Structures from Great Depression tell story of Rockford today, Part II

by BETH ALTENA

Barter became common during the Great Depression. Here an ad in the Rockford Register solicits "anything we can use" for subscription accounts. Note, back then the paper was not distributed free but only on a paid subscription basis.

The Depression was marked by the “alphabet soup” of government-funded employment to keep people working. The CWA was just one—also keeping men at work was the Civilian Conservation Corp, the Works Project Administration (which was jokingly referred to as “Water, Piss and Air.” The projects were usually infrastructure ones to the benefit of the public.

In Rockford, the projects were mostly city streets and water from 1935 to 1936 and the Michigan State Police Post in 1935 and 1936. A 200,000-gallon water storage tank was among the projects, a structure still in existence (although not currently used) up by the water tower on the hill behind North Rockford Middle School. The East Maple, Lincoln and Dayton streets were paved, and evacuated dirt filled in the swamp that used to exist where the Community Cabin is now located.

DeMaagd noted that architecture of the State Police Post may have been influenced by the style of Frank Lloyd Wright’s “New School of the Middle West” as evidenced by structural earmarks of the style: tapestry brick, porch, patio base, stone around the door and the belt course above the floor level of the second floor. A glance at Rockford’s Michigan State Police Post clearly shows the influence of the famous architect.

Many businesses could not survive the hard times of the Great Depression. Another advertisement from the Rockford Register tells about the Dick Kimm Furniture Store giving up. It reads "Everything must be sold to the walls."

The style is here today for those who take a look and see what is here today. DeMaagd said the buildings erected during those times were not solely funded by the government works projects, which largely provided labor. Material for the Community Cabin was in part financed by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, who held fundraisers.

“Raising money is not a new idea,” said DeMaagd. “They raised money for the Community Cabin in the middle of the Depression.”

Two other Depression-era constructions were the Rockford Post Office, authorized by a special act of Congress, and the Rockford Library, a gift of GA Krause. In 1940, the mural inside the Post Office, which visitors to the building can still admire, was installed by Pierre Bourdelle, a New York artist. Rockford probably was selected to have a post office because at that time Wolverine was a major parcel post user.

An example of classical architecture that was typical of construction during the Depression era years. The Michigan State Police in Rockford, as well as the old front (now side) entrance of Krause Memorial Library showed classic design.

Artists vied for the honor of being chosen to have their work installed in the public buildings. The murals were not supposed to be abstract and were supposed to reflect the nature of the community where they were destined to be installed. Rockford’s mural is titled “Among the Furrows” and is meant to reflect the farming community here. DeMaagd said it is of interest that the painting includes a Ram, although the artist, who had never visited Rockford, could have no way of knowing the school mascot. The mural, which is on canvas with bees wax paint, was created in his New York studio and was installed here in 1940.

About that time a new architectural style became popular: Art Deco, the shortened term from the French “Exposition des Artes Decoratifs and Industriels Modernes,” Paris, France, 1925. The architecture from that period became known as “Moderne,” sometimes also referred to as “shipstyle.”

Another government project funded during the Depression was the construction of a city water reservoir which is still in existence today up on the hill by the North Rockford Middle School water tower.

The new modern architecture incorporated a deck-style railing as well as the modern materials of steel, cement and glass. The theory is that a house is a machine to be lived in and minimalism is the key. Ornament in homes of this construction was considered a crime and the favorite color was white.

An example of this “modern style” is the one Victor and Gertrude Krause built in1936, which can still be seen at 7957 Northland Drive. The building, known locally as “The White House,” was considered extremely grand, although during its open house debut, all the guests became ill. It was discovered the heating system was flawed and everyone was suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by improper ventilation.

The Rockford Area Historical Society meets monthly on the first Thursday of each month at 7 p.m. and is a wonderful source of information such as this about our town. Meetings are free, open to the public and include refreshments. Watch the Squire’s calendar of events to see who will speak next and learn more about our town’s history.

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