SANTA FE, N.M. – Amid the misery of the Great Depression, Rupert Lopez gratefully worked for $1 a day for the Civilian Conservation Corps, making adobe-block walls for a new regional National Park Service administration building in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
The 100-year anniversary of the National Park Service is igniting new interest in the majestic Spanish-pueblo themed building that Lopez and other “CCC boys” built, along with other remote cabins, furniture and artwork of the 1930s that transformed and popularized national and state parks while putting millions of impoverished Americans back to work.
The Old Santa Fe Trail Building, nicknamed after its address alongside the former frontier migration and supply route, was stocked with hand-carved furniture and Native American pottery and paintings commissioned under the Work Projects Administration from local artists.
It is now celebrated as a graceful landmark that blends with the surrounding high-desert landscape — while serving as a testament to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal public works projects.
That legacy is slipping from living memory. Lopez, who turned 100 in January, is the only known surviving member of the work crew that laid the foundation and hoisted hand-carved wooden beams called vigas.
In June, preservationists of the New Deal era brought together Lopez with descendants of Franklin D. Roosevelt and several Cabinet secretaries that had helped ramp up government employment and infrastructure projects in the midst of the Great Depression.
They met in downtown Santa Fe, blocks from frescos in the New Mexico Museum of Art and canvas federal courthouse murals commissioned by the Public Works of Art Project, another New Deal institution.
Nina Roosevelt Gibson, the daughter of the President Roosevelt’s youngest son, said she had to take a history course in college to fully appreciate the Depression-era accomplishments of her grandfather, who she knew only briefly as a young girl.
Gibson said the New Deal agencies would be difficult or impossible to replicate today — but still serve as call to collective action.
“The spirit of the New Deal is all over the country, in every national park you go to, there are CCC trails that have been developed, you go into post offices and there are murals and art work … that were created through funding of various New Deal projects,” she said. “And then I see it in the hearts of men and women, their families were able to keep hope during a time when there was a lot of hopelessness.”
Beyond Santa Fe, an online archive called The Living New Deal is bringing the national scope of Roosevelt-era public works sites into sharper focus. More than 10,000 site locations are tagged to a Google map for browsing. The crowdsourced archive started as a student project and is hosted by the Department of Geography at the University of California, Berkeley.
Susan Ives, who works for the project from Mill Valley, California, said amateur contributors have helped identify public works buildings where plaques and labels went missing through neglect and as Roosevelt’s progressive political ideals fell out of favor during the Cold War years.
“They were taken down when the pendulum swung to the right,” she said.
When it comes to national parks and monuments, meanwhile, many devotees of New Deal history want that era’s artifacts to be given a larger stage of their own, after serving for some 80 years as the backdrop to other wonders of nature and human history.
The National Park Service already juggles those competing missions at Bandelier National Monument, 18 miles from Santa Fe, where the main attraction is ancestral Native American cliff dwellings carved into soft rock. The monument also is home to a cluster of 31 support buildings created by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s that mimics a small New Mexican village, and is designated as a historic district in its own right.
Jerry Rogers of Santa Fe, a retired cultural preservation official at the National Park Service, thinks it is time for a special Park Service unit devoted solely to New Deal preservation. The Old Santa Fe Trail Building could be exhibit No. 1, he said, emphasizing the human drama behind the structure where inside-and-out renovations are planned during 2017.
“What was going on in New Mexico at the time, like the whole nation, the bottom has just fallen out the economy,” he said. “But New Mexico was already kind of poor when that started. There was genuine hunger, and not just scarcity.”