WPA Great Depression Art – 8 of 47 Post Office Murals & Reliefs We Found in Michigan

Many of these United States Post Office murals were painted across the country from 1934 to 1943 and commissioned by the United States Department of the Treasury. Striving to boost the morale of the American people suffering from the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt commissioned murals to be painted on some Federal public buildings. The idea was to have artists paint murals that depicted uplifting subjects and scenes, which would bring cheer to those unemployed and underprivileged who could and did access them.

A Country Wide Art Project

Artists were asked to paint in an “American scene” style, realistically depicting ordinary citizens. Artists were also encouraged to produce works appropriate to the communities where they were to be located and avoid controversial subjects. The Section closely scrutinized projects for style and content, and artists paid only after each stage in the creative process was approved.

Fabricating Steel - Midland, Michigan, Post Office - Smithsonian American Art Museum
Chemistry – Midland, Michigan, Post Office (Now in the County Building) – Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Art-in-Architecture Program was a federal government art project initiated in 1933 and completed in 1943. The program included murals and sculptures for public display in prominent locations in the community. It was designed specifically to employ artists as part of the public works relief program (PWAP), which had been started to provide jobs for artists, engineers, architects, and other skilled artisans during the Great Depression.

The Automotive Industry - Detroit Post Office - Smithsonian American Art Museum,
The Automotive Industry – Detroit Post Office – Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum acquisition

The Great Depression Art was an idea conceived by Section Supervisor Edward Bruce during the Depression-era. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) paid most artists $23 each a month to create the artwork. The WPA project produced more than 2,300 commissioned murals.

Local Themes For the Murals

Production- Buchanan, Michigan Post Office - Smithsonian American Art Museum
Production – Buchanan, Michigan Post Office – Smithsonian American Art Museum

Before coming up with their topics, artists frequently consult with local people. Some murals focused on business and the future of a community, while others celebrated local heritage. These provided reassuring pictures of the past to offset the uncertainty of the present. Mural artists kept in mind that their work differed significantly from easel painting while developing their ideas. Murals necessitated the use of powerful forms that could be seen from a distance.

Early Settlers - East Detroit, Michigan Post Office - Smithsonian American Art Museum
Early Settlers – East Detroit, Michigan Post Office – Frank Cassara, ca. 1939-1941, tempera, oil, and pencil on paperboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum

Other Michigan Post Office Murals

Alma Post Office

Harvest (mural study, Alma, Michigan Post Office) - Smithsonian American Art Museum
Harvest (mural study, Alma, Michigan Post Office) – Smithsonian American Art Museum

Lincoln Park Post Office

Hauling In The Net - Lincoln Park, Michigan Post Office - Smithsonian American Art Museum
Hauling In The Net – Lincoln Park, Michigan Post Office – Smithsonian American Art Museum

Chelsea Post Office

Way of Life (study for Chelsea, MI Post Office mural) -  Smithsonian American Art Museum
Way of Life (study for Chelsea, MI Post Office mural) – Smithsonian American Art Museum

Fremont Post Office Mural

Pony Express - 1938 - Fremont Post Office
Pony Express – 1938 – Fremont Post Office

Although there was no Pony Express in Michigan, Luthern Winters’s “Pony Express” offers native Americans, Pioneers, lumbermen, and a galloping rider. According to Winter, “Since Fremont lacks any historical material of any specific or special interest, it was thought the US Mail would make the best subject matter.”

Winter was a native Kansasian and studied at the Cleveland School of Art and the National Academy of Design in New York City. His other murals include those in the Kansas State Capital Building.

Caro Michigan Post Office “Mail On The Farm” Mural

One example is found at the Caro Michigan Post Office with the mural; Mail on the Farm. The principal objective was to secure artwork that met high artistic standards for public buildings, where it was accessible to all people. The murals were intended to boost the morale of the American people suffering from the effects of the Depression. Each depicts uplifting subjects the local population knew and loved. (1)

Caro Michigan Post Office
Caro Michigan Post Office

About Artist David Fredenthal

David Fredenthal painted Caro Michigan’s Mail On The Farm in 1941. In his application to the government, Fredenthal noted, “ As Caro is an agricultural district, I have chosen a simple agricultural subject and have incorporated the idea of mail in it; a letter brought out to the plowman by his wife.” The farmer reading the unknown contents of the letter draws the observer in. “What is in the letter?”

