theroundhouse@willard

“The Roundhouse”

a Mural from the Section of Fine Arts administered by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department hanging in Willard, Ohio Post Office.

by Kevin Casto M.A.

            It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period… (Dickens, 1908, p.3).

 3504-TheRoundhouse.0_displayDetail of the mural

Background

            In March of 1941 a mural was hung in the new post office in Willard, Ohio that was built through the efforts of Works Progress Administration known as the WPA.  This was a time between times.  The United States was emerging from the Great Depression and was on the verge of being plunged into World War II.

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To understand the time, the effect of the Great Depression, it is important to look to the architect of the relief plan that led the United States out of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  President Roosevelt inspired the nation in his inaugural address, he gave hope and he set forth a plan of attack for the country.  On March 3, 1933 President Roosevelt addressed the nation:

     This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory.  …More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.  Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for.  …These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.  …Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now.  Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources (Roosevelt, 1933, pp. 11-16).

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President Roosevelt set the tone for recovery in the United States and gave hope to those who had lost everything in the depression the country was facing.   Clancy Strock (1992) states, “ There were no unemployment benefits, no unemployment offices.  Going on welfare was dreaded more than going hungry” (Reiman, & Stock, p. 48).  Americans of all walks of life and profession had lost employment and the Roosevelt administration took action.

On April 8, 1935, the United States Congress passed the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act. The Emergency Relief Appropriation Act was part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Roosevelt hoped that his New Deal would allow Americans to cope with the Great Depression, would help end the current economic downturn, and would help prevent another depression from occurring in the future (Ohio History Central, 2005, par.1).

One of the most important accomplishments of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act was the creation of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). This government office hired Americans to work on various government projects. Many of these projects were similar to ones sponsored by the Public Works Administration. In addition to hiring people from traditional working-class backgrounds, the WPA also created programs for academics, actors, and artists. Among these programs was the Federal Arts Project, which paid artists to paint murals in public buildings, to teach art classes, and to catalog pieces of art. WPA artists also painted a number of murals in Ohio post offices. Couvrette (2007) states:

Initially, support for artists who were unemployed took the form of either the dole or private charity. Public welfare was not taken advantage of by most artists because of the social stigma attached to it. In terms of private efforts on the behalf or artists, sales were sponsored by various art galleries while wealthy patrons donated monthly gifts to those of the worse off. Many artists, especially those who were more conservative, resisted working for the federal relief programs. This opposition of artists to accepting charity seems to almost equal that of the public’s opposition to giving it to the artist (par.14).

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This was a new deal for artists as well as other Americans who did not have a specialized field.  Never before had a program been instituted to put artists to work for the public welfare in the United States.

Loeser (2010) states, “George Biddle, a Philadelphia artist, and former classmate of President Roosevelt first suggested the idea of commissioning artists to decorate federal buildings (p.16).  In 1933, a pilot program, the Public Works of Art Project (PWPA), was created as a New Deal initiative. Although it lasted only six months, the program employed thousands of artists to produce works for public buildings.  Because of the pilot program’s success, project administrators created a unit within the Treasury Department, the Section of Fine Art.

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Raynor (1997) states, “Often mistaken for WPA art, post office murals were created by artists working for the Section of Fine Arts. Commonly known as “the Section,” it was established in 1934 and administered by the Procurement Division of the Treasury Department (par. 3).

Headed by Edward Bruce, a former lawyer, businessman, and artist, the Section’s main function was to select art of high quality to decorate public buildings, if the funding was available. Raynor (1997) explains, “By providing decoration in public buildings, the art was made accessible to all people. Post offices were located in virtually every community and available for viewing by all postal patrons—which made post office murals a truly democratic art form (par. 3).

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Artists working for the Section were not chosen on the basis of need, but through anonymous competitions. Some of the artists were well established with national reputations, such as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Ben Shahn and Stuart Davis.   Others were young unknowns whose commission provided a first public exposure for their artwork. Only the best artists were selected for the projects. They were expected to follow an adaptable format; their mural was to reflect scenes of local interest, events or the town’s heritage.  According to Raynor (1997):

Artists invited to submit design sketches for a particular post office were strongly urged to visit the site. However, this was not possible for every artist. Distance, expense, or family commitment prevented many artists from actually traveling to the community (par.4)

Loeser (2010) states:

Artists visited communities for weeks at a time, actively engaging citizens and resident historians in dialogue to discover the history, traditions and stories that helped shape their community. Sometimes there was squabbling over what communities thought was acceptable art content and design elements. Artists were constantly reminded that the communities                                    were the customers. Often, the painters went to great lengths to satisfy the desires of everyone involved in the project in order to receive their commissions (p.17).

