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Making another deal

courtesy photo

Work in the Saratoga Spa State Park was in full swing by 1934. New Deal funds were used for much of the construction.

Inside the chambers of City Hall, members of the Saratoga Springs City Council were locked in debate.

At the crux of their argument was a disagreement on how best to apply federal funds that were targeted to ease the burdens of a horrific economy.

The projects on the table included a $5,000 restoration of City Hall and $6,000 in sewer work to be performed on Ash Street. There was $15,000 for Loughberry Lake, $16,000 to be spent on Convention Hall and an aggressive push by the Saratoga Chamber of Commerce for a $32,000 work relief project for city water mains.

To top everything off, the president was coming to town to check on the progress of a new multi-million-dollar project, a part of which bore his name.

After serving four years as governor of New York, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected the 32nd president of the United States. He came into the White House in March 1933, following an unpopular president.

With a gregarious personality that inspired hopeful dreams among his countrymen, FDR began his term with a focus on government relief programs to rescue a nation mired in the Great Depression.

Now, just weeks into his term as president, Barack Obama has pushed for billions of dollars worth of aid to be distributed to fight a recession built on a housing crisis, banking woes, a sinking stock market and millions of job losses.

Though it will be years before the current stimulus plan can be judged on its lasting effects, the New Deal has left a mark still visible more than 75 years later, including one of the first major projects completed with New Deal money, the Roosevelt Bath in Saratoga Spa State Park.

Roosevelt's 'alphabet soup'

"On the question of leadership, Roosevelt was famous for his confidence. And he inspired the American people to a greater level of confidence," said Bruce Miroff, political science professor at SUNY Albany.

"This was not a time for a leader who was dour."

More than a dozen programs were initiated during Roosevelt's first term in an attempt to put the unemployed back to work, protect home owners, create lasting infrastructure and jump-start the economy.

The programs came under the name of the New Deal and were as varied as the acronyms that they represented - called by some critics at the time "alphabet soup."

The FHA, or Federal Housing Administration, addressed the mortgage and housing crisis. The PWA - or Public Works Administration - created jobs and designed public works.

Bank deposits were protected by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. - or FDIC - a safety net was cast for retired workers by the Social Security Act, and a federal guarantee of a minimum wage was instituted.

The Works Progress Administration was the most active agency.

Under the WPA, newly re-employed workers built thousands of schools and tens of thousands of bridges. Thousands of miles of new storm drains and sanitary sewer lines were laid across the country and hundreds of thousands of miles of road were paved or repaired.

The New Deal employed millions of Americans and cost tens of billions of dollars. Experts, adjusting for inflation, estimate the program cost about $500 billion in current dollars.

By comparison, President Barack Obama's proposals are nearly $790 billion.

Historical differences

With the record-busting stimulus plan, the U.S. is marshaling resources against economic catastrophe in ways not seen since Roosevelt put the New Deal in motion.

The idea of government intervention and the infusion of fast cash, with a strategic view on future infrastructure improvements may seem similar between the two administrations that are nearly 75 years apart, but they are not the same, historians say.

"When people make that link, they're looking at a similar political situation," said Dan S. White, professor of history at SUNY Albany.

"Hoover was extremely unpopular at that time - much like George W. Bush - so in Roosevelt people were hoping for some kind of turnaround. He had a way with words and also used the media at that time the way Obama has been able to use television and the Internet. He had an oratory appeal, stressing change and promising something new and positive," White said.

"But one of the problems with references to parallels is that Obama is a few weeks into his presidency and Roosevelt introduced the WPA two years after he became president. When I hear people try to make the comparison I think they miss the point that Roosevelt struggled in many ways in his first two years," White said.

Today, there is disagreement over whether it was the New Deal or World War II that had a greater impact on ending the Great Depression,

"The New Deal didn't solve the crisis, but it certainly improved things and left a lot of lasting good," Miroff said. "It helped alleviate a lot of distress. It left the country with permanent improvements in roads and parks and buildings and schools."

Art, buildings and more

One of the government's programs subsidized artists who were hired to paint murals depicting regional scenes in post offices across the country. Many of the images have survived to the present day.

George A. Picken created "Scenes and Activities of Hudson" at the Hudson Falls branch in 1937 and "Lock on the Champlain Canal, Fort Edward," in that town's post office a year later.

Judson Smith painted his aptly titled "Lake George," Axel Horn created "Settlement of Skenesborough" in Whitehall, and Guy Pene du Bois created a pair of panels measuring nine feet by 12 feet in 1937 that hang either side of the entryway of the post office on Broadway post office in Saratoga Springs.

Du Bois' first panel depicts a scene at the paddock of the Saratoga Race Course. The second - which was partially cut away to make room for a doorway - exhibits a street scene with the tall pillars of the United States Hotel rising atop Broadway.

Across the street from the post office at City Hall, the council did eventually approve several projects in the 1930s.

Faced with a bond debt that had risen to $1.5 million and having to contribute 25 percent of every project dollar expended by the federal government, the council approved roadwork on Caroline Street that employed 30 men for three months, putting 39 men to work for five months to repair the Canfield Casino and a $14,000 project that involved dozens of workers in constructing a field house at the East Side Rec that still stands today.

A few dozen miles to the north, what later became The South Glens Falls Village Museum on First Street was originally constructed between 1939 and 1940 as part of the village's sewage treatment facility under the New Deal.

One of President Roosevelt's first major projects completed under the New Deal was in Saratoga Springs and is today's Saratoga Spa State Park.

During his four-year term as state governor, Roosevelt commissioned a study on spas with the idea of developing a European-style spa that would draw tourists. With his support, a bill to appropriate funds for the development of the spa was approved in 1930.

In 1932, FDR visited George Foster Peabody at Yaddo just as excavating work was under way at the Hall of Springs. Three years later, he returned with a 12-car escort of police and Secret Service men on a September day in 1935 to celebrate the spa's opening.

Newspaper accounts note that the president was "astounded" as he visited the new Roosevelt Bath named in his honor and was escorted down the Avenue of the Pines and through the manicured grounds that boasted a new hotel, a pool, the Hall of Springs and a handful of other buildings.

Roosevelt would be re-elected for three more terms and would serve in the White house until his death in 1945.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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