New Deal Art in Des Plaines Schools
Though less remembered, the New Deal left a legacy in Des Plaines beyond the Post Office.
Besides the Post Office, there were several other New Deal artworks in Des Plaines. Three of these ended up at Central School, all painted in 1934: Foot of Randolph Street, a watercolor by Vincent D'Agonstino; View of Methodist Camp Ground Pool, a watercolor, and a tempera painting depicting a greenhouse, by Paul Stoddard.
These were painted under the auspices of the Public Works of Art Project within the Civil Works Administration (a pilot program for the WPA). PWAP was intended to put artists to work beautifying public buildings; while the program lasted just seven months, it funded 3,750 artists who produced 15,600 artworks at a cost of $1,312,000.
Foot of Randolph Street depicted the peristyle in Chicago’s Grant Park, which was later replicated at 80 percent scale in the same location as part of Millenium Park. D’Agostino went on to become a well-recognized artist with several paintings in the Whitney Museum collection. View of Methodist Camp Ground Pool depicted the beautiful recreation grounds at the Des Plaines Methodist Campground. The untitled greenhouse picture shows a greenhouse filled with workers. This is believed to be the Amling greenhouse, where The Oaks shopping center now stands; the workers were Wally Lang, Paul Boeckenhauer, and Matt Meyer.
Two more Paul Stoddard murals were created for Des Plaines Junior High School, later renamed Thacker, under the WPA. The Federal Arts project succeeded the PWAP, running from 1935-1943 and producing an estimated 2,566 murals, 17,744 sculptures, 108,099 easel paintings and 240,000 prints.
The two 10’x14’ murals were hung on the walls of the Des Plaines Junior High School (renamed Thacker in 1954) on January 14, 1937. The murals were collectively titled "Two Principal Industries of Des Plaines, Illinois," one depicting men planting seedlings in a greenhouse, the other, workers enameling lamp reflectors at Benjamin Electric Company. Benjamin Electric, located at Northwest Highway and Seegers Road from 1901-1964, produced lighting fixtures and was one of the earliest industries and largest employers in the city.
The greenhouse was likely Premier Rose Gardens, which was located at the northeast corner of Touhy and Mannheim, now an industrial park. From 1926-1957 Premier was among the world’s largest greenhouses, producing 25,000 roses daily. This, along with the numerous greenhouses throughout the community, many of which were manufactured at Des Plaines’ Lord and Burnham plant, earned the city the slogan, “City of Roses”. Today, Pesche’s is the only remnant of this once-thriving industry, which also produced many of the nation’s orchids and carnations.
After Iroquois Junior High was built, Thacker was slated for demolition. Local history enthusiast and Maine East social science teacher Paul Carlson phoned A.H. Koch, a writer at the Des Plaines Times and fellow historian, urging him to work to save the murals. Koch was able to rally fellow historian and Times photographer Connie Blanchette, second ward Alderman Louis Wright, William Behm, Herb Oehlerking, Ed Hougesen, and Harry Peters from the Department of Public Works, and Vincent Reidy, School District 62 director of buildings and grounds; together they successfully removed the murals on May 17, 1968.
Today the Thacker and Center works are in the collections of the Des Plaines History Center. Together, the New Deal artworks show us a great deal about depression-era Des Plaines.