WPA murals reveal Shorewood’s history

The 10 painted panels in the lobby of the administration building at the high school are something often seen, but perhaps not fully viewed as a piece of the high school’s important history upon first look.

(Ben Davis) Celeste Carroll, senior, ponders one of the murals in the SHS administration building lobby. These murals were created through the WPA project in the late 1930’s.
(Ben Davis) Celeste Carroll, senior, ponders one of the murals in the SHS administration building lobby. These murals were created through the WPA project in the late 1930’s.

The murals depict historic scenes of Wisconsin. They are passed by hundreds of people daily and are actually a product of high unemployment rates during the Great Depression and Shorewood’s desire to incorporate more art into the educational setting at the time.

During the Great Depression, there were times when nearly 25% of the population was unemployed, calling for Franklin D. Roosevelt, the president at the time, to develop a plan in 1936 to provide jobs for the unemployed. The resulting effort was the Works Progress Administration Project, or the WPA.

While many of the WPA projects had to do with public construction, one portion of the program created employment for musicians, writers and artists. Nearly every community in America at this time had some sort of involvement with the WPA, including Shorewood.

“In Shorewood, we had WPA workers working on the sewers, the plumbing. [They were the] people who built the beach building at Atwater Beach. They built the Hubbard Lodge,” said Karen de Hartog, president of the Shorewood Historical Society.

While the Atwater beach house no longer exists, as it was knocked down after falling into disrepair, the Hubbard Lodge and many other WPA projects still remain standing. One of these projects includes the high school’s painted murals, which, according to de Hartog, were painted by a WPA artist.

“[The murals] were done in the late 1930’s by a man named Carl Van Treek. Van Treek was an artist out of work, and the purpose of the WPA was to give artists something to do,” de Hartog said.

Van Treek, a German immigrant who came to America in the 1920’s, reportedly was paid 25 cents for every square foot of mural he painted for the high school. His work depicts various important figures from Wisconsin’s past, including Native Americans, and those who settled Wisconsin.

“[The murals are] supposed to tell the stories of the settlement of this area. You’ve got farmers, and the industries. There’s a lumberman, a harbor scene, businessmen inspecting grain,” de Hartog said.

Most of the panels are visible in the administration building lobby, while two lie within the offices on either side of the building’s front entrance doors. A family, a one-room schoolhouse and Van Treek’s depiction of the mining, dairy and lumber industries are also among the images.

Over time, the murals, collectively titled “On Wisconsin” by the artist, began to fall apart, prompting a restoration project in 1994 by the Shorewood Historical Society.

“The murals were getting in poor shape. There were thumbtacks in them, some small tears. In 1994, the historical society decided to do something about it,” de Hartog said. “It cost about $5,000 to restore them.”

The murals have remained in fairly good condition since, and have not required additional restoration. de Hartog says she appreciates the fact that the murals have remained where they are for so long, and that they were also able to employ a man who was unemployed, when unemployment in the nation was at an all time high.

“I think it’s interesting that the …  administration at the time realized it was important to [create these murals],” de Hartog said. “It adds some culture to the school, some color, some history, and they’ve lasted. Hopefully people think they’re valuable enough to keep caring for them.”

by Celeste Carroll

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