Today, a reflection on government spending. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
The PWA -- the Public Works
Administration -- was, according to my father, a
terrible exercise in government waste. Given the
choice between creating soup kitchens and jobs
during the Great Depression, the New Deal opted for
a huge public works program, paid for by new taxes.
So, while my father cursed, Washington created
low-paying jobs for everyone from laborers to
poets. Now I read a richly illustrated book on the
PWA structures built by 1939, and I am astonished.
I had no idea how much we'd bought with a mere two
billion dollars, or how that purchase shaped
This 700-page sampling of PWA works reads like my
personal scrapbook. Here's Hoover Dam, which I
first saw on my honeymoon; the University of Utah
Library, where I spent the spring of 1981; the St.
Louis Municipal Auditorium, where my wife played
violin; the familiar Bonneville Dam and Oregon
State Capital; the Lincoln Tunnel; the San Jacinto
Monument, where Sam Houston gave us Texas.
And that's just the big stuff. Here are small
Oregon bridges and Staten Island Ferry boats --
post offices and sewage disposal plants I've known
-- reform schools and airplane hangars.
The medical facilities include lots of tuberculosis
sanatoriums. Who could've known that penicillin
would eliminate TB -- until we bred super strains
of the disease 40 years later.
The PWA really touched us all when it made the
music buildings at Indiana University and Denton,
Texas. Out of those facilities we shaped two of the
largest and most important music schools in America
A small item catches my eye: The Chaffey Junior
College Library in Ontario, California. George and
William Chaffey were two engineers who came to
California from Eastern Canada around 1880. First
they brought electricity and irrigation to Los
Angeles. Then they went to Australia and built the
city of Mildura.
George came back to California and irrigated the
Imperial Valley while William finished the work in
Mildura. If any name is part of this impulse to
build great public works, it's theirs.
Interior secretary Harold Ickes ran the old PWA,
and he ran it well. They called him "Honest Harold"
for his trouble. Yet I do not scoff at my father's
concern. Too much government spending has been
managed by lesser folk than Harold Ickes.
But for a season, the government got into the
business of making jobs and building America. Now,
as I read this astonishing 54-year-old book, I see
they did a far better job of it than I'd realized.
A lifetime later, these are the structures -- both
great and small -- that still define the America we
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Short, C.W., and Stanley-Brown, R., Public
Buildings: A Survey of Architecture of Projects
Constructed by Federal and Other Governmental Bodies
Between the Years 1933 and 1939 with the Assistance
of the Public Works Administration.
Washington, DC: United States Government Printing
Office, 1939. (I'm grateful to UH Art and
Architecture Librarian Margaret Culbertson for
drawing my attention to this rich source and making
it available to me.)
Carroll, B., The Engineers: 200 years at Work
for Australia. Barton, Australia: The
Institution of Engineers, Australia, 1988, pp.
83-86. (For more on the Chaffey brothers see
Engines Episode 594.)
You'll find many snippets of PWA (or the WPA which
followed it) art, literature, and architecture on
the web. For example, the following website gives a
fine account of WPA art:
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
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