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The Great Depression and the WPA

By: Kathleen Slesnick Kauffman and Mayor Don Slesnick. Edited by Kendell Turner

Eighty years ago, in the 1930s, Americans faced financial crises that lasted over a decade.  After the stock market crashed in 1929, America entered an era known as “The Great Depression,” the worst economic crisis of the 20th century.  Young children had to work to pay for food and clothing.  Bread cost 9 cents a loaf and milk 14 cents a quart.  Children helped support their families by selling fruit from stands placed along the rural highways. Girls would knit small dolls to sell door to door.  Boys would sell newspapers on city street corners.

Those children still found ways to have a good time.  A kid in the 1930s most likely played games like hopscotch, marbles and a game created in 1934 called Monopoly.  The whole family would gather around a radio and listen to short stories performed live by actors, complete with orchestra music and sound effects.  Some of the most popular radio stories were The Lone Ranger, The Shadow and Little Orphan Annie.   

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to make tough decisions to guide the nation through this bleak period of hardship and sorrow.  Unemployment was at an all time high, so President Roosevelt started a program named the Works Progress Administration (WPA) that would create jobs, feed the hungry and house the homeless. 

Financial support came through the passage of the Emergency Relief Appropriation Act of 1935 and continued for almost eight years.  The WPA spent millions of dollars to construction public buildings as well as on public art projects that lead to productive employment of builders and artists by the thousands.  WPA projects resulted in some of our most boldly designed and artistically detailed bridges, schools and buildings.

In Coral Gables, the WPA created two distinctive and beautiful buildings.  The Coral Gables Woman’s Club, located on East Ponce de Leon Boulevard, is one of them.  The timing proved beneficial for the Woman’s Club, chartered in 1923 by the General Federation of Woman’s Clubs, as it had outgrown the space George Merrick provided in the Cathedral Room of the La Puerta del Sol (The Douglas Entrance).  Members included Mrs. George Merrick, Mrs. H. George Fink, Mrs. Don Peabody and Mrs. W. C. Bliss.  In 1927 they established a library at that location by asking 300 authors to donate their books to their effort.   With the popularity of the Woman’s Club and the extensive use of the library, extra space was badly needed.  In 1935 the WPA approved a combined library and community building, and construction began.  The architectural details included carvings of native fish, birds and animals.  On February 15, 1937, the Coral Gables Woman’s Club and Coral Gables Library were officially opened.

The Coral Gables Public Safety Building, more commonly referred to as the Old Police and Fire Station, was built in 1939 on the corner of Aragon Avenue and Salzedo Street.  Phineas Paist, the city’s principal architect, included a courtroom and a jail in his design of the building.  The structure is constructed of oolitic limestone, a type of rock native to this area.  The Salzedo Street side of the building is decorated with impressive carvings of firefighters, as well as images of the people and pets that they are sworn to save from fires and to protect from harm.  The building now houses the city’s Historical Resources Department and the Coral Gables Museum. 

Even though America was struggling to make ends meet, the WPA provided this country, Coral Gables included, with a great legacy of architecture and art.