Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 823: PWA

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 823.

Today, a reflection on government spending. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The PWA -- the Public Works Administration -- was, according to my father, a terrible exercise in government waste. Given the choice between creating soup kitchens and jobs during the Great Depression, the New Deal opted for a huge public works program, paid for by new taxes.

So, while my father cursed, Washington created low-paying jobs for everyone from laborers to poets. Now I read a richly illustrated book on the PWA structures built by 1939, and I am astonished. I had no idea how much we'd bought with a mere two billion dollars, or how that purchase shaped America.

This 700-page sampling of PWA works reads like my personal scrapbook. Here's Hoover Dam, which I first saw on my honeymoon; the University of Utah Library, where I spent the spring of 1981; the St. Louis Municipal Auditorium, where my wife played violin; the familiar Bonneville Dam and Oregon State Capital; the Lincoln Tunnel; the San Jacinto Monument, where Sam Houston gave us Texas.

And that's just the big stuff. Here are small Oregon bridges and Staten Island Ferry boats -- post offices and sewage disposal plants I've known -- reform schools and airplane hangars.

The medical facilities include lots of tuberculosis sanatoriums. Who could've known that penicillin would eliminate TB -- until we bred super strains of the disease 40 years later.

The PWA really touched us all when it made the music buildings at Indiana University and Denton, Texas. Out of those facilities we shaped two of the largest and most important music schools in America today.

A small item catches my eye: The Chaffey Junior College Library in Ontario, California. George and William Chaffey were two engineers who came to California from Eastern Canada around 1880. First they brought electricity and irrigation to Los Angeles. Then they went to Australia and built the city of Mildura.

George came back to California and irrigated the Imperial Valley while William finished the work in Mildura. If any name is part of this impulse to build great public works, it's theirs.

Interior secretary Harold Ickes ran the old PWA, and he ran it well. They called him "Honest Harold" for his trouble. Yet I do not scoff at my father's concern. Too much government spending has been managed by lesser folk than Harold Ickes.

But for a season, the government got into the business of making jobs and building America. Now, as I read this astonishing 54-year-old book, I see they did a far better job of it than I'd realized. A lifetime later, these are the structures -- both great and small -- that still define the America we all know.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Short, C.W., and Stanley-Brown, R., Public Buildings: A Survey of Architecture of Projects Constructed by Federal and Other Governmental Bodies Between the Years 1933 and 1939 with the Assistance of the Public Works Administration. Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1939. (I'm grateful to UH Art and Architecture Librarian Margaret Culbertson for drawing my attention to this rich source and making it available to me.)

Carroll, B., The Engineers: 200 years at Work for Australia. Barton, Australia: The Institution of Engineers, Australia, 1988, pp. 83-86. (For more on the Chaffey brothers see Engines Episode 594.)

You'll find many snippets of PWA (or the WPA which followed it) art, literature, and architecture on the web. For example, the following website gives a fine account of WPA art:     http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_Works_Administration

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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