Once the artist was awarded a commission the artist had to meet with the postmaster and local residents. The Post Office Department’s approval then had to be obtained, and finally the Section submitted the plans for final approval.  Raynor (1997) explains, “Many local communities deemed the approved designs unacceptable due to theme, content, method of expression or design elements”(par.4).

This program and the art created by the “Section” were meant to provide the average American with a public view of professional art.  Funk states that the government art programs “promoted a diverse scope of American culture ranging from the ‘fine arts’ of the cities to the ‘heritage arts’ of rural patrons” (p.92).  One percent of the building construction funds were to be set aside for “embellishment” of the federal building, and artists were supposed to be paid from these funds.   Efland (1990) states, “During the 1930’s WPA arts projects brought artists into the American mainstream for the first time” (p.222).

theroundhouse@willard

The Willard Mural

            In Joseph Dush’s (1974) History of Willard, Ohio, he states:

  In 1936…Willard’s present post office building was built.  Its interior decoration includes a mural by an artist working under the government sponsored W.P.A. art program.  It is a good example of mural painting.  The outside of the building carries architectural features in carved stone showing an airplane engine and propeller before folded wings (p.253).

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My first introduction to the mural at the Willard post office was as a cub scout in second grade.  My cub scout group was touring the post office and our guide pointed out that the mural that hung over the postmaster’s door was painted by the WPA during the depression.  The guide also pointed out that the mural depicted the roundhouse and train yards in Willard when the town was still called Chicago Junction.  My memory of the mural as a small boy was that it seemed huge, mystical and otherworldly.  The men who worked on the trains seemed liked giants, and I wondered if there used to be giants living in Willard.   Growing up in Willard I was well aware of the role the railroad played in the founding of the town.  Dush (1974) states:

  Chicago Junction was newborn in 1874.  She was not delivered by the proverbial stork but by the iron horse, and the kind of people who could live and love that noisy, powerful and dangerous device were the kind who brought this town into the world (pp. 57-58).

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Willard happens to be the main rail junction between Chicago and New York, hence the name Chicago Junction which was changed on December 17, 1917 to Willard in honor of the president of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.  While growing up the mural always seemed an enigma to me, dark and mysterious, a big question mark that most people seemed not to notice or comment on, yet it was a presence.  In my search for more information on the mural I found a newspaper article about it from the Willard Times dated Thursday, March 27, 1941:

Large mural placed on wall of Willard Post Office has railroad theme.  A beautiful mural entitled “The Roundhouse at Willard,” depicting railroad employes repairing locomotives, now adorns the north wall of Willard’s post office.  It was placed there Friday and painted by Mitchell Jamieson, artist of Washington, D. C., who painted it for the Federal Works Agency, Public Building Administration, Washington as a government project. The painting done on canvas is seven by fourteen feet and shows men working on three locomotives in various stages of repair.  Mr. Jamieson was one of the artists commissioned by the government to paint murals for public buildings that would be expressive of the communities in which the buildings were located.  The original sketches were made in the B. & O. roundhouse at Washington, D. C. as it was found that the locomotives repaired at Willard and the work done is similar to that performed at this terminal.  The artist spent about six months drawing the original sketches and painting the large picture.  The mural attracts much attentions and beautifies the interior of the post office lobby.  Mr. Jamieson has studied in the Abbot School of Fine Arts in Washington.  He painted murals also for Marlboro, Md, and for Laurel, Md.  In 1937 he made a tour of the Southern Pacific railroad and painted scenes and activities along the railroad for Fortune magazine.  His brothers, Ballard and Philip Jamieson, helped him put up the mural here.  Last summer Mr. Jamieson wrote the local post office asking what subjects would be most suitable for a painting and from several suggestions made by Postmaster H. C. Stapf and employes at the post office chose the railroad theme (p.1).

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I was excited and elated to find this information about the mural and the artist.  I was also disappointed that the artist, Mitchell Jamieson, had not come to Willard to sketch or paint the mural and meet the subject of his mural and the community did not have an opportunity to meet Jamieson.  It was interesting to note that Jamieson and his brothers had come to town and hung the mural on March 21, 1941.  I was curious to find anyone alive who had a memory of the mural being hung at the Willard post office or reactions of local residents to a mural painted by an artist from Washington, D. C.

I interviewed several citizens who had little or no memory of the mural.  In fact one resident, Jane Slessman, states:

    I vaguely remember the mural at the post office but have no recollection of that artist. 1941 was the year I graduated from Willard High School, so I worked at the paint store (owned by my folks-Wilkinson’s) that summer before leaving for college in the fall. The mural that I remember the best is “Washington Crossing the Delaware” on the landing of the old city hall.  It was large and was painted by a Mr. Crooks (on his paintings he used Krux as I remember.)  He was a Willard native and I recall my dad having him paint in the show window of the paint store when it was on west side of Myrtle Ave (Jane Slessman, personal communication, February 22, 2010).

