Tuesday, July 25, 2017

New Deal Era murals depict a simpler county life

The Hyattsville Post Office, in Prince George's County, Maryland, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. On most days, hundreds of people come and go by the post office, depositing their stamped, outgoing letter mail in one of four sturdy, blue U.S. Mail boxes that flank both sides of the post office's front staircase. Then, they disappear just as quickly, going about their daily business, perhaps ducking into Vigilante Coffee around the corner for an espresso drink or a croissant.

However, it's worth slowing down for a just a moment – or three – to go inside the interior of this north-facing, rectangular Colonial Revival building that was constructed during FDR's New Deal Era and discover the rest of the story behind this remarkable, one-story brick structure located at 4325 Gallatin Street. To do so is like stepping back in time into a simpler era of county life during a different century.

One look around the Hyattsville Post Office lobby reveals six murals created by the American Regionalist artist Eugene Kingman (1909-1975), whose en plein style depicts the agricultural heritage of Prince George's Country situated in Maryland's 5th Congressional District bordering northeast Washington, D.C. A cornstalk stripe below each mural ties their composition together.

A large wall plaque dated 1935 honors the beginning of the Hyattsville Post Office building, which was erected "under the acts of Congress of May 25, 1926 and June 19, 1934 and was completed during the administration of Frank D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America."

In researching the history of both the Hyattsville Post Office and Kingman's murals, I learned that they consist of vignettes depicting county life during the New Deal Era of President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-37). Among the images are: horses grazing behind a fence, a rural church, frame structures along water with masts of sailboats visible in the distance, and ploughed fields. Several of these murals also reveal the appearance of rural delivery mail boxes in the foreground.

During the New Deal Era, Kingman, a native of Rhode Island, received commissions to create murals for two other U.S. post offices besides Hyattsville. His murals are still on display in post offices in East Providence, Rhode Island, and in Kemmerer, Wyoming.

It should be noted that credit for the architectural quality of the Hyattsville Post Office goes to Fourth Assistant Postmaster General Smith W. Purdum, who was a Hyattsville resident and lived nearby. Purdum spearheaded the engineering and research of the post office building and devoted great attention to its construction as well as to the design and execution of the murals.

Just after 8 o'clock one recent morning, as I stepped inside the Hyattsville Post Office to check my P.O. box for incoming mail – I was the only person inside the building's lobby before the post office windows opened for business at 9 a.m. – I looked around and marveled at both the beauty and artistry of this place and its murals. I tried to imagine what it must have been like when mailing a first-class letter cost just three cents. One thing that I find impressive today is the lobby has retained a remarkable degree of integrity. It has an old-fashioned look and feel, yet it also serves the residents of Hyattsville and the general public who also use it very efficiently.

(Learn more about the architectural detail of the Hyattsville Post Office here.)

Photos: Mural photos by Michael Dickens © 2017. Hyattsville Post Office photo courtesy of Google images.

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