New Deal/WPA Art in Modesto, CA

The Modesto, CA Post Office was home to a series of 13 murals by Ray Boynton: "Agriculture," "Mining," "Irrigation," (1936) - 13 lunettes, tempera, funded by Section and TRAP. Six lunettes, "Mining" and "Irrigation" are missing, but seven murals are still extant.

Recently the Modesto Post Office, "El Viejo," was declared surplus property by the GSA (owner of the building) and may be sold. These murals are in danger in spite of the building being listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The following article is from The Modesto Bee On-Line:

Feds deem post office as surplus
Published: Tuesday, February 1st, 2005, The Modesto Bee On-Line

The possibility of turning the historic downtown Modesto post office building into a homeless shelter has community leaders uniting to find an alternative.

The Modesto Federal Building and Post Office at 1125 I St. a landmark since the early 1930s has been declared 'surplus government property' by the federal General Services Administration.

Civic leaders would rather see the singlestory building used for almost anything else ideas already being floated include turning it into a museum or using it for courtrooms to alleviate crowded conditions at the Stanislaus County Courthouse across the street.

Though federal law gives homeless advocacy groups first crack at making use of the space, Rep. Dennis Cardoza, D-Merced, said Monday that he would oppose such a move.

'The homeless need to be treated with dignity and respect. They deserve humane treatment,' Cardoza said in a telephone interview from his Washington, D.C., office. 'But this is absolutely the wrong place to put homeless persons. That building wasn't designed for housing.'

The GSA declared the building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, surplus property Jan. 14. City and county leaders learned of the action last week, when they received letters from the GSA.

It was not clear Monday what will happen to the Postal Service's El Viejo (meaning the 'Old One') branch, which is housed in the single-story, steel and masonry building. The branch could close or move.

'Well, that's a surprise,' said Supervisor Ray Simon, chairman of the Stanislaus County Board of Supervisors. 'I thought it would be a post office forever.'

Modesto City Councilman Denny Jackman said the move also surprised city leaders.

'We have a lot of questions to ask before they move forward,' Jackman said.

The GSA letter is expected to be discussed by the Board of Supervisors when they meet today. It is not listed on the City Council's agenda for tonight.

Simon agreed that the building is not well-suited for use as a homeless shelter nor for any other type of housing.

'We need to get together a city-county committee as fast as we can and submit our ideas (to the GSA) for how it should be used,' he said.

Modesto Gospel Mission administrator Barbara Deatherage, who has years of experience working with the homeless, said the landmark is beautiful, but it isn't suitable as a shelter.

'It's really not appropriate due to its location and type of building,' Deatherage said. 'It would require too much work and renovation for it to meet standards.'

The building located in the heart of the city's downtown business district totals about 23,770 square feet, including a mezzanine and full basement. The GSA estimates 13,831 square feet are occupiable. The building sits on a landscaped corner lot covering about 28,000 square feet with 53 paved parking spaces.

The GSA notes that the building contains 'non-friable' (not easily crumbled) asbestos, lead-based paints and nonreinforced masonry walls, and that it 'does not meet current seismic standards for federal buildings.'

Mary Filippini, a San Francisco-based spokeswoman for the GSA, said the building has just two tenants the U.S. Postal Service and the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Filippini said most of the space about 16,000 square feet is used by the post office. The GSA's 'Notice of Surplus Determination' contains a clause that allows the tenants to remain in the building for up to two years.

'We're not sure what the post office's plans are,' she said.

Filippini said the McKinney Homeless Assistance Act grants the homeless use of the building before anyone else, including city and county governments, may acquire it.

'Homeless use has priority over all other applicants,' the GSA's letter states.

Applicants, who are screened through the Department of Housing and Urban Development, have 60 days to file their proposals with the GSA. That clock started running Jan. 14, according to Filippini.

A spokesman for the HUD office in Fresno, whose jurisdiction includes Stanislaus County, said that, as of Monday afternoon, his agency had received no applications from homeless advocates.

Work on the downtown Modesto federal building was completed in 1933. It originally was the property of the U.S. Department of the Treasury. During the 1960s, Treasury turned the building over to the General Services Administration.

Over the years, it housed a variety of federal offices. Former tenants included the Internal Revenue Service; U.S. Army Veterinary Detachment; recruiting offices for the Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard; Civil Service Commission; former Rep. Tony Coelho; and the Selective Service (military draft board).

In the mid-1930s, 13 murals were commissioned by the Treasury Department to adorn the walls of the post office's lobby. The murals, which were painted on canvas and affixed to the walls, depicted the city's farming legacy.

When the building was renovated in the mid-1960s, six of the murals vanished. They still have not been located. The murals were created under the direction of Ray Boynton, a highly regarded frescoist in the 1930s and an art professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

The murals depicted everything from meat packing and dairies to threshing, plowing and dehydrating fruit.

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©2005 Nancy Lorance
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