Built by the New Deal

Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

With the nation mired in the grim depths of the Great Depression, industrial Pennsylvania was far from being immune to the financial instability with the closing of 5,000 manufacturing firms and the loss of 270,000 factory jobs by 1933. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched his New Deal, a series of innovative programs targeted to giving work to the unemployed, stabilizing a downward spiraling economy, and bolstering the employment opportunities that had survived the financial maelstrom. Pennsylvania – and Pennsylvanians – played a pivotal role in the unfolding drama.

Roosevelt need not have looked any further than Pennsylvania for a partner. He had a supporter and ally in Governor George H. Earle III, an ardent admirer who contributed greatly to the president’s election. Earle went so far as to construct his own ambitious plan of attack, which earned his programs the moniker “Pennsylvania’s ‘Little New Deal'”.

Of the lasting, more permanent projects of the New Deal in Pennsylvania are hundreds of monumental public buildings – armories, industrial schools, prisons, college dormitories, hospitals, and specialized treatment centers – which gave work to architects, as well as thousands of laborers and tradespeople, including masons, carpenters, pipe fitters, welders, plasterers, electricians, plumbers, roofers, and window glazers.

In 1935, Earle personally appealed to FDR for help. The governor received an offer from the federal government for a grant of 45 percent of sixty-five million dollars if the Commonwealth could furnish the balance, which would be loaned, if necessary, by the Public Works Administration (PWA). Created by the National Recovery Act on June 16, 1933, and headed by Secretary of the Interior Harold L. Ickes (1874-1952), who was born in Altoona, Blair County, the PWA enabled 3.3 billion dollars to be spent on the construction of public works to provide employment, stabilize purchasing power, improve public welfare, and contribute to the revival of American industry. The concept behind the program was based on a “trickle down theory”: in addition to providing labor opportunities, the PWA provided funding for large-scale building projects that would stimulate a number of industries that produced the necessary materials, providing work in manufacturing, as well as in construction. More than any other New Deal initiative, the PWA epitomized FDR’s notion of “priming the pump” to encourage economic growth. Between July 1933 and March 1939, the program funded the construction of more than thirty-four thousand projects throughout the country, including airports, electricity-generating dams, and 70 percent of new school buildings and one-third of hospitals built during the six-year period. It funded construction of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, touted as “America’s First Superhighway,” and the electrification of the Pennsylvania Railroad between New York and Washington, D.C. The PWA also financed the reconstruction of Pennsbury Manor, William Penn’s country house overlooking the Delaware River, in Bucks County, and restoration efforts at Old Economy Village in Ambridge, Beaver County, both administered by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) as popular attractions along the Pennsylvania Trails of History™.

Pennsylvania’s New Deal funding was to be channeled through the General State Authority (GSA), a public corporation signed into existence by Governor Earle on June 28, 1935. By September 3, the GSA was formally organized and Earle elected president of its governing board. Despite its auspicious beginnings and swift organization, the GSA appeared doomed as the State Supreme Court determined, on January 3, 1936, in Kelley v. Earle, that the General State Authority Act of 1935 violated the state constitution and declared it unconstitutional.

On January 20, 1937, Governor Earle requested a rehearing, which the Supreme Court granted and heard nine days later. On February 4, the court reversed its earlier ruling and declared the act valid. Just twenty days later, the GSA reorganized and the governor appointed Colonel Augustine S. Janeway (1885-1970), of Phoenixville, Chester County, as its first executive director. The fifty-two-year-old Janeway was well suited for the task of overseeing the authority’s multimillion-dollar budget.

After attending the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland, Janeway spent thirty years in the Pennsylvania National Guard. In 1906, he had enlisted in the 3rd Infantry Regiment and became an expert marksman and, after transferring to Troop A Cavalry, added horsemanship to his accomplishments. During the Mexican Border Campaign of 1916, he served as aide-de-camp to Major General Charles M. Clements, commander of the Guard’s 7th Division. He served in a number of high-ranking positions during World War I, after which he was appointed assistant chief of staff of the 28th Infantry Division. On January 20, 1935, Governor Earle appointed him deputy adjutant general. In the aftermath of the March 1936 flooding of Pennsylvania-which killed 84 people and destroyed or damaged 82,000 buildings, further weakening the Commonwealth’s economy – he was named chairman of the Governor’s Emergency Flood Committee. In June of the following year, the governor named him military commander of Cambria County after labor disputes in Johnstown prompted the proclamation of marshal law. Colonel Janeway’s official reports are punctuated with expressions belying his military experience. “The General State Authority is not an agency of the State,” he wrote. “New trails had to be blazed; and foreign fields to be reconnoitered and explored.”

