New Deal Murals along 219

May 31, 2013 |

If you live around Marlinton, you’ve probably been to the post office countless times and noticed the murals hanging above the doors inside the lobby. Those murals represent a piece of history that goes well beyond the borders of Pocahontas County and are reflected in post offices and federal buildings around the country. While traveling route 219, we’ve sought out these historic pieces of art, that were commissioned by federal relief programs during the Great Depression in the 1930s. During this time the federal government funded dozens (if not hundreds) of programs across the country aimed at providing work for the masses of unemployed as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Marlinton Post Office mural, Mill Point: Past Visions, by Edwin Doniphan, 1939.

Edwin Dorsey Doniphan painted the two murals hanging in the Marlinton Post Office. The first, titled The Future, hangs over the Postmaster’s door and depicts a farmer working a field overlooking Marlinton and its industrial tannery. The other mural, hanging opposite, is Mill Point: Past Visions. This one presents a more pastoral scene from Mill Point, as a horse and rider passes the McNeel grist mill. The Marlinton murals reflects the community’s desire to look to the future, while also celebrating the past.

These murals are often thought to be from the famous WPA Federal Arts Project, which supported such renowned artists of the day as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, but they are actually pieces commissioned by the Treasury Department. Before the Federal Arts Project, the Treasury Department had already established the first federal art program, the Section of Fine Arts. “The Section”–as it was commonly known as in its day–was not a relief program, but was set up to commission art “of the best quality” to decorate new federal buildings across the country. Nationwide, the Section commissioned over 1,300 murals and 300 sculptures during its eight years of existence from 1934 to 1942.

Marlinton Post Office mural: The Future, by Edwin Dorsey Doniphan, 1939.

Travelers along route 219 have the opportunity to view several pieces commissioned by the Section of Fine Arts, many of which were placed in post offices and other public buildings. Post offices, found in almost every town across the country, were chosen as a democratic venue for the art, where they would be accessible to all Americans. Artists were chosen through anonymous competition and selected by a national jury of artists, and their artworks were bound by guidelines and themes negotiated between the artist, town, and the Post Office. Optimistic themes–in looking to brighter times in the depths of the Depression–of work, heritage, and leisure can be seen in most of the Section art in public buildings.

The other murals along rt. 219 are found in the Lewisburg Post Office, the Elkins Forestry building, and in Oakland Post Office in Maryland.

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