of the stage wall to curtain over a three-tiered fountain before cascading through groves of redwood and olive trees. At the bottom of the slope, a formal circular fountain once erupted with changing plumes of spray.

Most wonderful of all was the aurora illumination of paths, architecture, cascades, and fountains. Woodminster incorporated an unusual electric console that could produce almost 1,300 different lighting combinations; the circular fountain spurted dramatically through a 10-minute cycle.

Meanwhile, over in Berkeley, WPA workers were completing another amphitheater with spectacular views — for rosebushes. In a slide-prone canyon judged unsafe for houses, landscape architect Vernon Dean created an open bowl of stone-walled terraces surmounted by a 220-foot semicircular pergola and beds for 4,000 roses. The Berkeley Municipal Rose Garden in Codornices Park remains a place of unabashed and joyous romance, a favored venue for quiet reading, sunset watching, and histrionic weddings.

The 'thirties fashion for cabbage-flowered chintz and wallpaper suggests that roses enjoyed high esteem and, sure enough, municipal rose gardens blossomed across the nation as public relief projects. Oakland attempted to outdo Berkeley by using funds from the State Emergency Relief Administration.

In an overgrown canyon off Grand Avenue, landscape architect Arthur Cobbledick laid out a formal garden inspired by those of Florence and Rome. A slightly jogged main axis extends up the ravine from a curved colonnade at the dead end of Jean Street. Halfway up, a cascade descends at an almost right angle from a terraced amphitheater ringed with Italian stone pines, to a formal pool and stucco loggia. What is now the Morcom Amphitheater of Roses — with its sophisticated orchestration of stonemasonry, ironwork, forest, and 5,000 rosebushes — silences all those tired jokes about Oakland. There is a there there and it, like the Berkeley Rose Garden, is heavily booked for weddings and parties throughout the year.

Over in San Francisco, WPA crews were building what the city couldn't. Decades of lobbying, planning, and voting for an Aquatic Park at the foot of Van Ness Avenue had come to little when the SPA decided, on December 19, 1935, to undertake the project. In four years, the WPA converted a polluted, rubble-strewn waterfront into a streamlined wonder of beaches, bleachers, gardens, dressing rooms, and a concrete bathhouse inspired by ship design.

Thousands swarmed to Aquatic Park on warm days. The bleachers served as a gigantic amphitheater for the spectacle of bathers, boats, and the bay itself. The WPA allotted a generous budget for art, and the sleek bathhouse was lavishly embellished with fine murals, tilework, and sculpture by Hillaire Hiler, Sargent Johnson and Benny Bufano. Writer Henry Miller said of Hiler's exuberant mural of underwater life and sunken ruins, "Though the decor was distinctly Freudian, it was also gay, stimulating, and superlatively healthy."

Billed as a "Palace of the Public," the public soon found itself excluded from enjoying the delights of this bathhouse. Eager to turn a profit on the federal government's gift, city officials leased the new building to concessionaires who demanded costly changes to accommodate their restaurant and nightclub, then posted PRIVATE signs to keep schoolboys off the decks. Disgusted, WPA officials ceased work on the park. The incomplete project was turned over to the city on January 22, 1939. It has, in fact, never been finished, but has fared somewhat better as the National Maritime Museum (now known as San Francisco Maritime Historical Park), under the National Park Service.

Even as Aquatic Park and Woodminster Amphitheater were being dedicated at the end of he decade, the programs that had created them were dying. Despite their popularity, Roosevelt's experiments in creative public relief had been attacked by congressmen, newspaper editors, and columnists as dangerous flirtations with socialism — or worse. Then came World War II, and other priorities.

With remarkable speed, much of the controversial legacy of the New Deal was expunged. Murals were painted over, paintings were sold for scrap, and works by artists such as de Kooning, Kline, Gorky, and Bufano were lost or stolen.

Landscapes fared somewhat better due to their uncontroversial nature and he generally high quality of workmanship and materials that went into them. Chiefly, they suffered from lack of maintenance when, for example, WPA-sponsored playground supervisors were eliminated. Woodminster shows the effects of years of neglect with its vandalized lighting, dry cascade, and weedy borders.

A CCC veteran once said to me, "We felt here was someone in Washington back then who cared about the little guy." I still feel hat today when I walk through Roosevelt's landscapes. Although their origins are largely forgotten, the hundreds of thousands who daily use the parks, playgrounds, trails and theaters built during e New Deal unwittingly pay homage to the president who imagined a society regenerated from disaster by design.


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