Last November, President Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act into law. It calls for $550 billion of spending over the next five years on roads, public transit, airports, power grids and bringing broadband internet to rural areas. The infrastructure act is a rare bipartisan achievement in our time.
And yet, it pales in comparison with the New Deal relief programs. Enacted by Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration, the programs ran from 1933-1941 in response to the Depression. Two of the New Deal's largest programs, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), brought lasting infrastructure and superb design to Minnesota's parks, towns, roads, and cities.
Here are some of the more interesting projects around the Twin Cities still standing today.
The New Deal programs relied on leading architects to create Twin Cities landmarks, such as the Art Deco 4-H Building at the Minnesota State Fair and the Minneapolis Armory, which was designed by St. Paul architect P.C. Bettenburg, who happened to be a major in the Minnesota National Guard.
However, it's the Minneapolis Post Office that's arguably one of the finest Art Deco-Moderne style public buildings in the Midwest.
Designed by Léon Arnal of the Magney and Tusler firm, the building features solid vertical piers of Kasota limestone from Mankato, inset friezes, bronze doors and a base of black granite from St. Cloud. This singular structure, at 100 S. 1st St., was very modern for its time and symbolized the optimistic and progressive vision for America's future espoused by the New Deal.
Another local building is also a standout. The Clarence W. Wigington Pavilion at Harriet Island Regional Park in St. Paul is a masterwork of WPA stone construction, blending simple Moderne styling and historic arched windows.
Originally called the Harriet Island Pavilion, the 1941 structure was renamed in honor of its architect, "Cap" Wigington, who became the first Black municipal architect in the country.
During the next three decades years, he served as St. Paul's chief architect, designing projects like the Highland Park Water Tower and the Holman Field Administration Building, a classic WPA airport terminal.
Roads and recreation
If you walk along the East River Road Parkway in Minneapolis, you'll find evidence of the WPA's work in the 70-year-old concrete balustrade just across the river to the University of Minnesota. At E. Lake Street, a large boulder engraved with "WPA 1938" signifies the work of crews that built stone steps, walls, picnic areas, and paths skillfully woven into the riverbank topography.
The WPA also played a major role in building Hwy. 100, one of the larger projects in the state. Then known as Lilac Way, it represented a new kind of beltline boulevard with cloverleafs. Back then (it was finished in 1941), auto travel was considered an adventure — and Lilac Way added to the fun.
For the project, landscape architects Morell & Nichols designed seven roadside rests for recreation, complete with limestone "beehive" grills, water gardens, limestone benches and walls.
Two of the roadside rests are still open: the recently reconstructed Lilac Park at Hwys. 100 and 7 in St. Louis Park and Graeser Park in Robbinsdale at West Broadway and Lakeland Avenue N.
Although it was abandoned for decades, Graeser was rescued by volunteer groups that excavated the forgotten water garden and cleared out brush around its original pine trees, now 70 years old. Today, with funding and oversight from the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the park's beehive grill, limestone tables and walls are being professionally reconstructed.
Relief, recovery and reform
Beyond its architectural legacy, the WPA, CCC and other New Deal programs touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of Minnesotans, offering them not only gainful employment, but also opportunities for education, improved health care and nutrition.
For example, the CCC paid young men $30 per month, most of which was sent home to support their families in trying times. The WPA hired out-of-work artists to paint murals for its new public buildings, historians to collect oral histories and folklore, and writers to create travel guidebooks for every state.
One such guidebook, "The WPA Guidebook to Minnesota," was published in 1936 and republished by the Minnesota Historical Society Press in 1985. It details the state's geological, natural, cultural and economic history along with contemporary descriptions of major towns and cities.
It also includes 20 guided automobile tours with listed attractions for each town and county along the way and — appropriate for Minnesota — 15 detailed canoe trip routes through the Boundary Waters.