Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


New Deal agencies during the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt reshaped the public landscape of the Great Plains. From 1933 to 1942 the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Public Works Administration (PWA), the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), and the Works Progress (later Work Projects) Administration (WPA) placed a federal facade on the region's public architecture.

Architectural historians identify two primary substyles associated with New Deal architecture: Government Rustic, which is associated with many parks projects of the CCC and the National Park Service during these decades, and PWA or WPA Modern, with the designation depending on the sponsoring agency.

Government Rustic grew out of park designs based on the natural resources and landscape of the mountain West and the Adirondacks of New York. At first glance, the exposed log beams and rough stonework characteristic of the style have little association with the rolling prairies of the Great Plains, but once the National Park Service in 1938 published its architectural guides, Park and Recreation Structures and Park Structures and Facilities, Government Rustic became codified as the only proper park architecture. Government Rustic style reflected a close relationship to nature not only in the materials used in the buildings but also in how the structures seemingly rose from the ground themselves, linking the style to the design ideas and assumptions of master Prairie school architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The stone and log interpretive pavilion at the Double Ditch Village State Historic Site near Bismarck, North Dakota, is similar in its material and construction to many other Government Rustic structures found in the region's state and federal parks.

County courthouses located throughout the Plains document the popularity of pwa or wpa Modern style. In Casper, Wyoming, the Natrona County Courthouse, designed by Karl Krusmark and Leon Goodrich, imaginatively ties together the past and present by using frontier images and quotations on the building's modern-styled facade. The Sheridan County Courthouse in Plentywood, Montana, is much more restrained in its modern styling, reflecting both the isolated location of the county seat and the county's limited financial means. The New Deal–sponsored courthouses symbolized more than the federal presence; they also reminded depressed residents of the national government's commitment to the region and the residents' ever-deepening dependence on the largesse and policies of the federal government. In this way the courthouses symbolically confronted the muchprized independence of westerners because their commanding presence within the local townscape ironically spoke more of dependence than independence.

There was more to the New Deal landscape of the Plains than new public parks and courthouses. Post offices, city halls, and community halls were constructed in many smaller towns; most of these buildings still serve their original purpose. Schools were priority projects for many state FERA agencies; in North Dakota, for example, FERA built 8 schools and renovated 1,604 others. The PWA and WPA built hundreds of other schools, often in popular revival styles. The PWA-sponsored Holmes School in Lincoln, Nebraska, was in a restrained Colonial Revival style, while the PWA school in Fort Scott, Kansas, was a full statement of Colonial Revival design, complete with finials, cupola, and Palladian windows. The WPA school in Kadoka, South Dakota, reflects a Pueblo Revival design quite out of place in its Black Hills setting. The popularity of the revival styles also was evident in the many new classrooms, libraries, stadiums, and auditoriums constructed on college and university campuses. Besides the new education buildings, the addition of libraries and community buildings such as the Art Deco. styled Sonotorium (an outdoor theater) in Kearney, Nebraska, and the new Art Museum in Wichita, Kansas, enriched town life.

New Deal agencies also transformed much of the infrastructure of Plains agriculture, industry, transportation, and urban services. In Montana's lower Yellowstone River valley, CCC work crews improved and expanded existing irrigation projects of the U.S. Reclamation Service. Modern bridges, new highways, airports, sidewalks, and sewage treatment plants improved urban living. Dam and powerhouse construction on rivers such as the Colorado, Missouri, and North Platte improved urban water supplies, provided more water for irrigation, and created new sources for electricity. At some projects, modernity and tradition existed side by side. The dam and town site at Fort Peck, Montana, contained a Swiss chalet– like theater, which is strangely out of place on the flat, treeless prairie of eastern Montana and stands in sharp contrast to the modern concrete and steel spillway of the dam.

Efforts at historic preservation and land conservation, often in association with park development, were widespread. At the Chateau de Mores, a historic house museum in Medora, North Dakota, WPA-funded employees, working together with state historical society officials, cataloged artifacts, furnished the house, and developed its first interpretive tours. Land reclamation efforts led by the ccc created most of the region's initial wildlife reserves and migratory refuges, expanded existing shelterbelts while creating many new ones, and planted trees in reforestation and town beautification schemes.

The impact of New Deal agencies in the Great Plains landscape was immense and long-lasting. The most architecturally imposing public buildings in many of the region's towns date to that era, while the reordered landscapes represented by dam reservoirs, new parks, and urban infrastructure shape everyday perceptions and experiences.


Carroll Van West Middle Tennessee State University

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

Short, C. W., and R. Stanley-Brown. Public Buildings: Architecture under the Public Works Administration, 1933 to 1939. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 1939.

West, Carroll Van. "'The Best Kind of Building': The New Deal Landscape of the Northern Plains, 1933-1942." Great Plains Quarterly 14 (1994): 129-41.

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