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WPA projects in Southern NewMexico — windows to our past

By Phyllis Eileen Banks

Last updated on Monday, January 06, 2003

Old School House at Claunch. Photo by Phyllis Eileen Banks.
Old School House at Claunch. Photo by Phyllis Eileen Banks.
The words in bas-relief over the door of the school house read "WPA 1936." A breeze blows through the paneless windows and weeds grow where there once was a playground. This school at Claunch, New Mexico was once a symbol of the 1930s and the efforts of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to bring the United States out of the Great Depression.

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) was one of the programs begun in order to put many of the 15,000,000 unemployed people to work. They were builders of schools, court houses, museums, dams, river walks, sidewalks, curbs, buildings for organizations, parks and playgrounds. Paid $18.75 a week by the government, they worked long hours.

Some of the projects have been used continuously since their construction and remain, exteriorly, the same. The Mountainair Municipal Auditorium is one basically unchanged inside and out. The interior is unusual in that tree trunk pillars support the balconies and roof. Others have been remodeled or their uses changed. Others have fallen into disrepair and have been abandoned like the school at Claunch, a mere dot on State Highway 55 between Mountainair and Ancho.

We (my husband is my chauffeur) began our research with Ft. Sumner using as a guide Treasures on New Mexico Trails compiled and edited by Kathryn A. Flynn.

Unemployed artists and writers were also put to work creating under the Federal Art Project. One of those creations is a mural on each side of the wall in DeBaca County Court House in Ft. Sumner. Russell Vernon Hunter, who was the Coordinator of the New Mexico WPA from 1933-1943, painted the history of that area up to 1934. Anyone traveling on U. S. Highway 60/84 should pause long enough to see and learn about this treasure.

Thirty-seven miles east on the same highway is the town of Melrose, population 662. The city hall is a WPA building with the exterior unchanged. The interior has been remodeled but the original one-foot-thick center wall is still there.

In Clovis, the Curry County Court House is listed as one of the buildings built in 1936. Twila Ky Rutter, Grant Facilitator and Procurement Clerk, unable to locate a photograph of the building as it was originally, referred me to Don McAlavy, a local historian. He didn't have the photo I was chasing but he gave me other valuable information:  i.e., the sunken garden and the arch over Hillcrest Park as WPA projects. The City provided materials, much of which were found in the area, and WPA provided manpower. There are other evidences of WPA work in Clovis but remodeling and other uses have obscured them.

Portales' history includes some WPA building sites, including the Roosevelt County Court House, dormitories at Eastern New Mexico University, the Women's Club, a school playground and an abandoned residence between Blackwater Draw Park and the University Stadium.

Artesia's old city hall, now used as offices, appears the same as it did in 1939 when it was built. The Artesia Municipal Hospital was also built with WPA funds. It is still in use with remodeling and additions.

Roswell was one of four New Mexico cities designated to have an art center. The current Roswell Museum and Art Center, built in 1937, was known as the Federal Art Center. The original building has been incorporated into all the remodeling and additions since then. Cahoon Park was built in 1936 and another sunken garden planted. The old Municipal Airport, now the Unity Center for Teens, is another example of WPA funds put to good use.

New Mexico Military Institute had many projects that were built partially with WPA funds, among them horse stables for the cavalry. Horses are no longer used and those remaining were recently sold.

The balance of my research has taken us over different areas of Southern New Mexico. Lincoln, for example, houses a Pueblo Revival style adobe school built in 1938. Abandoned as a school in 1958, it now has other uses. The old Lincoln County Court House where Billy the Kid made his famous escape was restored with help from WPA funds.

Tularosa Police Station.  Photo by Phyllis Eileen Banks. In Tularosa, the Police Station remains the same inside and out, except for being painted periodically. It is another Pueblo Revival style blending perfectly with the New Mexico landscape. The School Administration Building, formerly the High School, was built for $4,653, and the Junior High School reportedly for $2,653.

LaLuz's former elementary school now houses the Head Start Program, and the Senior Center is a part of it although it appears to have been remodeled or added to the school.

