John Lienhard

A Remarkable Government Investment

The PWA — the Public Works Administration — was, according to my father, a terrible exercise in government waste. Given the choice between creating soup kitchens and jobs during the Great Depression, the “New Deal” opted for a huge public works program, paid for by new taxes.

So, while my father cursed, Washington created low-paying jobs for everyone from laborers to poets and artists. Now I read a richly illustrated old book about PWA works built by 1939, and I am astonished. I had no idea how much we’d bought with a mere two billion dollars, or how those dollars shaped America.

This 700-page sampling of PWA works reads like my personal scrapbook. Here’s Hoover Dam, which I first saw on my honeymoon; the University of Utah Library, where I spent the spring of 1981; the St. Louis Municipal Auditorium, where my wife played violin; Bonneville Dam and the Oregon State Capital which I’ve often visited; the Lincoln Tunnel and our own San Jacinto Monument.

And that’s just the big stuff. Here are small bridges and Staten Island Ferry boats — post offices and sewage disposal plants — reform schools and airplane hangars. Not to mention so many public works of art. The PWA built the music buildings at Indiana University and Denton, Texas. They grew into two fine American music schools.

But let us spend a day and a night in one particular building: Timberline Lodge. You may remember its exterior in the horror movie, The Shining. Timberline Lodge, built upon great hewn logs, lies high up the side of Mt. Hood in Oregon. The inside smells of wood and warmth. Everywhere, throughout its balconies and halls are works of art — paintings, wood bas-relief, and statuary. Spend a day and a night there, and we begin to understand the pain, then recovery from, the Great Depression.

Interior secretary Harold Ickes ran the old PWA, and he ran it well. They called him “Honest Harold” for his trouble. Yet I do not scoff at my father’s concern. Too much government spending has been managed by lesser folk than Harold Ickes.

But for a season, the government got into the business of making jobs and building America. Now, as I read this astonishing old book, I see that they did a far better job of it than I’d realized. A lifetime later, these are the structures — both great and small — that still define the America we all know.

Short, C.W., and Stanley-Brown, R., Public Buildings: A Survey of Architecture of Projects Constructed by Federal and Other Governmental Bodies Between the Years 1933 and 1939 with the Assistance of the Public Works Administration. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1939.

For many snippets of PWA (and the smaller WPA which followed it) art, literature, and architecture on the web, see Wikipedia (PWA).