In a separate interview, life-long Willard resident Mary Getz stated, “ It was no big deal getting the mural at the post office; that’s just the way people thought of things back then” (Mary Getz, personal communication, February 22, 2010).  Former Willard resident and military artist Donald Moore states:

   I have no information on the post office mural or artist you ask about. I believe there is another piece of WPA art in Willard. It’s in the old city hall, half way up the staircase to where the old library was. It is “Washington Crossing the Delaware.” I always liked that one.

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My investigation led to no one who had a memory of the mural or artist, beyond viewing the painting hanging in the post office.   Bae (2009) states, “Murals in a post office can be an important way to explore how public art functions in a community because they represent stories about our history, culture, people, and lives, circulating values and beliefs about us” (p32).

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The Artist

         Mitchell Jamieson was born in Kensington, Maryland in 1915. He was a student at the Abbott School of Art and the Corcoran School of Art. In the 1930s, he traveled to Key West and the Virgin Islands to paint under the Treasury Department’s Art Project.  He received commissions to paint murals for post offices in Upper Marlboro and Laurel, Maryland; Willard, Ohio; and at the Interior Building in Washington, D.C.

Life Magazine (1943) states, “He made sketches on Franklin Roosevelt’s and Henry Morgenthau’s farms as a kind of artist-in-residence (p. 70).  His works are in collections at the White House, The Corcoran Gallery of Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, The Whitney Museum of American Art, The Seattle Art Museum, The Naval Historical Center and the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Jamieson was twice awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship and the Award of Merit by the American Academy of Arts and Letters.”

jamieson_mitchell-country_landscape~OM6a9300~10605_20120623_68_193Mitchell Jamieson – Snowy Country Landscape

He was considered one of the country’s foremost watercolor artists.   Mitchell Jamieson, according to Life Magazine (1943) “is one of the many crack painters who are using their art to record the war” (p.70). Jamieson began his duty as an official combat artist in 1942.  From the North African campaigns to the final surrender at Tokyo Bay his paintings, drawings and sketches were reproduced extensively in Life, Fortune and other national publications. Lieutenant Jamieson crossed the channel on D-Day on the deck of an LST and went ashore with one of the first demolition units at Normandy and was awarded the Bronze Star medal for his work.  He died in Alexandria, Virginia in 1976.

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Jamieson’s early artwork is very much in the 1930’s style of American realism and Regionalist movement in the manner and style of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood.  His style gradually progressed into expressionism as his work matured and he left the Section and entered the Navy during World War II.  Miller (1990) states, “What is unusual about Jamieson’s art is that it is the same artist who portrays World War II so heroically and Vietnam so painfully” (par.5).

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Conclusion

            There seem to be many pieces to this puzzle about the mural in the Willard post office titled “The Roundhouse at Willard”.  The citizens of Willard, Ohio do not know the mural that is displayed in their public domain of the Willard post office.  They have lived with this mural amongst them since March 21, 1941.

theroundhouseatwillard

The artist, Mitchell Jamieson, did not know the citizens or subject of his mural even though he visited Willard to hang his mural that has resided in the community for almost seventy years.  It was interesting to learn about a local artist who painted a mural of “Washington Crossing the Delaware” that most residents remember with fond memories because of a personal connection with the artist, the artwork and the historical significance of the image.  There was no personal connection with Mitchell Jamieson.  When I began my research I was hoping to discover that Jamieson came to Willard and interviewed the citizenry and made sketches around the village and that he maybe even set up a studio and painted in Willard.  Unfortunately for all involved that was not the situation.

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There is no one to blame in this story.  In an interview with Holger Cahill, who was the national director of the Federal Art Program, he states:

    They (artists in the United States) were really starving. There was no patronage for the arts. …the way the arts are organized in this country, they are largely centered. I mean as far as painting, theatre, and music, it is largely centered in one city, New York City. You had to have freedom to move workers from a city that had too many artists in it, and very skillful artists, to the regions that had very few artists. And you couldn’t do that except if you were working on a federal basis. This was to us the most essential thing because it was bringing art into the communities. It was bringing art into communities that never saw art. All sorts of sentimental stories about people walking across the mountains with no shoes, going to see an “oil paintin” because they heard that there was “an oil paintin” to be seen in the Tennessee hills, which probably is true, it’s no story. But it was more essential than that. It wasn’t just sentimental stories (Holger Cahill interview April 12 & 15, 1960).

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What is neglected in this paper is the personal understanding that families, communities, artists and a large portion of population of the United States of America were focused on day-to-day survival.   As a child, I never really understood my grandfather’s stories about the depression and why he thought of President Roosevelt as “the savior of America”.  I do remember his statement “President Roosevelt brought us through some dark times”.   In his blog Cox (2009) states:

The New Deal changed the face of America; it is the seed that modern America was built upon. And it was built without a road map; no administration had ever faced such a situation bordering on a total economic collapse. It should come as no surprise that Roosevelt won four terms in office; he was an American Moses. He led the American people out of the wilderness, and they would have elected him for four more terms if they could (par.17).

