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Building Louisiana

The Legacy of the Public Works Administration

Robert D. Leighninger Jr.

Publication Year: 2007

Robert D. Leighninger, Jr., believes there may be a model for municipal building projects everywhere in the ambitious and artful structures erected in Louisiana by the Public Works Administration. In the 1930s, the PWA built a tremendous amount of infrastructure in a very short time. Most of the edifices are still in use, yet few people recognize how these schools, courthouses, and other great structures came about. Building Louisiana documents the projects one New Deal agency erected in one southern state and places these in social and political context. Based on extensive research in the National Archives and substantial field work within the state, Leighninger has gathered the story of the establishment of the PWA and the feverish building activity that ensued. He also recounts early tussles with Huey Long and the scandals involving public works discovered during the late New Deal. The book includes looks at individual projects of particular interest--"Big Charity" hospital, the Carville leprosy center, the Shreveport incinerator, and the LSU sugar plant. A concluding chapter draws lessons from the PWA's history that might be applied to current political concerns. Also included is an annotated inventory of every PWA project in the state. Finally, this composite picture honors those workers and policymakers who, in a time of despair, expressed hope for the future with this enduring investment. Robert D. Leighninger, Jr., is faculty associate in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University. He is the author of Long Range Public Investment: The Forgotten Legacy of the New Deal.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi


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pp. vii

List of Tables

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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xiv

One of the most pleasurable parts of this project was the fieldwork. After identifying all of the Louisiana Public Works Administration (PWA) projects, I set out to discover how many were still around and what shape they were in. At first I could do this only on weekends. Later I was able to visit buildings during business hours and got to meet people who used them. Invariably, they were eager to tell me about their buildings and find out ...

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pp. xvii-xxx

We are surrounded by facilities constructed for us over half a century ago at public expense. We use them or drive by them every day, yet most of us are totally unaware of how they got there. We would be surprised to learn that they were built within a brief period of six or seven years, not accumulated gradually over a century. They are the legacy of the public works programs of the Franklin Roosevelt administration’s New Deal. Rarely has ...


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1. How to Respond to a Great Depression

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pp. 1-11

The Franklin Roosevelt administration’s response to the greatest depression in American history was one of massive and inspired improvisation. The new president took office with a lot of valuable experience—work relief and conservation being just two problems he had dealt with as governor of New York—but without a clear philosophy or even an integrated ...

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2. Harold Ickes Goes to Work

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pp. 12-27

The personality of Harold Leclair Ickes dominated the Public Works Administration (PWA). A good clue to that personality is the fact that he titled his published memoirs The Autobiography of a Curmudgeon.1 He prized his independence, guarded his integrity, and loved a good fight. He grew up a Republican in Altoona, Pennsylvania, and moved as a young ...

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3. Huey Long Versus the PWA

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pp. 28-44

Huey Long was a figure without parallel in American political history. Between his election as governor of Louisiana in 1928 and his death in 1935, he amassed so much power in the state that it scared even him. He told associates that if he died suddenly, they should not attempt to use the power he had created. For two years he simultaneously held the offices of ...

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4. The Second Louisiana Purchase

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pp. 45-55

Relations between Louisiana and the Roosevelt administration were not patched up immediately after Huey Long’s assassination. The Long organization saw its future in keeping Long’s name alive, and that meant maintaining most of his attitudes and policies. This included skepticism, if not outright hostility, toward the New Deal. And Washington saw no need to ...

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5. Scandal

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pp. 56-68

In June 1939, as most of the last round of Public Works Administration (PWA) projects were nearing completion, a reporter and a photographer from the New Orleans States observed workmen in Metarie unloading window frames from a Louisiana State University (LSU) truck. They were at the site of a house being built by Mrs. James McLachlan, the wife of one


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6. Schools

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pp. 71-91

School projects were by far the most numerous of the Public Works Administration (PWA) contributions to Louisiana. These efforts added 175 new buildings to parish school systems, built additions to twenty-eight existing buildings, and repaired twelve others. The new structures ranged from one-room, wood-frame schools with outhouses to a million dollar ...

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7. Universities

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pp. 92-107

In the early 1930s Louisianans’ interest in higher education was growing rapidly. The state’s colleges and universities, most less than a decade old, were housed in makeshift quarters. Few had permanent buildings. Louisiana State University (LSU), the flagship in Baton Rouge of this newly carpentered fleet, was making progress toward adequate facilities on its ...

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8. Courthouses

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pp. 108-126

Next to education, the Public Works Administration (PWA) probably made its greatest impact in Louisiana on the administration of justice. New courthouse and jail buildings were constructed in eleven parishes, new jails were constructed in four others, and additions to existing courthouses were built in another two parishes. This represents major construction ...


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9. The U.S. Marine Hospital at Carville and Other Federal Projects

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pp. 129-137

The projects reviewed thus far have all been what the Public Works Administration (PWA) called ‘‘nonfederal’’ projects. They were initiated at the state and local levels. Communities decided what facilities they needed, hired their own architects and engineers to design them, and, if the proposals were approved by the PWA, employed local contractors and ...

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10. The New Orleans Charity Hospital

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pp. 138-148

Louisiana is the only state in the Union with hospitals providing medical care to those who cannot pay for it. The original New Orleans Charity Hospital was built in 1736 with an endowment from a French shipbuilder. The institution wore out or lost to fire four buildings. The fifth, built in 1832, was falling apart in 1933 when its board of administrators asked that ...

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11. The French Market

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pp. 149-156

There was a market in New Orleans’s Vieux Carre long before the Public Works Administration (PWA) arrived, but the form it now presents to us was the product of PWA project #La.5914. Old buildings were remodeled or reconstructed, new buildings were added, and the whole complex was united by columned arcades, lantern towers, and a common stucco finish. ...

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12. The Shreveport Incinerator

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pp. 157-161

Designing an incinerator is not the sort of task that usually excites an architect. Nor are incinerators frequently written up in the architectural press. Nonetheless, the design by Jones, Roessle, Olschner, and Wiener for the Shreveport incinerator drew praise from architectural arbiter and New Yorker writer Lewis Mumford and was featured in major architectural ...

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13. Sugar

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pp. 162-165

The growing of sugarcane and the manufacture of sugar from it in south Louisiana goes back to at least 1795. Other cash crops were not suitable to the climate. After World War I, bitter competition forced most Louisiana refineries out of business. The surviving sugar plants concentrated on producing raw sugar for others to refine. However, the big refineries could ...

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14. The New Orleans Sewer and Water Project

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pp. 166-179

Up to this point, most of our attention has been directed above ground. The importance of the New Deal public works programs is most easily understood by looking at the structures that made possible the many improvements in education, health, recreation, the conduct of government, the administration of justice, and other aspects of civic life. But some of ...

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15. Beyond the Bayous

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pp. 180-186

The Public Works Administration (PWA) was in existence for nine years, from June 16, 1933, to June 30, 1942. After 1939, however, most of the agency’s time was devoted to closing out projects with legal or financial difficulties, so most of its building was done in seven years. In Louisiana, thanks to friction over patronage and the legal impediments Huey Long ...


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pp. 187-268


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pp. 269-290


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pp. 291-298

E-ISBN-13: 9781604731545
E-ISBN-10: 1604731540
Print-ISBN-13: 9781578069453
Print-ISBN-10: 1578069459

Publication Year: 2007