An observation by noted historian Christine M. Nelson Ruby, “The serine bucolic air of Fredenthal’s Caro Post Office murals so pleased the Section officials they did nothing about the lack of correct proportion in the figures, whose massive arms and hands are reminiscent of Thomas Hart Bensons figures.”

M-25 Michigan Fall Color Tour

Fredenthal was born in Detroit, Michigan, and studied at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills. He also painted murals for Detroits Broadhead Academy and the Post office in Manistique. Afterward, during World War II, he was assigned to the South Pacific as a war correspondent and covered the defeat of Germany. Working for Life Magazine, Fredenthal covered the Nuremberg trials after the war. (3)

Mail Matters: Another Michigan Mural – Cranbrook Kitchen Sink

Gregory Wittkopp, Director, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, has researched three of these murals. Please follow the link below for a fascinating tale on how these works of art now grace several of our rural post offices.

Mail Matters - Cranbrook Kitchen Sink

On the eve of World War II, while Americans continued to suffer from the economic fallout of the Great Depression, the United States Treasury …

Mail Matters: Another Michigan Mural

This is a repost of content from the Cranbrook Kitchen Sink, that may interest you. (2)

WPA Post Office Murals & Reliefs In Michigan

This is a listing of all the known murals painted in Michigan Post Offices. Each listing denoted the Post Office location – Title of the Work – Artist – Year Completed, and notes.

