Post office murals around the state survive as a reminder of the power of art to inspire and encourage a nation overwhelmed by the problems of the Great Depression. In post office lobbies from San Antonio to Smithville, nearly 100 of the works of art survive and most are open to the public at any time of day or night.
Completed between 1934 and 1943, the murals were part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal plan to take high-quality art to communities, to lend support to artists, and to tell the American story. At the time the murals were called "People's Art," and by their placement in such public buildings as post offices, they still retain an accessibility that few works of art can claim.
Administered by the U.S. Treasury Department, the artwork was paid for out of the one percent of construction costs reserved for building decorations. Only post offices built during the period were eligible to receive the murals. The artists were selected by anonymous competition which gave women and minority artists a fair chance to receive a commission.
Some of Texas' greatest artists of the time contributed work to the project. Otis Marion Dozier (1904-1987) painted murals for post offices in Giddings (1937), Arlington (1941), and Fredericksburg (1942). He also executed murals at Forest Avenue High School in Dallas and Texas A&M University. Besides a distinguished career as an artist, Dozier was a prominent teacher at Southern Methodist University and the Dallas Museum of Art.
Jerry Bywaters (1906-1989) was a Dallas contemporary of Dozier who produced most of his important work during the mural period. His murals still adorn walls in the post offices in Trinity, Quanah, Farmersville, and the Parcel Post Building (now the Bob Casey Federal Building) in Houston (1941). He also did murals for the Old City Hall in Dallas and a series of panels for the Paris (Texas) Public Library. In addition to his paintings, Bywaters was a gifted writer and teacher, and the director of the Dallas Museum of Fine Art from 1943 to 1964.
John Ward Lockwood (1894-1963) helped establish the University of Texas art department in 1938. His paintings of open-air fruit stands (1939) and a Texas Ranger camp fill the walls of post offices in Edinburg and Hamilton. Lockwood also did murals with regional themes for the Taos, N.M., County Courthouse, the post office in Wichita, Kan., and the Post Office Department Building in Washington, D.C.
Although many of the artists studied in Europe, the mural projects came at a time when American painters were inventing a new style called American Scene. As a result, most of the colorful murals are based on American themes of regional history, agriculture, new industries, and local legends. Most of the murals were oil paintings on canvas and attached to the wall above the door to the postmaster's office. A few, such as the 16-panel mural in San Antonio, were painted on wet plaster. Remarkably, only seven of the paintings have been lost or destroyed in the last 60 years.
To start your search, here is a list of post office murals in the Austin area: East of Austin, murals are in Giddings, 79 E. Austin St., "Cowboys Receiving Mail" by Otis Dozier, 1939; Caldwell, Burleson County Courthouse, "Indians Moving," by Suzanne Scheuer, 1939; LaGrange, 113 E. Colorado St., "Horses," by Tom Lewis, 1939; Smithville, 400 N. Main St., "The Law -- Texas Rangers," by Minette Teichmueller; Elgin, 21 N. Ave. C, "Texas Farm," by Julius Woeltz, 1940; Bryan, former post office (now occupied by police department) at 26th and Parker streets, "Bison Hunt" (cast relief), by William Gordon Huff, 1941; and Rockdale, 234 Ackerman St., title unknown, by Maxwell Starr, date unknown.
West of Austin, a mural is in Fredericksburg, 125 W. Main St., "Loading Cattle," by Otis Dozier, 1942.
North of Austin, murals are in Hamilton, 120 S. Rice St., "Texas Rangers in Camp," by Ward Lockwood, 1942; Clifton, 407 W. Fifth St., "Texas Longhorn -- A Vanishing Breed," by Ila McAfee, 1941; and Waco, 800 Franklin Ave., "Cattle," "Indians," by Eugenie Shonnard, 1939.
South of Austin, murals are in Lockhart, 217 W. Market St., "The Pony Express Station," by John Walker, 1939; Corpus Christi, Nueces County Courthouse, 901 Leopard St., "The Sea: Port Activities," "Harbor Fisheries," by Howard Cook, 1941; Houston, Bob Casey Federal Building, "The Houston Ship Canal," "Ship Turning Basin," by Jerry Bywaters, "Houston Ship Channel Early History," by Alexandre Hogue, 1941; and San Antonio, Federal Courthouse and Post Office, Alamo Square, "San Antonio's Importance to Texas History" (16 panels), by Howard Cook, 1939.
Other post office murals are in Decatur, Farmersville, Gatesville, Mart, Center, Cooper, Linden, Livingston, Jasper, Kilgore, Liberty, Longview, Rusk, Teague, Trinity, Baytown, El Campo, Robstown, Kenedy, Brady, Alpine, El Paso, Odessa, Amarillo, Brownfield, Anson, Big Spring, Canyon, Eastland, Graham, Borger, Hereford, Quanah, and Wellington.
For more information on the post office murals around Texas visit the Texas Historical Commission's Web site at http://www.thc.state.tx.us/murals.html.THC also has three colorful posters of the murals for sale through the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio, 800/776-7651.
Coming up this weekend ...
Land of Leather Days in Yoakum celebrates the town's claim to Leather Capital of Texas with factory tours, a chili cookoff, carnival, and fireworks, Feb. 26-27. 512/293-2309.
Texas Independence Day Celebration at Washington-on-the-Brazos State Park begins a monumental state party to honor 163 years of independence with living history programs and cultural exhibits at the Star of the Republic Museum in the park, Feb. 27-28. 409/836-3695.
Coming up ...
The New Handbook of Texas is now online. The electronic version of the 7,000-page, six-volume resource book with 23,500 articles about the men and women who shaped the Lone Star State is an indispensable research tool for anyone looking to know more about the state. A joint project of the Texas State Historical Association (http://www.tsha.utexas.edu) and the University of Texas at Austin's General Libraries (http://www.lib.ut.edu) the handbook can be accessed through either Web site.
Old Car Picnic at the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Park outside of Houston brings hundreds of classic cars, no model newer than a 1978, to a once-a-year showing, Mar. 7 (rain date Mar. 14). 281/479-2431.
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