Knowing that the boyfriend had worked next door to the historic U.S. Post Office on Alamo Plaza for some years, home to a stunning series of murals in the lobby, I asked what they looked like.
He's no art aficionado, but I figured he'd been in and out of that lobby dozens of times over the years.
"Huh?" he replied. "Never noticed 'em."
Okay, next time -- just look up: What's been off the boyfriend's radar is a popular stop for tourists and locals alike in the downtown core -- especially fans of New Deal Post Office Murals.
The year was 1933. America was in the depths of the Great Depression. Before it was over, approximately 13 million people would be out of work, half the banks in America would fail, and a sense of hopelessness would pervade.
George Biddle, an old school friend of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, encouraged FDR to start employing artists as a way of reviving the downcast American spirit.
Biddle was an artist, and he mentioned to FDR the success of Mexico’s mural renaissance in the 1920s, with artists like Diego Rivera as an example of how government-sponsored art could inspire public pride. It could also be a way for FDR to reinforce New Deal ideals.
Roosevelt agreed, and called in Edward Bruce, an international monetary expert at the Treasury Department who was himself an accomplished landscape painter. An ambitious public program was launched that made available nearly $145 million in public funds for the construction of several hundred federal buildings and various other public structures around the country which were being built as part of the Works Progress Administration.
A separate entity, the Public Works of Art Project (“PWAP”), was a six-month pilot program of the Treasury Department that diverted $1 million in funds, or approximately 1 percent of building costs, towards the purchase and commissioning of New Deal artwork.
By the end of the following year, 1934, 15,000 works of art by 3,750 artists had been purchased by the PWAP, including 700 murals.
This comprehensive program continued under the auspices of the Section of Painting and Sculpture, later known as the Section of Fine Arts, run by the Treasury Department with Bruce continuing at the helm. Texas benefited from 106 murals created for 69 post offices and federal buildings.
The goal was not just to provide relief for struggling artists, but also to create and purchase commissioned fine art. Original works of art were destined only for brand-new post offices.
Historically, public art and sculpture in America had taken their inspiration from classical Greek and Roman sources. Suddenly, public art was drawing its inspiration from a peculiarly American stream, an almost mythologized vision of American life which incorporated depictions of rural America and its strength along with the promotion of social ideals.
The leader of this movement was artist Thomas Hart Benton and the style was something called “American Scene.” While the government did not specifically dictate parameters of individual commissions, the general intent was to conform to American Scene.
While Texas post office murals shared a similar style, their subject matter could be drawn from many sources. Philip Parisi, author of the definitive book, “The Texas Post Office Murals: Art for the People,” said about one-third portray historical subjects, which he said served to “remind people of better times.”
“The murals deemphasize the uncertain present, that is, the difficult times brought on by the depression,” he said. He also mentioned that folklore and local legend were popular subjects as well.
In 1936, the U.S. Post Office and Federal Courthouse went up in Alamo Plaza, serving as the main post office for the city of San Antonio. The Section of Fine Arts held a nationwide competition for its mural commission, and Massachusetts artist Howard Norton Cook, who was living in New Mexico at the time, won the contest.
Cook was an established artist who in 1932 had won a Guggenheim Fellowship to study and travel in Mexico, where the great muralists like Diego Rivera lived and worked.
Cook labored on the commission at what is now the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building for two years, finishing it ahead of schedule in 1939 for what, at the time, was the princely sum of $12,000.
The 16-panel mural is entitled “San Antonio's Importance in Texas History,” and it depicts scenes of importance from the Spanish conquistadors to the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad.
The mural series is beautiful, with its striking and lively coloration, and it’s also remarkably well-preserved. There are both great intensity and evocative power to its scenes, though the subjects are confusing without an accompanying legend to read and explain them.
San Antonio resident and amateur historian Elizabeth Hilburn said she was “totally unprepared” for the high impact of the murals.
“I can't imagine how people can just walk through there and not notice the murals,” she said.
Technically, the murals are frescoes, works of art painted directly on wet plaster, a style popularized by Italian masters like Michelangelo.
Other Texas muralists painted in oil on canvas in their studios, and then glued or otherwise applied their artwork in place to satisfy the post office commissions.
Cook’s work is a six-foot high continuous frieze running along the top of the Garcia building's lobby walls. The panels are 6’ x 73’ on the north and south walls and 6’ x 20' on the east and west walls.
A contemporaneous article about Cook’s painting, published in the San Antonio Light, paid him the rather strange compliment of saying, “Your work fascinated us like a hypnotist does his victims.”
He drew his models from San Antonio residents and also from history.
Apparently, during the two-year period in which Cook completed the mural series, many residents loitered underneath the scaffolding on which he was working to comment and critique his work.
Not everyone understood his allegorical depictions, even at the time. In a panel where a surgeon is depicted kneeling to bandage Sam Houston’s wounded ankle, apparently two elderly women conversed as to the meaning of the panel. “Looks to me like they’re playing craps,” one friend said to the other.
Inexplicably and disappointingly, there's no plaque commemorating the artist and his work in the Garcia federal building lobby, nor is there a legend to explain the 16 panels of San Antonio history as would be expected.
The first day that I visited, the federal building’s lobby had a more-or-less continual stream of visitors from all over the world, looking for the murals. I had to ask a security guard about them, which really seemed beyond the scope of his employment, though he was happy to oblige.
I tried not to snigger when he called them “Friscos” and “Muriels” in his Texas twang. “I’m a redneck, ma’am,” he explained. But he did know, and love, his art.
I tracked down the project manager for the building’s 2012 renovation, architect Bruce A. Capelle, who practices in the Midwest.
He told me that when they finished the $52 million renovation in 2012, there was a plaque in the lobby, but maybe it had been moved afterwards. He directed me to the building manager, an employee of the General Services Administration, who said there is a display case about the mural project in the interior of the lobby, once you pass through security.
I returned on a second visit, but was disappointed to find less information there than what I expected.
There are several mentions of the importance of this mural on the web, particularly one at the University of California at Berkeley’s Living New Deal project. But there is no legend available for the meaning behind the 16 panels, other than what you can find in Parisi’s (excellent) book.
It's a disappointing oversight, because the mural is not only beautifully illustrated, it’s also a significant body of work.
Even San Antonio's postmaster at the time acknowledged this. Mentioning how many postal patrons and visitors had complimented the mural series, he said of Cook, “I have seen murals at different points over the country, and without prejudice I think the job Mr. Cook did here ranks among the best.”
The Garcia Federal Building’s murals are a stop on the “Texas Star Trail: A Downtown Walking Tour.” (For other New Deal-era projects in San Antonio still standing, check this list.) Go see the murals for yourself — you won’t be disappointed, though you may be confused, without a legend, as to the meaning of the artwork itself.
Cook also painted a pair of murals at the Nueces County courthouse in Corpus Christi, which was completed in 1941. A local San Antonio artist, Minette Teichmuller, received the commission for the Smithville post office, in a work entitled “The Law — Texas Rangers.”
Cook later taught at the University of Texas at Austin, the University of New Mexico at Albuquerque, and the University of California at Berkeley. He served as a combat artist, known as an “artist correspondent” during WWII in the South Pacific. His work is held in collections all over the world, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and museums in Paris and Berlin. For a comprehensive bio of Cook, go here.
*Featured/top image: A corner of the mural in the U.S. Post Office at Alamo Plaza. Photo by Lily Casura.