From the TUC

How Washington D.C. speaks for Roosevelt’s monumental economic vision

07 Apr 2017, by in Economics

“I pledge you, I pledge myself, to a new deal for the American people”

FDR accepting his nomination as presidential candidate, 2 July 1932

Every two years an International Trade Union Confederation delegation from across the world meets with officials and governors from the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, including Managing Director Christine Lagarde and President Dr Jim Yong Kim.

This year I was privileged to attend on behalf of the TUC. At this profoundly difficult moment for the global economy and workers throughout the world, the exchanges were inevitably tough but constructive. The occasion also gave me the opportunity to explore Washington D.C. for the first time, and was struck by how much it bore the impression of President F D Roosevelt. An impression also of the reaction in the 1930s to the Great Depression, that has much relevance to today. I am a novice in matters artistic and US history, and apologies up front for any shortcomings in detail. It is offered as an alternative and hopefully engaging perspective on past and present economic policy debates. It’s long, but there are a lot of pictures.

FDR’s public works

The public buildings of Washington D.C. capture the monumental scale and breadth of the New Deal. Most obviously they exemplify President Roosevelt’s understanding that public works were not only necessary to revive the US economy, but could also allow activities of lasting value.

The projects captured newly emerging relations between economics and business on one hand and society and work on the other. Activities were not aimed at global competitive advantage, “The immediate benefit to the nation, was, of course, the creation of new jobs. Most structures were never expected to bring in direct revenues” (Flynn,  p. 88).

Inherent was a categorical rejections of the mantra of ‘affordability’, that has (presumably) forever contained fiscal initiative. The authors of Buildings of the District of Columbia, from where much of the architectural material here is drawn, observe of the construction of the United States Senate Building (completed in 1935):

The opulence of design and materials of the Supreme Court initially seems odd, considering that its building history coincided with the worst years of he Great Depression. It was, however, only one of hundreds of public buildings undertaken by the federal government during the 1930s to help stabilise the American economy. (Scott and Lee, 1993, p. 124)

But I am not sure the scale of Roosevelt’s contribution is obvious to the visitor. In a large and scholarly book about the evolution of Washington, he gets only one footnote: “The proliferation of public buildings during the administrations of President Franklin Roosevelt and his active role in determining their location and design is the subject of Rhoads, ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt and Washington Architecture’” (Reps, 1991, n. 40, p. 245; see end for references and acknowledgement). In a not dissimilar way, FDR’s economic efforts can sometimes be dismissed as trivial. A former previous Chair of the US Council of Economic Advisers claimed:  “… the total fiscal expansion in the 1930s was very small indeed” (Romer, 2009).

Six examples are offered as indicative of a boldness and grandeur of vision, on both artistic and economic grounds. Even without any expertise, it seems is impossible to not be moved by the scale of the artistic achievement. And likewise: the economic motivation throughout was the paramount necessity and dignity of work and of a just society. Architecturally, the buildings were from classical and modernist traditions alike, decorated with public art of a high order.

Roosevelt’s important address at the dedication of the Federal Reserve building, the last of my examples, provides a bridge to some brief remarks on the wider economic strategy and philosophy of the New Deal. A separate and much shorter post covers the results from a macroeconomic perspective. To close, I turn to the monument for Roosevelt himself, which tells the greater story of his impact on the American nation and the world. An impact that tragically has not endured.

1. The interior building

Fittingly the first new deal project was the offices for the Department of the Interior, that would house the public works administration (PWA) under Harold Ickes. Under the National Recovery Act of June 1933, Ickes was commissioned to spend £6bn on public works, £3bn in the first year and the remainder over the next three years.

US GDP in 1933 was around £60bn, so $3bn was 1/20 or 5 per cent of GDP. The same share of UK GDP today would be £100bn. In terms of relative ambition: Phillip Hammond’s National Productivity Investment Fund is £23bn over the next 5 years; Donald Trump’s $100bn (over unspecified period) is ½% of US GDP.  To give an idea of costs, the budget for the supreme court building was almost exactly $10m.

My device to contain the scope of the discussion is to focus only on Washington, but it is essential and fundamental to recognise that the initiative was immense in its scale throughout the whole nation.

Under the direction of architect Wally Wood, the Interior building was colossal (5½ acres). At the dedication , FDR observed of ‘project no. 1 of the PWA’

… the first large, monumental building that was started in Washington in this Administration and is being completed in this Administration, … guided by sound principles of utility and economy. Without sacrificing any of the dignity deserving of a great department of the Federal Government …  a useful building, a building of practical simplicity … sparing in the application of rich ornament”  (Rhoads, p. 126)


Credit: AgnosticPreachersKid

Credit: AgnosticPreachersKid

The building is also celebrated for its large-scale use of murals, another profound New Deal initiative. The ‘Federal Art Project’ proclaimed “Art of the People, by the People for the People”, and murals dominated the interiors of new deal public buildings – most obviously in post offices throughout the country. The artists who created the murals were some of the finest American painters of the 1930s. ‘Construction of a dam’ by William Gropper celebrates the dignity of work, with workers shown in heroic poses, labouring together to complete a great public project.

