Today, New Hampshire continues to benefit from projects funded under the “New Deal”—an amalgam of federal agencies and programs created during the Great Depression. One of these—the Works Progress Administration (WPA), was instrumental in funding a variety of civic improvements in the state. This included the expansion and improvement of Manchester’s airport just in time for it to be used as a World War II military airbase. The airport’s commercial terminal building, built with WPA funds in 1937, now serves as the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire.
Another New Deal program that had a major impact in New Hampshire was the Federal Emergency Administration of Public Works, established in 1933. This agency was renamed the Public Works Administration (PWA) in 1939. But even when a project was funded before 1939, writers have often referred to the agency as the PWA. This dynamic agency’s purpose was to fund essential public works projects and to help stabilize employment. Whereas the WPA paid wages directly to workers, the PWA funded labor indirectly through its contracts with private contractors.
The PWA was instrumental in building everything from warships for the U.S. Navy to dams, bridges, streets, highways, schools, hospitals, and workforce housing. Among its most famous projects were the Triborough Bridge in New York City (1937, now the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge) and the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state (1942). In New Hampshire, the PWA funded the construction of the Little Bay Bridge spanning the Piscataqua River between Dover and Newington (1935, now the General Sullivan Bridge used by bicyclists and pedestrians); Spaulding High School in Rochester (1939); Nashua High School (1937, now the Elm Street Middle School); Allenstown Public Library (1935); Concord Public Library (1940); and the State House Annex in Concord (1940).
The plans for the New Hampshire State Armory building in Manchester, another PWA project, were drawn up by local architect Carl E. Peterson, whose office was in the Bell Building on Elm Street. Peterson designed this structure in the simplified classical style used for many Depression-era projects, dubbed “P.W.A. Moderne.” The $500,000 brick building, with its elegant granite façade on Canal Street, featured a large drill hall, offices, meeting rooms, and other facilities.
The Armory’s granite cornerstone was installed on Nov. 3, 1938 in a ceremony attended by state and local officials, including Gov. Francis Murphy, Congressman Charles W. Tobey, Mayor Damase Caron, and Alderman Albert Clough. According to a report in the Portsmouth Herald, that day “A large contingent of officers and enlisted men of the 172nd Field Artillery, New Hampshire National Guard, who are slated to occupy the building, were headed by Adjutant General Charles W. Howard of Concord, who served as master of ceremonies.”
The Armory was dedicated in January 1940. It now serves the New Hampshire National Guard as a Readiness Center, and as the home of its popular musical detachment, the 39th Army Band, that had been organized in Manchester in 1879.
Support from the PWA was also critical in enabling Dover to build a showpiece of a City Hall, completed in 1935. Dover’s previous City Hall had been destroyed by fire on Aug. 3, 1933. This four-story brick building with a bell tower had been constructed in 1891. It housed all of the city’s offices, a large auditorium, and the police department. At around 3 a.m. flames were spotted breaking through the roof. The 16 prisoners in the jail cells were released. Twelve of these were vagrants who had been brought in for the night, and four were being held for minor offenses. No one was hurt, and the Dover firefighters — assisted by crews from nearby Portsmouth, Somersworth, Rochester, and Berwick, Maine — were able to keep the flames from spreading. By daybreak, the building was a complete loss.
The impressive new Georgian-revival City Hall was the work of Dover architect J. Edward Richardson, who had recently designed the New Hampshire Odd Fellows Home in Concord in a similar refined style (now the Presidential Oaks retirement community). Richardson’s nearly fireproof City Hall was constructed of New Hampshire granite and brick, with limestone trimming. He modeled the building’s soaring bell tower after the iconic bell tower of historic Independence Hall in Philadelphia.
Next week: The Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression.