Saturday, January 18, 2014

Whitman, Work & Democracy: Ben Shahn's Bronx Post Office Murals

The Central Annex Post Office is the main post office in the Bronx, located on the corner of East 149th Street and the Grand Concourse.  Its rear end is pictured in the photograph immediately below, the swath of trees in front of it marking the railway cut of Metro-North's Harlem Line, which originates from Grand Central Station.

Built between 1935 and 1937, the Central Annex was designed by Thomas Harlan Ellett, in a style typifying the conservative modernism of so many New Deal government buildings of its decade.   A simple, cubic block, punctuated by tall, elegantly-proportioned, arched windows, this example of governmental classicism was granted landmark status in 1976.

However, that status protected only the exterior form and elements of the building, an oversight which prompted me to photograph its main interior early this past summer.   I worried that the building might soon be sold, and its private buyer would likely gut the interior.   The main subject of this blog post will be these interior photographs--but more about them after we look quickly at the Annex's main façade. 

Central Annex Post Office, Bronx, NY, Thomas H. Ellett, 1935-37, rear view from East 149th Street

Central Annex Post Office, Bronx, NY, Front, Noah, sculpture by Charles Rudy, 1938

Central Annex Post Office, Bronx, NY, Front, The Letter, sculpture by Henry Kreis, 1938

The bottom two photos (above) show the Central Annex's front; it faces the Grand Concourse and offers a welcoming transition with its broad steps, its balustrade decorated with swags and rosettes, and its two, high-relief sculptures flanking the entrance.  These sculptures were selected from 400 models submitted in a 1936 national competition.  Henry Kreis' The Letterseen immediately above, depicts a woman reading a letter as she embraces her child. Charles Rudy's Noah, on the other side of this front entrance, might seem less directly related to a post office site.  Yet, as the Old Testament patriarch straddles his ark and turns to the dove carrying the message that the flood is subsiding, Noah's context becomes clearer: he has received a message, delivered under the most trying of conditions.

Both of these sculptures and their architectural host are the legacy of Roosevelt's New Deal and the Public Works Administration (PWA).  Over 1,100 post offices were built in the 1930s, and, because of the high quality of these PWA commissions, many would later achieve landmark status. As Marlene Park and Gerald Markowitz wrote, New Deal post offices "brought to the locality a symbol of government efficiency, permanence, service, and even culture."

Today, however, much of this great infrastructure is being threatened, as the viability of the United States Post Office has been undermined by the Postal Accountability Enhancement Act (PAEA).  This 2006 Congressional act mandated that the Post Office--and only the Post Office, among all governmental Civil Service agencies--must fully fund retiree health benefits for all its future retirees for 75 years--this will even include people not yet hired by the USPS.

This onerous (and utterly insane) stipulation is unique among private sector or other governmental agencies and businesses in the U.S.   It was voted in on December 9, 2006 in a lame duck, Republican-controlled session of Congress and was conceived with the help of ALEC and funding from the Koch Brothers as part of their blind attempts to privatize everything under the sun.  What a shame that our delinquent members of Congress seem to have had so little understanding of this institution, the Post Office, which dates back to 1775 and the Second Continental Congress.  Jesse Lichtenstein, writing in Esquire, reminds us that the Post Office "binds us together as a country," and then posits the following: 

"Want to send a letter to Talkeetna, Alaska, from New York? It will cost you fifty dollars by UPS...[However, a local, Oregon governmental mail carrier] can do it for less than two quarters: the same as the cost of getting a letter from Gold Hill to Shady Cove, Oregon, twenty miles up the road."

No private mail organization could ever compete with the Post Office, which--by the way--costs the American taxpayer nothing, has always been a self-sustaining enterprise, and "is legally obligated to serve all Americans, regardless of geography, at uniform price and quality."  Simply put, Congress is trying to destroy the United States Post Office through the PAEA. 

This is the insanity that drove me to capture in pictures the interior decoration of the Bronx Central Annex before it was sold to, and possibly destroyed by, a new owner.

Central Annex Post Office, Bronx, NY, Ben Shahn, Resources of America, 1939, mural studies (tempera on fiberboard, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.)

The interior decoration of the Central Annex's main space consists of thirteen panels painted by the Lithuanian born American artist, Ben Shahn (1898-1969), assisted by his second wife, the American painter Bernarda Bryson Shahn.  The picture above shows one of the small, scale studies that Shahn made to indicate placement of each panel within the Annex. These two studies each measure five inches high by forty inches in length and are part of the permanent collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The main reason that Shahn's murals still exist is that they were painted in true fresco technique, brushing egg tempera pigments on top of freshly laid plaster.  In this time-tested process, a chemical reaction takes place as the plaster sets, bonding pigment particles into the plaster and making the painting integral with the wall.

Shahn titled his mural series, Resources of America.  Some later writers have mistakenly called it America At Work, apparently because several other references claim that Shahn's inspiration for the series was a poem by Walt Whitman, I See America Working.  I have found no evidence for such a poem by Whitman.  However, his well-known poem, I Hear America Singing, may well have influenced the artist in some general way.  Moreover, as we shall see below, Shahn gave Walt Whitman a prominent role in Resources of America.

Central Annex Post Office, Bronx, NY, Ben Shahn, Resources of America1939ff, north wall, Walt Whitman

Central Annex Post Office, Bronx, NY, Ben Shahn, Resources of America1939ff, north wall, Walt Whitman

These two photos offer a full shot of all three panels of the north wall and a detail of the central panel. The side panels, pictured in the top photo, show mine workers--on the left, operating a pneumatic drill and, on the right, pushing a railway hand car.  The central panel, seen best in the bottom photo, depicts a bearded man pointing to a blackboard. This man is Walt Whitman, and he appears to be addressing an audience of American workers and youth.  In the background, we can make out a large, spherical structure. 

This central panel, framed by the Ionic pilasters of the post office architecture, provides the meaning of the entire mural seriesWhitman is pointing to his own words on the blackboard.  They read as follows:

"For we support all, fuse all.   After the rest is done and gone we remain.   There is no final reliance but upon us.   Democracy rests finally upon us; (I, my brethren, begin it,)   And our visions sweep through eternity..."

These words turn out to be taken from the final stanza of Whitman's poem, As I Walk, Solitary, Unattended. This version of the poem dates from 1867.  His poem celebrates the ending of the Civil War and it anticipates the growth of American democracy. We, the common man, depicted by Shahn as Whitman's audience of workers and youth, will cultivate that democracy.

Queens, NY, New York World's Fair 1939-40, Perisphere (& Trylon), Harrison & Fouilhoux

Then, seen behind Whitman and his audience is that vast, spherical structure. This, of course, represents the Perisphere, a 200-foot diameter, eighteen-story globe built as the symbolic, central hub of the New York World's Fair of 1939, the year Shahn began painting these murals.  The main exhibit inside the Perisphere was Democracity, the embodiment of a more democratic "community of tomorrow" whose citizens lived in cooperation and harmony.

Envisioned and designed by Henry Dreyfuss,  Democracity was a utopian garden city where both farmer and factory laborer worked as one.  The exhibit presented a show in the Perisphere which lasted for about six minutes and culminated, as the space darkened, in projections on the sky above (actually the soffit of the Perisphere's dome) where citizens from every walk of life converged, in unison, on Democracity.

The meaning of Resources of America, then, lies in the connection that Shahn implies between American workers and a nascent democracy.  He reveals this connection, first, in the foreground of this central panel with its focus on Whitman, and second, in the background where those workers unite to build a better world of tomorrow.  The World of Tomorrow was the theme of the entire New York World's Fair; Democracity was one of its many representations, and both it and Shahn's murals were responses to President Roosevelt's New Deal.

And so, as we will see below in the rest of the panels, Shahn locates the Resources of America in the tools and the working men and women of our country.

