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NOLA History: The New Deal in New Orleans

Many of the New Deal’s contributions to the New Orleans landscape remain hidden in plain sight, but for those who know where to look, its rich legacy is all around.

lakefront airport
The Lakefront Airport. (Photo: Rebecca Ratliff)

One of the many layers making up New Orleans’ built environment is a legacy of the New Deal. A response to the Great Depression, the New Deal is an umbrella term for the slew of federally funded agencies and programs initiated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt between 1933 and 1943 to put Americans back to work and help revive a stagnant economy.

In fewer than 10 years, the WPA put 8.5 million Americans back to work. New Orleans projects ranged from Bayou St. John beautification to improvements to the historic Cabildo in Jackson square.

Fountain of the Four Winds at Lakefront Airport. (Photo via Laura Downey on Flickr)

Across the nation, New Deal programs took the form of public works projects. The largest of the New Deal agencies was the Works Progress Administration (WPA) though there were dozens of other lesser known ones. The WPA itself existed for less than a decade, but it succeeded in putting 8.5 million Americans back to work through infrastructure, arts, and historic preservation projects. In New Orleans, projects ranged from the construction of new bridges, to Bayou St. John clean-up and beautification, improvements to the historic Cabildo building in Jackson Square, and artwork commissions.

Many of the New Deal’s contributions to the New Orleans landscape remain hidden in plain sight, but for those who know where to look, its rich legacy is all around. Below is a list of local New Deal-era projects that have more or less survived to the present day and that are easily accessible.

City Park Botanical Garden. (Photo courtesy of New Orleans City Park)

CITY PArk

New Orleans City Park existed three quarters of a century before federal dollars from the New Deal flowed in. However, the park owes much of its character and development to the work done by the Works Progress Administration in particular. Many of the bridges dotted throughout the park were built as part of this program and feature bas-relief sculptural elements (a bas-relief is a sculptural protrusion from a background like a building façade). The park’s botanical garden, designed in the Art Deco style of the period, was also funded by the WPA and features three notable talents from the time period: architect Richard Koch, landscape architect William Wiedorn, and sculptor Enrique Alférez (Alférez, who lived in New Orleans from 1929 until his death in 1999, contributed many works to New Orleans through New Deal programs). The New Orleans Botanical Garden is, in fact, one of the few remaining examples of the WPA’s public garden design. 1 Palm Drive.

Charity hospital during its construction phase. (Image courtesy of Louisiana Division/City Archives, New Orleans Public Library)

Charity Hospital

Charity Hospital received its name from the function it served in the community as the provider of medical care to those who could not afford it. Originally constructed in 1736, by the early 1930s the hospital was in an extreme state of disrepair and very overcrowded. Ultimately, after a long battle, the state and the federal government through the Public Works Administration, another New Deal program, funded and built a replacement hospital. “Big Charity,” as the locals called it, was an Art Deco marvel constructed in the mid to late 1930s. Its main entrance features a metal relief designed by sculptor Enrique Alférez entitled “Louisiana At Work and Play.” Charity Hospital has been shuttered since Hurricane Katrina, but the structure itself still stands. 1544-1590 Tulane Avenue.

The WPA-era mural inside Swan River Yoga. (Photo via Facebook)

Canal Street Library Mural

The old Canal Street library, now operating as Swan River Yoga, holds an impressive remnant from the New Deal era. A colorful, fifty-foot mural by native New Orleanian Edward Schoenberger, entitled “History of Printing,” portrays the evolution of printmaking throughout human history. Reminiscent of Diego Rivera’s style, it depicts people hard at work: Chinese calligraphers, Egyptians creating papyrus, and pressman feeding newsprint into a printing press. The mural was the result of a commission initiated by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), a program which ultimately funded the work of many artists, architects, and craftspeople. It had actually been covered up and was in a state disrepair by the time the building changed hands in 2008 to open a yoga studio. Visitors to Swan River Yoga can now view the carefully restored mural located on the second floor. 2940 Canal Street.

F. Edward Hebert Federal Building

Built between 1935 and 1939, the F. Edward Hebert Federal Building originally housed the city’s main post office. Located off Lafayette Square in the Central Business District, its style is typical of the austere and imposing government building style that followed the Art Deco period. The building was funded by the Treasury Department and the Treasury Section of Fine Arts, two other New Deal-era agencies. The design is notable for its bas-relief sculptures, including “Flood Control” by Karl Lang located on the front façade of the structure. The Treasury Section of Fine Arts, created in 1934, was an agency specifically designated to provide artistic embellishment to federal buildings. By the end of the program, 1,047 murals and 268 sculptures had been commissioned across the country specifically for this purpose. 600 S. Maestri Street.

The Lakefront Airport. (Photo: Rebecca Ratliff)

Lakefront Airport

Shushan Airport, now called the New Orleans Lakefront Airport, underwent an extensive $250,000 beautification project funded by the Works Progress Administration. Work included landscaping, paving, and the installation of the Fountain of the Four Winds, created by none other than Enrique Alférez. The fountain, which represents the nation’s recovery from the Great Depression, features four nude sculptures– three women and one man. Unfortunately, the work at Shushan Airport was so marred by an embezzlement scandal of WPA funds that the name of the airport was changed after its namesake was indicted. 6001 Stars & Stripes Boulevard.

New Orleans Fire Department Station Number 2

The Works Progress Administration also contributed several fire stations to the New Orleans landscape. New Orleans Fire Department Station Number 2 was built from 1939-1940 in the Lakeview neighborhood. A modest structure, the fire station survived Hurricane Katrina and is the only one out of three built by the WPA still used as a fire station (New Orleans Fire Engine Company Number 18). 773 Harrison Avenue.

Emily Ramírez Hernández is the child of New Orleans natives whose families have been in the city for generations. Emily's earliest memories of New Orleans include joyful car rides over bumpy streets, eating dripping roast beef po-boys at Domilise's, and catching bouncy balls during Mardi Gras parades with cousins. An urban planner by day and freelance writer by night, when she is off the clock she enjoys biking around town, belly dancing, and catching nerdlesque shows.

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