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Published: Saturday, 11/1/2008

Artists, craftsmen found beauty


On the wings of depression s ill wind, a great deal of new beauty soon will blow into public buildings of Toledo, wrote Virginia Nelson, a reporter for the Toledo News Bee.

It was 1934, and Nelson waxed poetic about a fresh batch of art created by 25 local men and a few women: murals, etchings, portraits, and even a dozen meticulously crafted, breadbox-sized vehicles (a Viking ship, the Mayflower, a covered wagon now stored at the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library and in need of restoration).

All would be exhibited in the Toledo Museum of Art, where many of them were created, then installed in their permanent location.

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Roosevelt launched a massive bailout of the American workforce the Works Progress Administration to get people off relief.

In northwest Ohio, thousands found employment with the WPA and related programs; building roads, bridges, and buildings, sewing clothes for the sick and the poor, and doing hundreds of other jobs that kept a roof over their heads and food on the table.

Perhaps nowhere is their creativitiy more evident and better preserved than at the Toledo Zoo where in the mid-1930s hundreds of craftsmen fashioned recycled stone, brick, tile, and timber into beautiful buildings: the band shell, the reptile house, aquarium, aviary, and natural history museum. For bears, they built a barless pit in a ravine; for seals, a pool, and under the Anthony Wayne Trail (then called Canal Boulevard) a pedestrian walkway many Toledoans will remember fondly. Paid zoo admissions quickly doubled. Without the WPA workers skilled efforts, the Toledo Zoo might not be the delightful regional attraction it is today.

Another architectural gem is the Main Branch of the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library on North Michigan Street, opened in 1940.

Among the WPA s many projects at the University of Toledo (football stadium, rebinding 30,000 books and magazines, athletic facilities, landscaping) was a carefully researched 60-foot mural depicting area history that was installed in UT s library.

The performing arts got a bounce when workers constructed an outdoor amphitheater in a beautiful setting; it is still in use at Ottawa Park.

Just north of downtown, the 1936 Naval Armory in Bay View Park was a magnificent facility that was home to the Naval Reserves and Marines as well as a classy events center. It was graced with three murals depicting the Battle of Lake Erie by Paul Breisach of Maumee with assistance from Toledo Museum of Art curator J. Arthur MacLean.

Though not the bulk of the WPA s vast expenditures, white collar WPA programs were developed for artists, musicians, actors, scribes, photographers, and filmmakers. Hell! They ve got to eat just like other people, said Harry Hopkins, who oversaw the WPA.

Similar to a grant application process, artists suggested projects which were vetted by a committee, said Michael Lora, manager and curator of rare books in the Main library s local history department.

Still displayed on a back wall of Lora s third-floor department is a large pictorial map painted in 1934 by Harvey Aldrich. The library also owns a charming set of 10 paintings on paper board illustrating the 1823 poem, The Night Before Christmas. Librarians borrowed the set and read the poem to children, holding up each of Helmut Thoms pictures. Seventy years later, librarians still read the poem but instead use a copy of Thoms originals.

A team of artists researched jungle flora and fauna, made sketches, then painted large, lush backdrops for the reptile exhibits. A sculptor constructed prehistoric animals and jungle figures, and a taxidermist stuffed and mounted Ohio s native birds for zoo display and school tours.

Out-of-work actors and stagehands found jobs with the WPA drama project.

They were paid $85 to $105 a month to rehearse five days a week and mount productions. An early comedy, A Full House, opened in Toledo and then toured the county. A traveling puppet show was created by artist Fritz Boehmer.

Their first months were stormy and discouraging. Politics and personalities tossed the craft on a sea of troubles and at times seemed certain to beach her. But the Federal Theater is a solid reality today, wrote Allen Saunders, a Toledo News Bee columnist, in 1936. And what of the Federal Theater in Toledo? Well, I m inclined strongly to believe that most of us have remained too apathetic toward it.

All kinds of niche work got done, such as a historical index of Ohio art by a group of 10.

And in the chill of December, 1935, 90 unemployed musicians showed up to audition for a concert group, a white dance orchestra, and a Negro dance orchestra. Musicians supplied their own instruments and were paid to practice four hours a day and to perform frequently.

The Writers Project hired scribes to sort through 100 years worth of paper and materials stored in the sub-basement of the Lucas County Courthouse. That effort was designed to permit cities, counties, and states to set their houses in order, it s hoped-for object being to unearth new light on an Americana so vast that no one, privately financed, has ever been able to touch it.

Eventually, the WPA s arts programs led to the creation of the National Foundation for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com

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