WPA art in the Florida Keys
In the mid-1800s, Key West was the wealthiest city per capita in the United States.
In 1934, as the entire country was in the depths of the Great Depression, Key West, too, had fallen on hard times. The city had become bankrupt, and by some estimates, as many as 85 percent of its inhabitants were on relief.
Realizing the seriousness of the situation, the city and Monroe County prevailed upon Tallahassee, prompting Governor Sholtz to appoint Julius Stone, Florida's administrator for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), to assess the situation.
After a careful study, Mr. Stone determined that the only salvation for the charming but rundown city was rehabilitation and a general beautification program to make it attractive as a tourist resort.
Public Works of Art Project artists from other parts of the country were brought in and put to work creating paintings, murals or public places, and other projects, such as tourist brochures and postcards. An art gallery was established, where artists could sell their work, and art and craft classes were made available to adults and children. A choral society and dramatic organization was organized and a week-long festival was created, culminating in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance.
As a result of this program and other improvements, Key West attracted an estimated 35,000-40,000 tourists during the winter of 1934-35. As the FERA phased out during the summer of 1935, the Works Progress Administration (WPA) took over many of the ongoing projects, continuing through the early 1940s.
The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 destroyed the Overseas Railroad, causing major damage to the Upper Keys and a precipitous drop in tourism. Completion of the Overseas Highway in 1938 restored Key West's connection to the mainland and tourism again flourished.