  • Alma – Harvest – Joe H. Cox, Harvest – 1940
  • Belding – Belding Brothers and Their Silk Industry – Marvin Beerhom – 1943 -On display at the Belding Public Library
  • Birmingham – The Pioneering Society’s Picnic – Carlos Lopez – 1942 – The building now houses private offices with mural still on display.
  • Blissfield – Laying the Erie and Kalamazoo Railroad – Jean Paul Slusser – 1938
  • Bronson – Farm Family With Produce – Arthur Getz – 1941
  • Buchanan – Production – Gertrude Goodrich – 1941 -The mural has been painted over but is being restored. A reproduction of a drawing/study is displayed.
  • Calumet – Copper Mining in Calumet – Joe Lasker – 1941
  • Caro – Mail on the Farm – David Fredenthal – 1941
  • Chelsea – The Way of Life – George Fisher – 1938 – Restored c1986. Moved to a new post office building in August 2009
  • Clare – The Mail Arrives in Clare – Allan Thomas – 1937 – Restored c986
  • Crystal Falls – Extending the Frontier in Northwest Territory – Allan Thomas – 1938 – Restored c2005
  • Dearborn – Ten Eyck’s Tavern on Chicago Road – Rainey Bennett – 1938 – On display at the Henry Ford Community College Library – Condition defined as poor, endangered
  • Detroit – Automotive Industry – William Gropper – 1941 – Wayne State Student Union Building, upper level, Detroit, Michigan
  • East Lansing – America’s First Agricultural College – Henry Bernstein – 1938 – On permanent loan and display at Michigan State University’s Main Library
  • Eastpoint – Early Settlers – Frank Cassara – 1939
  • Eaton Rapids – Industry and Agriculture – Boris Mestchersky  1938
  • Fenton – Change of Shift – Jerome Snyder – 1942 – Relocated to new Post Office
  • Frankfort – On Board the Car Ferry (Ann Arbor #4, February 14,1923) – Henry Bernstein – 1941
  • Fremont – Pony Express – Lumen Martin Winter – 1938 – Restored in 2005
  • Grand Ledge – Waiting for the Mail – James Calder- 1939
  • Grayling – The Lumber Camp – Robert Lepper -1939 – Depicts a typical historical lumber camp populated by loggers, sawing through timber; stacks of logs, logging equipment, workhorses, locomotive; Native Americans are observing the process.
  • Greenville – Lumbering – Charles W. Thwaite – 1940
  • Hamtramck – Products of Industry and Agriculture, Farm Family, City Workers – Schomer Lichtner – 1940 – Three panels
  • Hart – Boy Rounding Up the Stock – Ruth Grotenrath – 1941 – Restored
  • Howell – Rural Delivery – Jaroslaw Brozik – 1941 – Relocated; removed from original location
  • Iron Mountain – Fight with the Indians; Stage Coach; Ferry Boat; Moving West; Watching an Early Train; Washing & Carrying Gold (Six Panels: Historical Treatment of Mail Transportation in the West) – Vladimir Rouseff – 1935
  • Iron River – Paul Bunyan Straightening Out the Round River’ – Milton Horn -1941 – wood carved relief
  • Lincoln Park – Hauling the Net: Great Lakes Fishermen – Zoltan Sepeshy – 1940 – Relocated; Beaver Island Marine Museum
  • Lowell – Lumbering in Early Lowell – Alfred Sessler – 1941
  • Manistique – Logging – David Fredenthal – 1941 – Restored c2005
  • Marquette – Marquette Exploring Shores of Lake Superior – Dewey Albinson – 1938 – On display at the Marquette US Post Office and Federal Courthouse. Restored c2005
  • Mason – Early Postman – Marion Overby – 1939 – Terra cotta relief
  • Midland – Chemistry – Henry Bernstein – 1943 – Relocated County Service Building, Midland, Michigan, south wall of first-floor lobby.
  • Monroe – Romance of Monroe – Ralph Hendricksen – 1938 – Relocated to the Monroe Historical Museum
  • Munising – Chippewa Legend – Hugo Robus – 1938 – Sculpture Relief
  • Paw Paw – Bounty – Carlos Lopez – 1939
  • Plymouth – Plymouth Trail – Carlos Lopez -1938
  • River Rouge – Transportation – Marshall M. Fredericks – 1939 – Limestone relief
  • Rochester – Communication – Alexander Sambugnac – 1939 – Cast sandstone relief
  • Rockford – Among the Furrows – Pierre Bourdelle -1940
  • Rogers City – Harbor at Rogers City – James Calder – 1941
  • Royal Oak – The First Harvest, Pioneer Family – Sidney Loeb – 1939 – Two Plaster Relief Panels – Location unknown
  • St. Clair – St. Clair River – James Calder – 1938
  • Sandusky – Cattle Auctions – Frank Cassara – 1942
  • Traverse City – The Cherry Picker – Marion Overby – 1941 – Cherry wood relief (three pieces)
  • Wayne – Landscape Near Wayne – 1875 – Algot Stenbery – 1939 – The mural is missing; suspicion that the mural still exists under layers of paint

Sources for Post Office Murals in Michigan

(1) “List of United States Post Office Murals.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 22 Aug. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_United_States_post_office_murals.

(2) Julie Montgomery on August 7. “Mail Matters: Another Michigan Mural.” Cranbrook Kitchen Sink, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research, 7 Aug. 2020, cranbrookkitchensink.wordpress.com/2020/08/07/mail-matters-another-michigan-mural/.

(3) “Postal works of art: in some Michigan post offices customers can buy stamps, mail packages and enjoy distinct works of art.”, Michigan History Magazine, (Vol. 90, Issue 2), Publisher: the State of Michigan, through its State Administrative Board and Department of History, Arts and Libraries.

(4) Chidester, Cheryl Ann, “The documentation and preservation of art-in-architecture of Michigan: The section of fine arts projects” (2007). Master’s Theses and Doctoral Dissertations. 172.
http://commons.emich.edu/theses/172


Two Verbs News

3 thoughts on “WPA Great Depression Art – 8 of 47 Post Office Murals & Reliefs We Found in Michigan”

  1. Thanks for article on this often overlooked topic of post office murals. I’m delighted others are interested in this topic. We also have a great collection of post office murals from other states if interested.

    David W. Gates Jr.

    Reply

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