WPA Modernist

Black and white photo of a WPA Modernist building

The Hugo Gymnasium exhibits the simple lines and window treatment typical of WPA Modernist design (Courtesy National Records & Archives Administration).

The primary goal of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), one of many 1930s New Deal relief and recovery programs, was to put people to work.  Most projects were designed to spend a majority of the funds on labor, not materials.  Additionally, few projects used powered machinery in order to allow for hiring more men.  Therefore, WPA buildings and structures in Colorado are marked by a high degree of craftsmanship, albeit untrained, provided by primarily unskilled labor.  The quality of masonry work varies widely, undoubtedly reflecting not only different teams of workers, but also the growing skills gained by the men.  The use of local materials in order to keep costs low is another hallmark of WPA projects.  This resulted in some similarities of appearance within a region.  WPA projects in eastern Colorado were simply designed, often by the local sponsor or occasionally by the regional WPA engineer.  The buildings were influenced either by local traditions or were based upon contemporary styles.

Modernist WPA designs reflect an attempt to keep building forms simple more than an expression of an overall design philosophy.  Many of the defining characterizes of WPA Moderne are found in WPA Modernist buildings, including the lack of ornamentation, flat or barrel roofs, smooth exterior surfaces, vertical fenestration openings and linear building elements.  These buildings often include vertical elements in conjunction with horizontal features.  Vertical elements include tall narrow window openings that often terminate in a stepped parapet at the main elevation.  Windows are often grouped in tall vertical sections to present a modern appearance.  Where the Moderne is characterized by a horizontal or streamline effect with rounded edges and corners, Modernist buildings feature square corners.  As in the WPA Moderne examples, hand construction is favored over the machine-tooled.  Stone masonry involves rectangular, smooth-faced blocks with regular, usually sawed, edges.

Common elements:

  1. use of local materials
  2. simple building forms
  3. lack of ornamentation
  4. flat or barrel roofs
  5. smooth exteriors
  6. vertical orientation- tall windows grouped in sections
  7. linear building elements
  8. sharp, angular square corners

For further information about the architecture and history of the New Deal in Eastern Colorado, see the National Register multiple property document, New Deal Resources in Eastern Colorado, a publication available from the Office of Archaeology and Historic Preservation.