In a report of GSA activities undertaken between the authority’s creation and the end of 1938, Janeway minced no words about the problems caused by the court’s first decision. “The Act first was declared unconstitutional by the State Supreme Court,” he wrote, “and thereby Pennsylvania lost the opportunity to participate in the 45% Federal grant program of 1935-36; but, following a petition by the Governor, the court granted a re-hearing.” Janeway also contended, “the constitutional attack on the General State Authority Act of June 1935, the invalidation of that legislation by the State Supreme Court, its moribund condition until the ultimate reversal by the Court in February 1937 of its original opinion, resulted in a disastrous delay.

“Much water had passed under the bridge in the two years that had elapsed between the original PWA offer and the final seal of validity placed on the General State Authority Act by Pennsylvania’s highest court; PWA was getting ready to close its books and the moneys for its original offer of a grant of $29,250,000 had been allocated to other states and public works.” Nevertheless, in 1937, the PWA “offered a grant in an amount of wages paid to workers on projects who would be certified for relief and referred for such work by the U.S. Employment Service, plus an additional amount equal to 1/3 of the amount so paid by PWA; the total not to exceed $20,000,000; and also to buy bonds in an amount which together with the grant would enable the Authority to undertake a $65,000,000 program.”

The magnitude of the GSA’s building program during its initial years is nothing less than staggering. Architects drafted more than 65,000 renderings, secretaries cut and checked thousands of stencils for building specifications and contract documents, clerks mimeographed more than 1,275,000 informational sheets, and assistants prepared more than 250 linear miles of blueprints measuring three feet in width. Early staff members included James P. Rossiter, chief counsel, Democratic mayor of Erie from 1932 to 1936; James B. Kelly, assistant executive director, who had been employed by large construction companies, including Pittsburgh’s Mellon-Stuart Company, one of the country’s oldest building firms; and A. Judson Warlow, engineer, former construction engineer for the Pennsylvania Department of Property and Supplies. Lloyd C. Adley, formerly chief engineer for the Public Works Administration in Pennsylvania, succeeded Warlow. At first headquartered “with but little more than desk room” in the State Capitol, the GSA grew to a staff of nineteen within six weeks and to thirty by the end of another three months in Harrisburg. The dramatic growth required its offices to relocate to a building on North Second Street, in the shadow of the Capitol, and take over space in a building at Third and Boas Streets that had been vacated by the PWA. Within its first two years, GSA’s personnel burgeoned to a staff of two hundred in the Harrisburg offices and more than three hundred in the field, at eighty construction project sites throughout the Commonwealth.

Project management demanded establishing professional standards and required the crafting of precise contract language and highly technical specifications. Because estimates were difficult to forecast, architects were instructed to meet with the superintendent and board of trustees of the institution or agency for which a building or project was being undertaken. This included institutions such as Shippensburg State Teachers College, Cumberland County, the Pennsylvania State Oral School for the Deaf, Scranton, Lackawanna County, and the Wernersville State Hospital in Berks County. The GSA also required architects to confer with heads of state agencies under whose purview the various institutions fell, including the Departments of Welfare, Public Instruction, and Health.

GSA leaders worked diligently to protect the Commonwealth’s interest while treating contractors and laborers fairly. They incorporated minimum wage scales in contracts “so that contractors who treat labor equitably would not be handicapped by ‘cut-throat’ competitive wage scales that would give ‘chiseling’ contractors an unfair advantage.” Before adopting the rate schedule, the GSA submitted it to the State Advisory Board of the Construction Trades Union for approval. Because of a shortage of skilled mechanics in several districts, contractors hired men from outside their districts and paid them the prevailing wages in their home areas. The GSA “endeavored to secure, with the cooperation of the local business agents, the maximum of active relief cases, thus reducing the relief rolls as much as possible.” Following a rigorous procedure of review and revision, and conferences and consultation, GSA officials submitted project documents to the PWA for the federal government’s approval.