Peter Hurd mural on the exterior of the Lincoln National Forest Service Building. Photo by Phyllis Eileen
Peter Hurd mural on the exterior of the Lincoln National Forest Service Building. Photo by Phyllis Eileen
Banks.  Alamogordo's Lincoln National Forest Service Building, 1101 New York Avenue, formerly the post office built in 1938, has a beautiful Peter Hurd mural on the exterior wall around the entrance. It is done in fresco, a process where the artist paints with watercolor before the plaster is dry. It is well protected with a heavy vinyl covering, and gates have been installed that protect it from vandals when the offices are closed.

The White Sands National Monument Visitors' Center, constructed by various government agencies, including the WPA, was begun in 1936 and completed in 1938. The walls are of adobe mud bricks throughout and the ceiling of the main room is of viga and savina construction. Don Pettijohn at the Center noted the tinware light fixtures were made by yet another of the "alphabet soup" acronymns of that era, NYA (National Youth Administration). They were made by young girls in their late teens and early twenties at a camp in Capitan.

New Mexico State University Museum in Las Cruces was built as Kent Hall during WPA times. The Dona Ana County Court House, a three story building, reflects the Spanish-Pueblo Revival  style. The U-shaped building is decorated with Spanish motifs while the inside bears Pueblo Indian designs. In addition, there are many examples of art created during the WPA years. One is the mural by Tom Lea at the Branigan Cultural Center, 106 W. Hadley, painted in 1935.

Deming has an impressive list of WPA projects: Deming Public Library, Country Club, Junior High, Morgan Hall, Columbus School, Sunshine School, Hospital addition, Park, street paving, sewer work, curbs and trees plus a National Guard building. 

Another city with a list of projects is Lordsburg:   Lordsburg City Hall, Hidalgo County Fairgrounds, Animas High School and the Sunset Canal Dam. The Lordsburg-Hidalgo Public Library is one that also originally housed the Health Department and Justice of the Peace. People often stop at the Library to revisit the place where they were married. Windows in the children's section were replaced with stained glass commemorating early pioneer families. It is one of only two county libraries in the State.

Graham Gymnasium at Western New Mexico University in Silver City as built and other buildings were remodeled with WPA funds. The sidewalks, streets and the riverwalk park were a part of the projects. The banks of the Mimbres River in the walk area are shorn up with rock work, a trademark of much of the WPA construction.

Richard Sanchez, Postmaster of Truth or Consequences provided a photograph of the post office under construction in 1939. A new post office is under construction and the current one will stay open with a window unit and post office boxes. Nancy Castillo, Post Office Supervisor, expressed how many feel about these old, yet sturdy, buildings, "I love it," she said, "especially the old woodwork."

The New Mexico Veterans' Center (formerly Carrie Tingley Hospital) was partially funded with WPA funds in 1937. The buildings were left vacant in 1981 when the Hospital moved to Albuquerque. In 1983 the Veterans' Administration and the New Mexico Legislature provided funds for renovation of the buildings and the establishment of the New Mexico Veterans' Center. The Sierra County Court House and the Community Center are two other WPA buildings in T or C. 

In Magdalena the sidewalks were built of rocks and the High School was a WPA building.

Nearby in Socorro, New Mexico Tech used these funds to build or remodel campus buildings and the Socorro County Court House was also funded in this manner.

The Women's Club in Carrizozo. Photo by Phyllis Eileen Banks.
The Women's Club in Carrizozo.  Photo by Phyllis Eileen Banks.
The Lincoln County Court House in Carrizozo was a product of this time but it is now an annex to the main court house. The Women's Club proudly displays 1939 on its wall, another Pueblo Revival style of architecture. The curbs and sidewalks were made of rock, as was the sculpture of a spider occupying a prominent place in the park, all built with WPA funds.

According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, Fifth Edition, under the WPA programs 116,000 buildings, 78,000 bridges and 651,000 miles of road were constructed and 800 airports were improved. Ten thousand drawings, paintings and sculptured works were produced.

Musical performances under the program averaged 4,000 a month, and the fresh ideas introduced were highly praised. The valuable product of writers during this time was the regional and state guidebooks. Many of them have been reprinted in some states.

Total appropriation for the WPA program was almost eleven billion dollars. In 1939 some projects were abolished, others curtailed, and in June 1943 the agency went out of existence because there was steadily increasing employment brought about by World War II.

The Great Depression was a period we would not want to live through again, but it is a window to our past through which we may look and learn.

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