Posted by: Brad Nixon | May 31, 2018

Inside Compton, California Post Office, WPA, 1935

During the Great Depression of the 1920s and ’30s, with tens of thousands of businesses closed and banks shuttered, jobs were scarce and there was almost no available cash. Everyone struggled to find money for the bare essentials of life. Vast sections of national economies and industries stalled or ceased entirely, worldwide.

However, travel across the United States today, and in nearly every community you’ll find buildings, roads and bridges still in service, products of an enormous construction boom during that era. How could that be, since there was, essentially, no money and few banks that could provide loans of any size? They were built under the auspices of the federal government through an enormous program, the Works Progress Administration (WPA).

Those physical structures are the visible legacy of the WPA, but they weren’t, actually, the point of the exercise. Because the U. S. Treasury was the only viable source of funding for enterprise of any scale in this country, the government used its resources to provide employment, so that there was some stream of cash to allow citizens to live on, and to sustain core needs like food, clothing and shelter. In turn, those projects helped bolster at least some portions of the economic engine, and kept a number of industries operating at a subsistence level.

Between 1935 and 1943, the WPA employed a total of 8.5 million people. They built bridges, schools, courthouses, fire stations, libraries, airports, even theaters and stadiums. I don’t know the number, but there were also a large number of post offices, some of which I’ve written about. Here’s another, in a suburb of Los Angeles: Compton, California:

Compton CA Post Office R Brad Nixon 640

Built in 1935, it’s similar to a few other Los Angeles area post offices, designed in Spanish Revival style to match the southern California architectural tradition.

Compton Post Office Brad Nixon 7089 640

The building adjoins Compton Civic Plaza, built in the 1970s to include Compton City Hall, Compton Public Library, an impressive memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Los Angeles County Superior Courthouse, the latter visible in this photograph of the post office.

Compton CA Post Office L Brad Nixon 7091 640

The post office is still in operation. Look how that theme of southern California’s Spanish heritage is represented inside.

Compton Post Office interior Brad Nixon 7126 640

One remarkable aspect of the WPA was Federal Project Number One, which employed painters, sculptors and designers performers and writers to decorate building exteriors and interiors. California artist James Redmond (1900-1944) was engaged to create a series of murals for Compton P.O. titled “Old California.” to reflect California’s Spanish heritage.

Compton Post Office mural Brad Nixon 7124 640

Redmond was a student and then a teacher at the well respected Art Students League of Los Angeles, and created a number of Federal Art Project murals in Southern California. He painted the Compton murals in 1936, covering the upper portions of all four lobby walls.

Compton Post Office mural Brad Nixon 7121 640

Those people have “weight.” They look like they’re standing, kneeling on the ground or sitting in the saddle; they’re not floating. And they’re working, pointing, posed convincingly. I don’t doubt that Mr. Redmond researched the clothing, tools and horse-drawn vehicles: perhaps even the colors: requiring a significant amount of study.

Compton Post Office horsemen mural Brad Nixon 7129 640

The vaquero with his chaps and gloves is an outstanding example not only of Redmond’s attention to detail, but his skill with the human figure.

Compton Post Office rider mural Brad Nixon 7131 640

It’s possible to be critical of some of the scenes from today’s cultural perspective, but important to remember that these paintings were created nearly 100 years ago. Redmond was attempting to recreate a period nearly 200 years before his time. His focus is on drama and detail, skillfully compressing multiple scenes onto the walls of one large room. Simply put, he wanted to bring history to life in a public place where it would be available to all.

Compton Post Office natives mural Brad Nixon 7130 640

Compton Post Office women mural Brad Nixon 7133 640

Redmond’s murals are still attractive, reminiscent of the California Impressionist landscapes he’d have studied as a young man. Not a great deal of his work is well documented, and he had a relatively brief career. He went ashore in France on D-Day and was killed in action at the Battle of the Bulge in WWII, at age 44. But he left us something to remember.

To see a few more of the murals, visit the useful Living New Deal website at this link.

Visiting the Compton Post Office

The post office is at 101 S Willowbrook Ave., Compton, California, 13 miles due east of Los Angeles International Airport, 14 miles south of downtown Los Angeles. For once, I’m reporting on a location accessible by public transportation in L.A. The Compton station of the L.A. Metro Blue Line train is only steps away. 

The post office is a public building, and patrons are sometimes transacting personal business at the windows, so be circumspect regarding photography, talking and cell phone use.

For my article about the Compton Civic Plaza area and photos of its buildings, click on this link.

Photographs of the post office exterior in this post and select images from other Under Western Skies posts are available on Shutterstock.com. Click on the linked photos, or CLICK HERE to view the Underawesternsky photo portfolio.

© Brad Nixon 2018.


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