Credit: James Vaughan

Credit: James Vaughan

The ‘Living New Deal’ website has reproductions of all the murals in the department of the interior and much other wonderful work.

2. The Federal Triangle

The Federal Triangle is a concentration of administrative buildings, planned initially the late 1920s. Scott and Lee (1993, p. 168) rather dismissively report that the project “merely survived to near completion during the Roosevelt administration” (p. 168). But the difference between planning and implementation can be vast: famously the Washington monument stood unfinished from 1848 to 1885, Mark Twain writing in The Gilded Age: “It has the aspect of a factory chimney with the top broken off. The skeleton of a decaying scaffolding lingers about its summit, and tradition says that the spirit of Washington often comes down and sits on those rafters to enjoy this tribute of respect which the nation has reared as the symbol of its unappeasable gratitude”.

Of particular interest is the National Archive building by the celebrated classicist John Russell Pope (who will feature twice more in the discussion). Completed in 1937, the building is

… the most ornate structure on the Federal Triangle, but it also called for installation of specialized air-handling systems and filters, reinforced flooring, and thousands of feet of shelving to meet the building’s archival storage requirements. The building’s exterior took more than four years to finish and required an array of workers ranging from sculptors and model makers to air-conditioning contractors and structural-steel workers.

Credit: The US National Archives

Credit: The US National Archives

Sculptures positioned around the exterior of the building on one side represent the Future and the Past; on the other Heritage and Guardianship. The advice:

Credit: Alan Levine

Credit: Alan Levine

In 1937 Roosevelt laid the cornerstone for the Federal Trade Commission with the silver trowel that George Washington had used to lay the cornerstone of the U.S. Capitol in 1793. He expressed hope that the building would “stand for all time as a symbol of the purpose of the government to insist on a greater application of the golden rule to the conduct of corporation and business and enterprises in their relationship to the body politic” (wiki). The finished work includes two statues at the corner of the building that marks also the eastern apex of the triangle. ‘Man controlling trade’ (below) was chosen as the winner of nationwide competition that attracted over 500 models from 234 sculptors. A man strains to control a raging horse. Amongst its responsibilities, the department enforced credit laws.

Credit: Richard Due

Credit: Richard Due

3. The National Gallery of Art

On 24 March 1937 FDR signed the Act that would establish a national gallery for art. John Russell Pope was chosen as architect; he had specific expertise, having been involved in the design of the Duveen sculpture gallery of the Tate Gallery in the UK (now Tate Britain) and the garden court at the Frick Collection in New York. The building is regarded as his masterpiece, centred on a rotunda that mimics the Pantheon in Rome.

Credit: US Federal Government

Credit: US Federal Government

The initiative is also associated with Andrew W. Mellon, Secretary to the U.S. Treasury from 1921 to 1932. He therefore presided over the excess that preceded the great depression and then the depression itself, and was in office throughout the administrations of Presidents Harding, Coolidge and Hoover. Out of office he lobbied for a public gallery to house a personal collection of art that he had begun to accumulate in the First World War, and donated $10million for its construction (wiki). It is hard to avoid an ulterior motive, with philanthropy deployed for redemption and rehabilitation in public eye.  The Mellon banking dynasty remains closely associated with the gallery to this day, exemplifying the enduring role of the financial sector in the art world.  Whether this relationship is all to the good, I leave to others who are more qualified.

4. The Jefferson memorial

A long time in coming, a commission for a monument to Thomas Jefferson was established in 1934. Russell Pope was chosen without competition to design a rotunda, a tribute to the Rotunda at the University of Virginia that Jefferson had designed, as well as the form of Monticello, the villa he built for himself. Roosevelt was closely involved in the design, and laid the foundation stone on 15 December 1938. In his remarks he explained how the monument along with that to Abraham Lincoln were situated in a deliberated arrangement as part of “two broad axes in the general form of a cross, one axis from the Capitol through the Mall past the Washington Monument to the river bank; the other axis from the White House past the Washington Monument ground to another point near the river”. The monument creates the greatest impression from the other side of the tidal bay on which it is consequently situated.

The Frieze encircling the dome records the noble words of his personal oath: “I have sworn upon the altar of God’s eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the minds of man”.

5. Langston Terrace

The New Deal was even more important for its social initiatives. Langston Terrace was first public housing programme in Washington. Hilyard Robinson (1899-1986), an architect of colour, designed homes for the communities in the poorer areas of the city.


