New Deal Cathedrals

One of the best books I’ve read in recent months is the Gothic Enterprise, by Robert A. Scott (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003). The Gothic Enterprise views Europe’s great cathedrals of the High Middle Ages as windows into the Medieval mind, as embodiments of the human spirit that reveal more about society, economics, politics, theology, philosophy, and other areas of human effort than most of us could imagine.

I won’t pretend that San Joaquin County has any Gothic cathedrals, but it does have an array of structures that date from many different periods. Either alone or together, these buildings hold rich potential to teach us about the people who built them and the times in which they were constructed. But first we need to know where they are.

For the past several years, the San Joaquin County Historical Society and Museum has partnered with the Geography Department at U.C. Berkeley and other organizations in California in a collaborative research project titled the Living New Deal Project. One major goal of this undertaking is to identify, document, and photograph as many New Deal projects as possible in the state during the 1930s and early 1940s and to offer the results to members of the public through an interactive Web site.

The project is still incomplete, but the range of discoveries to date is impressive. Thanks to research by volunteers at the Museum, we know that New Deal projects in the Stockton area include the Port of Stockton and the old Federal Building, which housed impressive murals created specifically for that structure. Examples in and around Lodi include the Grape Bowl, the National Guard Armory, the U.S. Post Office (pictured under construction), and Hutchins Street Square. The regional park at Micke Grove benefited from the New Deal, as did migrant workers in Thornton, whose families were protected from the elements thanks to construction of inexpensive housing.

It may seem strange to call these artifacts New Deal Cathedrals, but I don’t find it too much of a stretch. Centuries of time and thousands of miles may separate Europe’s Gothic cathedrals from San Joaquin County’s New Deal projects but both hold the potential to reveal the thoughts and priorities of their creators, afford glimpses into the human spirit, and promise to open windows into slices of time alien to many of us in the twenty-first century.

Identification of New Deal projects throughout California continues at the Living New Deal project. For details on how to participate, contact me or visit the project’s Web site.

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