In his essay The Neglected Generation of American Realist Painters: 1930-1948,

Wooden (2009) states:

It was through the WPA that the artist himself came to achieve a new dignity and social status and to utilize his training and skill as positive means of professional self-development and of contributing to the collective well-being of his own society (par 20).

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The town of Willard, Ohio never sat before the easel or sketchpad of Mitchell Jamieson.  Yet the strength and expression of the men performing maintenance and repair on the mighty locomotives in a dark steam-filled roundhouse may be a metaphor for the men and women of Willard and the United States who were performing maintenance and repair on the mighty country they lived in.  Their aim was to get the locomotives back to work, and Mitchell Jamieson may have expressed in his mural in a very subtle way the strength of this community’s effort to get on the right track after the Great Depression.      Efland (1990) states, “Throughout the Great Depression, … art was seen as a way to strengthen the community and enhance personal living” (p.230).

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My memories as a small boy may have been correct; it was a time of survival for our forefathers, but for us today it seems a mystical and otherworldly feat that they performed.  The men who worked on the trains seemed liked giants.  Maybe they were the proverbial Davids standing up to the giant crisis confronting them and their families, communities and country; the Great Depression inspired, strengthened and revitalized through the art that bolstered and gave vision to their lives amidst it all.

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References

Art of war; Other times, other customs. (1990, February 25). [page 23 of the New York Times newspaper. New York, NY] Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/1990/02/25/arts/l-art-of-war-other-times-other-customs- 572590.html

Bae, J. (2009), Teaching with murals at a post office: A community’s past, present, and future, Art Education, 62(5), 25-32

Beckh, E. (1960). Government Art in the Roosevelt Era: An Appraisal of Federal Art Patronage in the Light of Present Needs, Art Journal, 20(1), 2 – 8

Cahill, H. (April 12 &15, 1960). Interview, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Couvrette, S. (2007). Re: Works Progress Administration [Essays]. Retrieved from http://www.cat-sidh.net/Writing/WorksProgressAdmin.html

Cox, D. (2009, November 6). Re:  What FDR gave us [Web log message].  Retrieved from http://open.salon.com/blog/david_cox/2009/11/06/what_fdr_gave_us

Dickens, C. (1908). A tale of two cities. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?q=+inauthor:%22Charles+Dickens%22

Dush, J. F. (1974). The history of Willard, Ohio. Willard,OH: The Lakeside Press, R. R. Donnelley & Sons Company.

Efland, A. (1990). A history of art education: Intellectual and social currents in teaching the visual. New York: Teachers College Press.

Funk, C. (2000). Education in the Federal Art Project. In Bolin, P. E., Blandy, D., & Congdon, K. G. (2000). Remembering other: Making invisible histories of art education visible. (pp. 85-97). Reston, VA: 
National Art Education Association.

Getz, M. (February 22, 2010). Personal communication.

Large mural placed on wall of Willard post office has railroad theme. (1941, March 27). [Clipping from The Willard Times newspaper Willard, Ohio.] Copy in archive Willard Memorial Library.

Loeser, M. (2010, January). Depression-era post office murals. Country Living, 52(4),16-18.

Navy artist Jamieson paints embarkation. (1943, May). Life Magazine, 14(18). Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?id=500EAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA70&lpg=PA70&d

[Photography of Mitchell Jamieson]. (2010). Jonathan Dunder Retrieved from http://www.museumsyndicate.com/

[Photograph of The Roundhouse, inside the Willard post office, Willard, OH]. (2010). Marilyn Loeser (103 Tensaw Dr.), Browns Mills, NJ

Raynor, P. (1997, October-December). Off the wall: New deal post office murals. EnRoute,6(4). Retrieved from http://www.postalmuseum.si.edu/resources/6a2q_postalmurals.html

Reiman, R., & Stock, C. (Ed.). (1992). We had everything but money: Priceless memories of the great depression. Greendale, WI: Reiman Publications, L.P.

Roosevelt, F. D. Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933, as published in Samuel Rosenman, ed., The Public Papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Volume Two: The Year of Crisis, 1933 (New York: Random House, 1938), 11–16.

Schraff, A. E. (1990). The great depression and the new deal: America’s economic collapse and recovery.  New York, NY: Franklin Watts.

Slessman, J. (February 22, 2010). Personal communication.

Wooden, H. E. (2009, January 12). Re: The neglected generation of american realist painters: 1930-1948.  Retrieved from http://www.tfaoi.com/aa/8aa/8aa327.htm

“Works Progress Administration”, Ohio History Central, July 1, 2005, http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=1011

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