“The chief difficulties in a public building program,” Janeway explained, “are to insure that the buildings are erected according to the plans and specifications, and to see that the contractors, sub-contractors, and materials men are treated fairly. Unless the inspectors are thoroughly familiar with technical phases of construction it is impossible to achieve these objectives.” Philip J. Hickey, a former superintendent and district manager for the Thompson-Starrett Company-described by Time as a “stupendous builder” responsible for erecting huge, million-dollar office buildings and hotels as early as the opening of the twentieth century-headed the authority’s inspection bureau. He quickly established stringent standards and qualifications for resident inspectors. Hickey “was instructed to permit no political considerations at any time to influence him in his selection of the field personnel.” He disqualified a number of applicants lacking “proper experience on the type of building to be constructed.” Both Janeway and Hickey repeatedly emphasized “the cardinal rule of absolute integrity” not only with GSA personnel, but “with all firms and individuals having business relations with the Authority.”

The authority initially awarded contracts to 437 principal firms. An additional 1,237 subcontractors increased the number of relief workers in the thousands. Among the general contractors engaged by the GSA were the Berwick Lumber and Supply Company, Berwick; William S. Miller Company, Pittsburgh; Ritter Brothers, Harrisburg; McCloskey and Company, Philadelphia; Nanticoke Construction Company, Nanticoke; Carstensen, Inc., Johnstown; Sordoni Construction Company, Forty Fort; Jacob Gehron Company, Williamsport; Emory L. Miller and Son, Shamokin; A. R. Warner and Sons, Waynesboro; Anundson and Petersen Company, Sheffield; Matthew Leivo and Sons, New Castle; F.C. Kuick Company, Mahanoy City; M.A. Long Company, Allentown; and R.S. Noonan, York.

The list of architects and engineers of record is equally long – and impressive – and included Lovelace and Spillman, Bethlehem (Allentown State Hospital), George W. Brugger, Canonsburg (Canonsburg Armory), Harry Maurer, Reading (Kutztown State Teachers College), Thomas H. Atherton, Wilkes-Barre (Nanticoke State Hospital), George I. Lovatt, Philadelphia (Pennhurst State School), Charles M. Stotz, Pittsburgh (Old Economy Village), Philip G. Knobloch, Pottsville (Shamokin State Hospital), R. Brognard Okie, Philadelphia (Pennsbury Manor), J. W. Minick, Harrisburg (Shippensburg State Teachers College), Peter B. Sheridan, Hazleton (Hazleton State Hospital), and R.J. Brocker, Greensburg (Ligonier Armory).

And of the projects completed?

Much of the relief work centered on revamping existing buildings or updating mechanical and electrical systems. Nonetheless, the GSA did oversee an ambitious building program that dramatically changed the appearance and character of state-administered institutions. In just a half-dozen years, the program altered the landscape of Pennsylvania forever. “It was our policy,” Janeway noted, “to erect buildings of simple and durable design, of low-cost construction and upkeep, and to harmonize them with the type of architecture that characterized the companion units with which these new structures were to be grouped.” Throughout Pennsylvania, the GSA erected hundreds of buildings and structures on college campuses, at military installations, and on the grounds of hospitals, penal institutions, and industrial schools. New buildings arose at a feverish pace.

Architectural historians have been stymied in attempting to properly classify the architectural style resulting from New Deal programs, particularly the Public Works Administration. They initially labeled the style as international, art deco, twentieth-century modernism or, simply, moderne. Some even favored the phrase “monumental government public architecture.” Today, however, more than a few have begun classifying the style – readily identified by its low and horizontal chunkiness, severe detailing, flat surfaces, and cubic features – as “PWA Modern” to pay homage to the generous spirit and heroic optimism of the New Deal and its three Rs: Relief, Recovery, and Reform.

The most outstanding example of PWA Modern is the Commonwealth’s Finance Building of Harrisburg’s Capitol Complex, originally erected to house the offices and staffs of the state treasurer, the auditor general, and the revenue department. Located just northeast of architect Joseph M. Huston’s 1906 magnificent State Capitol, the Finance Building reflects the vision and abilities of stalwart Pennsylvanians in the face of adversity. “Erected during the Great Depression, the building is the cumulative creation of skilled architects, sculptors, artists and craftsmen as well as a hardy corps of able laborers. The finished product is an unusual combination of fine art and diligent workmanship, aesthetics and function,” wrote former PHMC historian Paul E. Doutrich on the building’s fiftieth anniversary in 1989.