Central Annex Post Office, Bronx, NY, Ben Shahn, Resources of America, 1939ff, Grain Harvesting

"Grain Harvesting," illustrated above, is certainly an important American resource. Here we see a machine operator and a reaper in the background, a powerful worker raking grain in the foreground, and above him a diagonal conveyor belt spewing forth the harvested grain. The cylinder which encloses the conveyor belt advertises LEANDER in stenciled letters. At first glance, this must seem fairly curious.  But one must realize that Shahn borrowed some of his imagery from photographs he took between 1933-1938 when he toured the country as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration.

Surely, he saw just such a conveyor belt being used in the service of grain harvesting in the American Midwest.  In fact, LEANDER refers to Leander McCormick, the younger brother of Cyrus and a contributor to that famous American industrial invention, the McCormick Reaper.

And so, not unlike his depiction of Whitman lecturing and enlightening the workers and youth of 19th century America, Shahn saw his Post Office panels as didactic images meant to enlighten residents of the Bronx to forms of labor and processes unfamiliar to them. As he once explained these murals, "my idea was to show the people of the Bronx something about America outside New York."

Central Annex Post Office, Bronx, NY, Ben Shahn, Resources of America1939ff, Hydroelectric Power

A second American resource of this time was most certainly the production of hydroelectric power under the aegis of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).  The TVA was Roosevelt's most innovative New Deal solution to counter the Great Depression, which it accomplished through the application of integrated resource management

Here we see two enormous ceramic insulators in the foreground and the spillway of a large dam angling back into space. The insulators, painted front and center, act as stand-ins for the worker in this, the only panel where workers do not appear.   The dam happens to be the Wilson Dam, completed in 1924 at "Muscle Shoals" on the Tennessee River.  Although it pre-dates the TVA, it would become the first dam under TVA authority and TVA's cornerstone, once the TVA was established by Congress in 1933.  

Central Annex Post Office, Bronx, NY, Ben Shahn, Resources of America1939ff, Steel Manufacturing

Another major American resource, naturally, was steel production. Here Shahn focuses on three aspects of this process: In the foreground, the final product in the form of a large, diagonal trussed steel beam; off to the far right, a factory worker in a steel plant; and in the mid-ground between them, a Bessemer converter.

Central Annex Post Office, Bronx, NY, Ben Shahn, Resources of America1939ff, Textile Industry

This mural celebrates the American Textile industry and may be the most unusual of all the panels, in that Shahn composed the left half through linear perspective to show deep space. In all the other panels, a large foreground figure emphasizes and respects the flatness of the wall.  Here, the textile worker does serve as a counter to that perspective space, since he stands in the foreground and is shown frontally; yet he is not as large in scale as Shahn's other workers. Instead, his size respects the scale of the fairly detailed space receding behind him.

I would guess that this man is working on a carding machine.  To his left, Shahn paints an exterior scene showing what looks like several textile mills, one behind the other, receding on a diagonal. The foreground mill is clearly earlier in size and form than the background one, and I imagine that Shahn is representing generic mills from various locations on the Eastern Seaboard.

As to the textile worker, whose hands seem almost to break through the wall's surface, Shahn renders him as someone totally at ease and in control of his task.  In all of his figures, Shahn conveys the nobility of the worker and the dignity of work by means of size and gesture.  This was a decade, after all, when American workers, especially in the textile industry, complained of being "treated like slaves." However, some of their oppressive treatment would be addressed in 1938 with the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, and Shahn's confident-looking textile carder might well embody the changing status of workers.

Central Annex Post Office, Bronx, NY, Ben Shahn, Resources of America1939ff, Industrial Weaving

Here we see another worker in the textile industry, although I am calling it "Industrial Weaving," since I have found no titles for any of the specific panels of Resources of America.  My guess is that this worker is tending some of the bobbins that feed a combing machine, used in the yarn-making process.

I love this particular panel. Its diagonally-aligned bobbins occupy the frontal plane and serve as a scrim through which we see the worker's face and hands.  Although a completely representational work of art, it attains a level of abstraction through its simplicity and the absence of detail.