11 pioneering architects of color who made their mark‘, by Patrick Sisson ( 22 February 2017) gives more background:.

A decorated soldier who served in France during World War I, Hilyard Robinson was a prolific architect in and around his hometown of Washington, D.C. Robinson mastered a sensitive, elegant, and modern approach … Robinson’s greatest achievements were for the greater good, whether that meant public housing projects—such as the celebrated Langston Terrace Dwellings in D.C. (airy, open spaces for the working class), educational facilities at Howard University (where he taught for decades), or other government projects, like an airbase for the famed Tuskegee Airmen, the first defense contract given to an African American.

6. The Federal Reserve

Situated close to the longer axis of the memorial arrangement, is the imposing Federal Reserve building.

Credit: AgnosticPreachersKid

Credit: AgnosticPreachersKid

The building is named after Marriner S. Eccles, Roosevelt’s appointee who was Chairman from 1934 to 1951. The architect Paul Phillip Crom’s conception was “scale proportion and purity of line”, in a style known as stripped classicism. The star studded steps at the front of the building lead up to the foundation stone:

At the height of the New Deal, 1936 was also the year Keynes’s General Theory was published. In his dedication address, after paying tribute to Crom’s achievement, Roosevelt turned to economics:

But we are conscious of a larger meaning in this brief ceremony – of the role that the Federal Reserve plays in the broad purpose which this government must serve. This purpose is to gain for all of our people the greatest attainable measure of economic well-being, the largest degree of economic security and stability

To advance the country towards this goal is the real mission of the Federal Reserve System. It cannot be attained by that System alone, but neither can it be reached without the proper functioning of our monetary and credit machinery. That machinery must be steadily perfected to promote the most productive utilisation of our human and material resources. Only in that way can we hope to achieve and maintain an enduring prosperity, free from the disastrous extremes of booms and depressions. Only in that way can our economic system and our democratic institutions survive.

The new deal was a fiscal initiative, but it was part of a far greater whole, reflecting a fundamental reorientation of economic relations. With the catastrophes of the system erected after the first world war by private financial interests plain to one and all, finance was contained under public authority. A newly constituted Federal Reserve was the cornerstone of this regime. Given this context, the speech is of immense importance and can be read in full here.

Postscript: The FDR monument

Created over 1974 to 1997 by Lawrence Halprin, landscape architect and environmental planner, the monument celebrates Roosevelt in a profoundly different way to those for the other great presidents. As Halprin (1997) explains, the visitor experiences Roosevelt’s life as a walk through his four terms, guided by a wall that defines four ‘rooms’, each containing sculpture (by America’s most celebrated artists of the time) and with his most famous remarks engraved throughout.

The wall is made from great blocks of carnelian granite; arrangements and the associated use of water become chaotic and ruptured as the visitor arrives at the War and its aftermath.

I hope it is not trite to take one remark from each term / room.

“No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralisation caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order”, Fireside Chat, 30 September 1934


“The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little”, Second Inaugural Address, 20 January 1937


“They (who) seek to establish systems of government based on the regimentation of all human beings by a handful of individual rules … call this a new order. It is not new and it is not order”, White House Correspondents’ Association, 15 March 1941

“The structure of world peace cannot be the work of one man, or one party or one nation … It must be a peace which rests on the cooperative effort of the whole world”, address to Congress on the Yalta Conference, 1 March 1945


A month later, Roosevelt was dead.

Seventy years later, the ITUC delegates continue the fight to provide for those who have too little. The ideals that Roosevelt championed appear still to be out of reach.


Flynn, Kathryn A. (2008) The New Deal: A 75th Anniversary Celebration, Layton, Utah: Gibbs Smith.

Halprin, Lawrence (1997) The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial,  San Fransisco: Chronicle Books

Reps, John W. (1991) Washington on View, the Nation’s Capital since 1790, Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press.

Rhoads, William B. (1989) ‘Franklin D. Roosevelt and Washington Architecture’, Records of the Columbia Historical Society, Washington, D.C., Vol. 52, [The 52nd separately bound book], pp. 104-162, Historical Society of Washington, D.C. Stable URL:

Romer, Christina D. (2009) ‘Lessons from the Great Depression for Economic Recovery in 2009’, Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C., March 9, 2009.

Scott, Pamela Antoinette J. and Lee (1993)Buildings of the District of Columbia , New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Acknowledgement: this blog exists thanks to my wife Fenella, owner of literature on Washington D.C. architecture. The uncredited pictures are my own.

One Response to How Washington D.C. speaks for Roosevelt’s monumental economic vision

  1. A note on the economic impact of Roosevelt’s New Deal
    Apr 7th 2017, 4:22 pm

    […] post is brief background to a longer piece that views Roosevelt’s economics through his impact on Washington […]