Doutrich further contended that upon its completion in 1939, the Finance Building was “hailed as one of the finest recent structures built in the country.” State Art Commission Chairman J. Horace McFarland (1859-1948), who had been recognized for his attempts at beautifying and improving the nation’s cities, claimed, “It is our opinion that (in terms of art and sculpture) nothing finer in quality and character has been achieved in America.”

Prominent New York City architects William Gehron and Sidney F. Ross, who had designed the Education Building, developed plans for the Finance Building. For their project, they recruited noted sculptors Lee Lawrie (1877-1963), Carl Paul Jennewein (1890-1978), and Carl Milles (1875-1955), artists Eugene F. Savage (1883-1978) and Vincent Maragliotti (1888-1978), and philosopher H.B. Alexander (1873-1939), a professor at California’s Scripps College. Born in Williamsport, Lycoming County, Gehron received his bachelor’s degree in 1912 from Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh and practiced in both Manhattan and Williamsport. He designed a number of public buildings, including libraries, college dormitories and halls, office buildings, schools, and hospitals, in addition to private residences. He and Ross were partners in a practice for several years, beginning in 1925.

Lawrie, whose work on the Education Building had received much acclaim, proposed an enormous sculpture to “convey the Idea of Birth, or the creation, of a State – (Pennsylvania) – into being: from its early, mild uncultivated life to present, cultivated, industrious, and progressive State and finally, the Light to illuminate the path of the Future.” Serving as the backdrop for a plaza on the building’s north façade, his huge, three-panel bas-relief includes representations of the four seasons, wild and domestic animals, plant life, Native Americans, natural resources, and industries such as agriculture, lumbering, and manufacturing. The center panel, the dominant of the three, is emblazoned with components of the Commonwealth’s seal, including a ship, plough, sheaves of wheat, eagle, and two large rampant horses, and the Keystone State’s motto, “Virtue, Liberty, and Independence.”

Gehron commissioned Swedish sculptor Carl Milles, whom he had met in 1930, to design six sets of double doors for the building’s north and south entrances. Within months, Milles produced twelve massive bronze doors, each featuring four sculptural panels, which reflect two dominant themes: a celebration of Pennsylvania’s agricultural heritage and its industrial might. The building’s frieze, created by Carl Paul Jennewein, who had designed the striking polychromed terracotta figures in the pediment of the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s north wing, contains a series of medallions and maxims that pay tribute to the Commonwealth’s economic vitality and recognizes forty-eight incorporated cities. Oil City is represented by a depiction of an early oil refinery, Pittsburgh by Fort Pitt, and Erie by the U.S. Brig Niagara. Jennewein worked closely with H.B. Alexander, whose philosophical precepts were incorporated in the frieze as axioms to describe the services offered by the Commonwealth: ALL PUBLIC SERVICE IS A TRUST GIVEN IN FAITH AND ACCEPTED IN HONOUR and IMPARTIALITY IS THE LIFE OF JUSTICE AS THAT IS OF GOVERNMENT.

Gehron also lavished much attention and detail to interior public spaces. He engaged Eugene F. Savage and Vincent Maragliotti to execute murals for the spacious vestibules on the main floor. On the ceiling of the vestibule on the building’s north side, Savage-whose iconic Hawaii-themed menu covers for the Matson Navigation Company’s cruise ships are highly prized today by collectors-painted elaborate images largely depicting pastimes, sports, and recreational activities enjoyed by Pennsylvanians, among them fox hunting, tennis, polo, golf, basketball, and track. He decorated the south vestibule’s ceiling with an allegorical portrayal of tax collection. These anterooms flank an elevator lobby whose ceiling Maragliotti – best known for his murals in famous New York hotels, such as the Park Lane, the Lexington, the Waldorf-Astoria, and the Sherry-Netherland – painted with colorful vignettes of occupations and professions. He adorned the elevator doors with bold reliefs of large ancient and modern coins, a fitting nod to the Commonwealth’s financial agencies which the building houses. In addition to the stunning murals, the public areas are outfitted with elegantly frosted sconces in decorative bronze mounts, elaborate door handles and escutcheons, attractive grillwork, and handsome torcheres.

