During the Great Depression, the federal government created several programs to get the displaced and indigent off the streets by putting them to work on civic improvement projects. That was in part the theory behind Pres. Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal program known as the Works Projects Administration, or WPA.
“Our present economy invites comparison and a call for a reexamination of that creative legacy that went from the bottom up,” said Harvey Smith, president of the National New Deal Preservation Association and a project advisor to the Living New Deal, an interactive website that tracks and records New Deal projects across the country (livingnewdeal.org).
On Jan. 12, Smith will speak on “The New Deal” as part of a regular program of lectures by the Sonoma Valley Historical Society. He is author of the Arcadia Publishing book “Berkeley and the New Deal,” and was co-curator of the 2010 exhibit “The American Scene: New Deal Art, 1935-1943” in Walnut Creek., among other projects.
Though a national program, in California and even in Sonoma a number of projects were undertaken by the WPA’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) to help Valley residents weather the depths of the Great Depression. While CCC teams built roads, trails and other infrastructure, artists and architects added their skills to design college and hospital buildings, and created art that even reached “Main Street” of small towns like Sonoma.
“Unprecedented government patronage not only enabled artists and working men and women to productively survive the Depression,” said Smith, “it nourished collaboration, brought an array of cultural and recreation programs to communities for the first time, and revitalized local initiative.”
Patricia Cullinan, president of the Sonoma Valley Historical Society, points out local projects built by the WPA and CCC include runways for a now-defunct Santa Rosa airport, Analy High School (scene of the Netflix series “13 Reasons Why”), Sonoma County’s Community Hospital, as well as several buildings at Santa Rosa Junior College.
In the Valley, notes Cullinan, there was a Mission Revival-style Valley of the Moon fire house as well as several buildings at the Sonoma Developmental Center. New Deal workers also plastered the Sonoma Mission and rebuilt the Gen. Vallejo home Lachryma Montis on West Spain Street, now part of Sonoma Historic State Park.
Smith’s lecture on “The New Deal” will be held on Saturday, Jan. 12, at 2 p.m. at the Sonoma Community Center, 276 E. Napa St. Admission is $5, or free for historical society members and local docents.