Perhaps the most lasting impact of the New Deal programs enacted during the 1930s by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to the economic woes of the Great Depression is found in its public works projects, built or funded by an alphabet soup of federal agencies including the Public Works Administration (PWA), the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), and the National Youth Administration (NYA).
These programs provided employment for millions of unemployed Americans — and at their best, enabled works of civic architecture so celebrated in design that their style has its own architectural category, commonly known as PWA Moderne (think “Hoover Dam” and you’ll get the idea). Look around Austin and you’ll find a staggering number of New Deal-related structures, some mundane, others far more striking, but most still serving the community in some fashion roughly 80 years later.
In the midst of a pandemic, with growing unemployment and looming recession at hand, the possibility of reviving some of these New Deal-style federal jobs programs for public works projects has emerged in the national conversation as one potential method of recovery — and even without the added motivation of a virus, our aging infrastructure could use the help. Here’s a look at some of Austin’s most interesting Depression-era projects — but honestly, this list only scratches the surface:
City Market House
We owe the tweets of Austinite Robert Foster big time for this gem, which flies way under the radar since it was closed in 1952 and eventually demolished for the unfortunate construction of I-35 in the 1960s. Located at what’s now the corner of East Seventh Street and the I-35 Frontage Road, the City Market House was a kind of permanent farmer’s market, where local growers could sell their crops directly to the public in a comfortable and easily accessible environment.
Completed in 1935 thanks to a partial grant from the PWA, the seemingly Art Deco-inspired market structure was designed by brothers Charles Henry Page and Louis Charles Page, local architects with a last name you’ll see quite a few times on this list — and all around this site. Though few photos remain of the building, what we can see makes us sad it’s not still standing.
Zilker Metropolitan Park
Though the land for Austin’s most-loved green space was donated to the city by Andrew Jackson Zilker in 1917, the park didn’t take the shape we know today until the public works of the Great Depression. Zilker received a lot of attention from New Deal agencies, with work from the CWA, the CCC, the NYA, and the WPA — but the CWA built one of its largest buildings, the former Boy Scouts of America facility now known as the Zilker Clubhouse. This 1934 stone structure designed by Charles Page is now a city-owned event venue, popular for weddings, with a great skyline view and pretty low prices as far as venues go.
Completed in 1938, the Montopolis Bridge spanning the Colorado River in East Austin was built by the Texas Highway Department with the help of disaster relief funds from the Bureau of Public Roads after a flood washed away the old bridge in 1935. It’s what’s known as a Parker truss bridge, a common historic variety that’s pretty easy on the eyes — and even though a modern bridge now runs alongside it, thankfully the old model’s sticking around as a bike and pedestrian path.
Central Fire Station 1
Likely our single favorite PWA/Streamline Moderne-style structure in the city, the fire station at 401 East Fifth Street was built in 1939 with assistance from the PWA and still operates as a fire station today — though it’s definitely getting up in years, with the city expecting to relocate the central station at some point in the near future and repurpose the building, possibly as a downtown visitor’s center or other public facility, as part of the revitalized Brush Square.
Former City Hall
Now known as the City of Austin Municipal Building and home to several city departments, the elegant structure at 124 West Eighth Street served as City Hall from its completion in 1938 to the opening of a new facility in 2004. Funded roughly 50 percent by a PWA grant, the structure’s PWA Moderne stylings come courtesy of architects Page & Southerland — there’s still a firm with that name in town, you know.
Former U.S. Courthouse
The PWA-funded federal courts facility completed in 1936 at 200 West Eighth Street now belongs to Travis County, with a new (and unpopular in certain camps) federal courthouse now running the show at 501 West Fifth Street. Like the former City Hall, it’s a classic work of PWA Moderne architecture — strange ornamentation and all — plus it has a nice LBJ connection to boot, just in case you needed another three-letter acronym on top of all the WPA/PWA/CWA stuff:
In June 1934, U.S. Congressman J. P. Buchanan requested an appropriation of $415,000 for the construction of a U.S. courthouse in Austin. Groundbreaking took place on September 16, 1935. The building was formally dedicated and opened to the public on September 22, 1936. The Austin U.S. Courthouse is an excellent example of Depression-era Moderne architecture.
The building’s most famous tenant arrived in the 1940s when Lyndon B. Johnson, assumed the office of U.S. Congressman from Texas’s 10th district upon the death of Congressman Buchanan. As a U.S. congressman, Johnson moved into a suite of second-floor offices in the southwest wing, which he kept until 1949, when he became a U.S. senator. He then moved his offices to the first floor of the wing and remained there until after the beginning of his vice presidency in 1961.
Texas Memorial Museum
Located on the grounds of the University of Texas, the Texas Memorial Museum was completed in 1939 with funds from the PWA and State Legislature, and designed by renowned architect Paul Philippe Cret — best known around here for the UT Tower itself. The museum’s groundbreaking, held in 1936 to celebrate the state centennial, contains a fairly vital piece of New Deal trivia: President Franklin D. Roosevelt actually set off the dynamite to kick off its construction:
The American Legion Texas Centennial Committee, The University of Texas at Austin and Texas Congressman James “Buck” Buchanan worked together to secure $300,000 from the Public Works Administration for the Texas Memorial Museum. In addition, the Legislature of the State of Texas appropriated $225,000 for furnishing and equipping the museum and for gathering and collecting materials. The University of Texas at Austin chose a site for the museum on its campus.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt visited Austin while campaigning and attended the ground breaking ceremony. He set off the dynamite to begin construction of the museum on June 11, 1936.
Completed in 1939 with a design by popular local architects Page & Southerland, Rosewood Courts at 2001 Rosewood Avenue was the first public housing facility in the nation built for low-income African-American families, during an era when these facilities were entirely segregated by race.
Funded alongside other public housing in the city with grants from the New Deal-era United States Housing Authority (USHA), the complex is still managed by the Housing Authority of the City of Austin — but the preservation of the facility due to its historic significance remains a local issue.
House Park Stadium
Funded by a PWA grant to the City of Austin, House Park at 1301 Shoal Creek Boulevard has hosted football games for the Austin Independent School District since its completion in 1939. Designed by local architects Giesecke & Harris — a duo forever remembered for Norwood Tower, possibly Austin’s most beautiful skyscraper and certainly its most ornate — the stadium is a good example of the wide variety of structures these public works programs enabled.