Beginning in mid-1937, laborers and artisans toiled for two years on the six-story Finance Building. An army of workers, similar to those organized by the Civilian Conservation Corps lived in temporary barracks just south of the construction site. They represented but a fraction of the nearly one million unemployed Pennsylvanians-more than 20 percent of the workforce-who lost their jobs in the aftermath of the Great Depression. They included unskilled laborers and accomplished craftsmen who, although paid only minimum wages and limited to thirty hours of work each week, were appreciative of the opportunity to earn a modest livelihood. They completed the construction of the majestic building in 1939.

In addition to its distinctive decorations, the building contains advanced technological features that distinguished it at the time of its opening. It was one of the first state office buildings installed with air conditioning, and its unusual revolving entrance doors earned accolades from an architectural magazine. However, one of its most important components is one the public rarely-if ever-sees: an impregnable vault in which hundreds of millions of dollars in financial instruments, securities, bonds, and cash are safeguarded. Even the doors to the vault room are decorative.

Today, few may realize the significance of Pennsylvania’s early twentieth-century architectural treasures borne of the New Deal. No matter where one travels in the Keystone State, however, these landmarks stand as testimony to the hope and dreams and vision of men and women who valiantly fought the strangling grip of the Great Depression. Their work endowed Pennsylvania with facilities to educate generations of college students, treat the mentally ill, and equip youth with industrial skills. As significant as these buildings and structures are as architectural examples, they pale in the shadow of what they gave-and continue to give-residents of the Keystone State.


Bryan Van Sweden on New Deal Architecture

The programs of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal represented unprecedented public investment during the 1930s, funding the construction of dozens of new buildings and structures throughout Pennsylvania,” says Bryan D. Van Sweden, historic preservation specialist for PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation. “The architecture of this period is significant, in part because its consistent and distinctive approach to design resulted from comprehensive public planning and policy goals, but also because these buildings were among the only ones erected in many communities during the Great Depression.”

Van Sweden explains that the preservation of New Deal projects is critical to understanding the period in which they were undertaken. “Preserving these public buildings and adapting them for continuing use helps us pass on the story of the New Deal era as a time when Americans pulled together and worked hard to meet the challenges the nation faced. President Roosevelt’s ambitious economic relief and recovery measures have given us a number of tangible-and historic-examples that are worthy of preservation. Some buildings can be considered public works of art.”

According to Van Sweden, many of the PWA Modern-style public buildings in the Keystone State are stylized versions of classical architecture, distinguished by flatter surfaces, with simplified lines and detailing, and markedly different from the elaborate reproductions of Renaissance and Classical styles employed for public buildings and monuments in the 1910s and 1920s. The bas-relief panels of the New Deal are also typical of the decade, reflecting American life, history, labor, industry, progress, and government, using iconic images, figures, and vignettes. Many portray individuals and events in history with heroic intensity.

From November 22, 2008, through May 17, 2009, The State Museum of Pennsylvania will exhibit “A Common Canvas: Pennsylvania’s New Deal Post Office Murals.” On Thursday, December 4, PHMC will host a public history symposium entitled “Pennsylvania’s New Deal Legacy” at The State Museum. Keynote speaker is Christopher N. Breiseth, president and CEO of the Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt Institute, Hyde Park, New York. The event will also include an illustrated presentation on the Commonwealth’s New Deal resources.


For Further Reading

Cutler, Phoebe. The Public Landscape of the New Deal. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985.

Doutrich, Paul E. Fifty Years: The Finance Building, 1939-1989. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Department of General services, 1989.

Federal Writers’ Project. The Education Building. Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Department of Public Instruction, 1939.

Kostof, Spiro. America by Design. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Leuchtenburg, William E. Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1963.

Paterson, James T. The New Deal and the States. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1969.


The author thanks colleagues Ted R. Walke, Kenneth C. Wolensky, Willis L. Shirk, and Cynthia Margolis for their assistance during the research and image acquisition for this article.

The editor and art director thank Rhett Brennan of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board for granting access to the Northwest Office Building and for providing historical information about the building.


Michael J. O’Malley III has served as editor of Pennsylvania Heritage since 1984.