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Nyack People & Places: Are the WPA-era Nyack Post Office Murals Controversial?

Panorama of the Nyack Post Office WPA-era murals.

The hand-painted, WPA-era murals that cover most of the upper part of the high-ceiling, art deco-style Nyack Post Office have survived intact for nearly 90 years. The Federal Government commissioned numerous murals depicting daily life for post offices during the Depression. Three post office projects were sponsored in Rockland County: Spring Valley got a small mural, Suffern a plaster relief, and Nyack got a large-scale multi-panel mural. The Nyack murals stand out not only for their artistic merit but also because some of the panels depict a biased view of Native Americans that have been the object of at least one protest.

The Nyack Post Office

A views of the Nyack Post Office in its early days.

Construction of the current Nyack Post Office began in 1932. The land for the post office had been acquired from the Depew family some 40 years prior. The Victorian house on the lot was moved across the street (now the home of Art Café) to make room for a post office; however, it took a long time to fund the building. The Nyack Rotary Club supplied the final pressure-gathering 2,000 signatures on a petition asking that the Post Office finally be built.

During its early days in the 1930s, the local WPA office was located in the building. Like the murals, the Post Office building itself is mostly unchanged. The original two claw-footed Art Deco metal lanterns with white globes on either side of the granite front steps were reinstalled after a recent renovation the front stairway.

TRAP (WPA) Post Office Murals

Controversial mural of African Americans in the Rhinebeck post office entitled The Stevedores.

From 1934-1943, the government funded around 1,400 post office murals in an effort to put artists to work during the Depression. Popularly known as a WPA program, mural artists were actually hired and administered through the TRAP program, the Treasury Department Section of Art and Sculpture, using WPA funding. Muralists were selected by competitions. Of the 850 artists selected, only 162 were women and only three were African American.

Controversial mural in the San Francisco Rincon Annex.

Milton Avery was one of the artists who painted murals. Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Ben Shahn also won grants for other WPA-funded projects. A Cape Cod postmaster once approached Edward Hopper about a post office mural, but Hopper turned him down.

The government stipulated that mural scenes should show ordinary American life in a realistic manner. Abstraction and modernism were not allowed. The government carefully scrutinized designs and works in progress. Only upon approval of each stage were artists paid.

The “Ashcan” and American Social Realism Painting Styles

Bellow’s painting titled Dempsey and Firpo, 1924.

An art movement started in reaction to impressionism was popular around the same time as the murals. Its origins are usually attributed to a group of artists in Philadelphia known as the Ashcan School for its realistic painting style and choice of industrial settings and scenes of everyday life.

Social realism pushed the style a bit further by showing alienation and the plight of the working poor–as seen in the work of New York artists like George Bellow and Edward Hopper, as well as American heartland artists, such as Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood. George Bellows’ boxing paintings, with their hyper-masculine protagonists and bloodthirsty audience, is an iconic example of this style.

Thomas Hart Benton & the Arts of Life in America Mural

One of the murals from Benton’s The Arts of Life in America in the New Britain Museum of Art.

In 1932, Gertrude Whitney commissioned a series of site-specific murals from Thomas Hart Benton for Whitney Studio Museum on W. 8th Street in NYC, a precursor to today’s Whitney Museum. The series of 4 murals and a lunette were striking and shocking. Painted in primary colors, the bold, twisting figures depicting daily American life, harkened back to the works of El Greco and painters from the mannerist period of the Renaissance. The originality of the images, the choice of subject, and the way in which they fit over and around doors, was truly unique. Called both original and decadent by art critics, the images inspired Depression-era painters.

Many of the remaining WPA-era post office murals including in Nyack, bear the imprint of the Benton’s style. Interestingly, in 1952, when the Whitney moved uptown, they decided to sell the murals in part because the popular style of the time was abstract art. The New Britain Museum of Art in CT. bought the works for $500. A steal. The murals can be seen today at the museum.

