Long before "stimulus" became a dirty word in some quarters of Washington, the federal government put people to work building things. Lots of things.
This spring marks the 80th anniversary of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), the biggest and most ambitious of more than a dozen New Deal agencies created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Designed to give millions of unemployed Americans jobs during the Great Depression, the WPA remains the largest public works program in the nation's history. It provided 8 million jobs in communities large and small. And what those workers put up has never been matched.
The WPA built, improved or renovated 39,370 schools; 2,550 hospitals; 1,074 libraries; 2,700 firehouses; 15,100 auditoriums, gymnasiums and recreational buildings; 1,050 airports, 500 water treatment plants, 12,800 playgrounds, 900 swimming pools; 1,200 skating rinks, plus many other structures. It also dug more than 1,000 tunnels; surfaced 639,000 miles of roads and installed nearly 1 million miles of sidewalks, curbs and street lighting, in addition to tens of thousands of viaducts, culverts and roadside drainage ditches.
"A vast amount of our physical and cultural infrastructure went up between 1933 and 1940," said Robert Leighninger, author of Long-range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal. "To paraphrase Winston Churchill, never in our history has so much been built for so many in so little time and been so thoroughly forgotten."
When World War II sent millions of men into the military and defense-related industries, unemployment plummeted and so, too, the need for the WPA. Congress shut it down in June 1943.
The Public Works Administration (PWA) built larger public projects -- New York's Triborough Bridge and Lincoln Tunnel, Washington state's Grand Coulee Dam, Florida's Overseas Highway to Key West. But the WPA provided more jobs and touched more communities by funding smaller, less glamorous projects initiated by state and local governments.
About half still remain. All are showing their age.
"Many of those structures are nearing the end of their useful lives," said Adrian Benepe, a former New York City parks commissioner now with the Trust for Public Land. He fears that a lack of political willpower and resources may condemn some architectural and cultural treasures to the wrecking ball. Hundreds of WPA and other New Deal structures have already been demolished or are in danger of being torn down.
"A lot will last a while longer but they’re not going to last forever. There are diminishing returns. Not everything can be preserved," Benepe said.
Yet at a time when, despite widespread consensus that the country's bridges, roads and other public facilities are falling apart, "This nation doesn't seem to know how to do public infrastructure anymore," Benepe said. Still, he added, "I can't imagine New York without the stuff that was built under the WPA."
Such "stuff" is everywhere. A small sampling of what the WPA left us:
Orchard Beach Bathhouse — Bronx, New York
Set on a mile-long artificial beach overlooking Long Island Sound, this New York City landmark is "recognized as being among the most remarkable public recreational facilities ever constructed in the United States." When it was built in 1936, it was the largest WPA project in a city that, thanks to the clout of legendary Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and Parks Department Commissioner Robert Moses, was the biggest single recipient of New Deal largess. The two-story crescent-shaped, nautical-motif bathhouse was designed by Princeton-trained architect Aymar Embury II in the Modern Classical style and built using inexpensive concrete, brick and limestone, terra-cotta tile and terrazzo. In its heyday, the pavillion had a restaurant, dance floor, changing rooms, showers and a laundry and served generations of working class Bronx residents. But salt air and water eventually took a toll and the crumbling bathhouse is now closed and fenced off from beachgoers. Benepe estimates it would take up to $50 million to restore, an unlikely prospect in a time of tight budgets and long after the era of the rented swimsuit: "It'll probably never again be used as a bathhouse." In March 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced a $65 million plan to revitalize the area, including plans for the WPA bathhouses. The ideas include a recreation center, a pool or a nature center.