Central Annex Post Office, Bronx, NY, Ben Shahn, Resources of America1939ff, Riveter

Central Annex Post Office, Bronx, NY, Ben Shahn, Resources of America, 1939, study for Riveter (tempera on paperboard, 1938, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.)

Here we see a workman feeding a rivet into his pneumatic riveter. The work directly above is one of Shahn's small studies that he submitted for the competition.  Above this is the final piece as he painted it in the Central Annex.

In this panel, as well as the final four examples of Resources of America, Shahn focuses on a single worker as representative of a profession.  In each case, the figure occupies the foreground space and takes up most of the area of the panel.  Shahn also makes various compositional decisions geared to emphasize each image's iconic and monumental character.

Shahn accomplishes this in the "Riveter" by aligning the worker's right elbow with the top left corner of the panel while aiming the tool at the opposite, bottom right corner.  In this way, he fixes its powerful action and locks the figure by triangulation. 

Central Annex Post Office, Bronx, NY, Ben Shahn, Resources of America1939ff, Engineer

Shahn's "Engineer" also takes up most of the foreground space as he bends over to read a plan. He, too, is locked into the oblong form of the panel through the diagonal line leading from his left leg up through his highlighted nose and cheek.

Central Annex Post Office, Bronx, NY, Ben Shahn, Resources of America1939ff, Cotton Baler

Central Annex Post Office, Bronx, NY, Ben Shahn, Resources of America1939ff, Cotton Picker

Central Annex Post Office, Bronx, NY, Ben Shahn, Resources of America1939ff, Farmer

A similar aesthetic holds for these final three images, the "Cotton Baler," the "Cotton Picker," and the "Farmer."  The latter worker is pitching hay with a powerful diagonal thrust, starting from the lower left corner of the panel and reaching up to the top right.

All are strong, muscular, big-boned figures whose hands, when visible are prominent actors in Shahn's vignettes of the American worker.  Each one of these workers is also an American resource to Shahn and to the people of this period.  As one National Archives researcher observed, "Shahn's theme was that human beings and their talents were as important to preserve as natural resources such as soil and water."  Such reification of the common worker was even expressed by President Roosevelt, who had done so much for the American worker and who stated in a campaign address in Cleveland on November 2, 1940: "Always the heart and soul of our country will be the heart and soul of the common man."

All thirteen panels, therefore, represent the Resources of America.   How tragic that, today, those who call themselves conservatives no longer value the American worker and have even mounted a "50-State Campaign Against America Workers."  This socially-destructive campaign stems both from outside organizations such as ALEC and elected representatives in Congress.  Most interestingly, when I "Googled" Resources of America, the first item to come up was the 2012 Republican Platform; yet, nowhere among the eight topics of this very long document is there any sort of mention of a working person.

Fortunately, even today we can turn elsewhere and still find evidence of the sort of respect for work and the worker that was so prevalent when Ben Shahn was painting.  Pope Francis, for example, often speaks to the dignity of labor in his homilies and interviews, and on the Feast of Saint Joseph, he ended with this admonition:  "I address a strong appeal that the dignity and safety of the worker always be protected."

I have no doubt that American workers will regain some of the protection they have lost in recent decades, and we once again will realize that they are important American Resources. Meanwhile, I am happy to say, in December the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission granted landmark status to the interior of the Bronx Central Annex Post Office, so these Ben Shahn murals appear to have been saved from destruction.

Not protecting permanently these important and priceless examples of 1930s public art would have been a horrendous and inexcusable injustice. And on this thought, Ben Shahn should be given the last word

“I hate injustice. I guess that's about the only thing I really do hate. I've hated injustice ever since I read a story in school, and I hope I go on hating it all my life.”


  1. Great story. Thank our for sharing these fresco paintings and placing them in context. I'm very pleased there is a happy ending for them.

  2. A wonderful tour of these wonderful murals. It's a shame that some of the murals are obscured by what appears to be computer screens and other items. The murals and Ben Shahn's other work are New York treasures.Thanks for bringing them to light.