Jacob Getlar Smith

Detail from one of Smith’s murals in Salisbury, MD.

Born in the Bronx in 1898, Jacob Getlar Smith studied realistic painting techniques at the National Academy of Design.  Early on, his view was that “the artist should be a seeing-eye dog for a myopic Civilization.” His everyday scenes were meant to explore a moral work ethic with a hint of political protest.

Smith was lucky to get a Guggenheim fellowship in 1929. However, when the fellowship was finished, he went hungry, like so many Americans at that time. Jacob Getlar Smith’s sketches were approved for the Nyack Post Office in mid-1934 and Smith, along with his assistant Jacob Pelzman, completed the murals in 1936. Smith went on to paint one more post office mural in Salisbury, Maryland. He was a member of Edward Hopper’s American Realist Journal. He turned to watercolors later in his career and wrote the book, Watercolor Painting for the Beginner, in which he advocates students “learn the lesson of understatement.” Smith died in 1958.

The Post Office Murals

Detail from the first scene showing Native Americans see Hudson’s boat coming up the Hudson River

In Nyack’s Post Office, the murals wrap around three sides of the building. Stylized trees surround the postal cage on the north end. Smith uses the same tree structure to separate six different scenes as they wrap around the long eastern wall and onto the shorter southern side. The scenes depict a history of the Hudson River valley. The Hudson River flows in the background of each scene.

Detail from scene 4 showing the meeting between the British Major John Andre and Benedict Arnold.

Hyper-masculine Native Americans and colonists populate the first three scenes culminating in a scene that depicts the 1634 Kieft’s War. Smith dramatizes the colonial struggle in a disturbing manner by showing Native Americans attacking a homestead. In the background, a Native American burns the house; another is killing the plow ox; another is engaged in a mortal battle with a colonist; and another is strangling a woman and about to strike her with a tomahawk.

Detail from scene 5 showing fugitive slaves

The final three scenes move the history forward from the revolutionary war to the late 19th century. In a a Civil war era scene, a young African American man kneels at the feet of a farmer, and a woman stands behind the two gazing away in fear. Another figure is carrying a knapsack on a pole in the background. Is the farmer helping runaway slaves? Perhaps. It is either that or he is a post-emancipation liberator. Either way, he is depicted as a savior.

Taken together, the mural illustrates a cultural history true to its time. Hard working, white, male colonists earn the right to own land. They fight off savages and protect women. They fight and defeat the British and slavery. Their reward is hard-won prosperity. Clearly, it is a one-sided story.

Post Office Murals Spark Protests

Headline from an opinion piece in the June 24, 1974 Journal News.

In 1973, Herb Fass, a stained-glass artist from South Nyack, began a protest against the portrayal of Native Americans in the mural. Fass was an unusual individual. He sued a Nyack bank for $1 million over a billing error setting up a booth on the sidewalk outside the now defunct Chemical Bank. He was also in favor of eliminating the penny as it caused too much work at banks. And he favored eliminating mail envelopes as an unnecessary waste of paper.

Controversial mural of Native American massacre of European settlers.

The postal service refused his request to replace the panel with a donated painting of a Native American in a peaceful landscape. He invited Maryann Redcloud Lerner, an Oglala Sioux from Whippany NJ, to view the panel. She suggested that a new panel be added showing white peoples’ brutality against Native Americans. A Journal News poll of 12 people showed that the mural offended no one. A Nyack businessman stated that it was part of our heritage. “Besides it is so pretty,” he said.

The mural begs the question often asked today: Are unique and treasured artworks guaranteed a place in our daily life if they depict bias? On the one hand, we are fortunate to have these classic 90-year-old murals in Nyack, on the other hand, we must cringe at what we now consider a biased view of Native Americans and African Americans.

Michael Hays is a 35-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is brought to you by Sun River Health, Nyack Fan Card, and Weld Realty

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is sponsored by Sun River Health.

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