140 drawings in pen-and-ink, pencil, and watercolors, ranging in size from 25 x 35 cm to 40 x 45 cm
The WPA Historic Houses Drawings Collection includes 140 images of houses, courthouses, churches, mill houses, and taverns, representing 39 Virginia counties. In the early- to mid-1930s, the Virginia State Commission on Conservation and Development’s Division of History and Archaeology received funds from the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Art Project to commission five artists to create drawings for a publication on historic Virginia shrines. Like other WPA-funded projects, the artists applied for work through local emergency relief offices before being assigned to the Federal Art Project. Several of the artists also contributed to other New Deal projects at the time, including stamp designs for the National Recovery Act and illustrations for the Index of American Design, a nationwide Federal Art Project.
Under the direction of Hamilton J. Eckenrode, the commission’s Division of History and Archaeology began making a record of historic buildings in Virginia in 1932. Field assistant (and artist) Rex M. Allyn took photographs of buildings while on assignment to the Division’s Historic Highway Marker project. From 1932 to 1937, Allyn and four other artists—Edward A. Darby, Dorothea A. Farrington, E. Neville Harnsberger, and Elsie J. Mistie—each created numerous pen-and-ink and pencil drawings from the photographs. In some cases, the artists were asked to make adjustments to the architectural details to produce a drawing that more closely represented the original structure. In February 1936, Allyn wrote to Edward Darby regarding photographs of Gunston Hall, Mason Place, and Shellfield, asking him to remove cables that supported the chimney of Gunston Hall, a fence that was shown in front of Mason Place, and a modern porch at Shellfield. He also suggested that Darby “not show the little buildings and additions in the back part of the picture, or the swings and seats scattered about the yard” at Shellfield. The photographs from which the drawings were based are part of the WPA Photograph and Negative Collection at the Library of Virginia.
At least three of the artists were academically trained in the visual arts from institutions such as the Chicago Institute of Art and the Maryland Institute of Art (now MICA). Edward Darby operated his own advertising and commercial illustration business in Atlanta, Georgia, and Baltimore, Maryland, before joining the project. And in 1940, the commission published thirteen of Darby’s illustrations in Virginia: A Guide to the Old Dominion, a book that was compiled by workers of the WPA’s state-sponsored Virginia Writers’ Project. Elsie Mistie was an accomplished artist, receiving commissions for a variety of art projects throughout her life. Mistie’s collection of about 500 drawings and paintings of wildflowers is now in the collections of the Arts & Science Center for Southeast Arkansas, and the remainder of her work is at the Rogers Historical Museum in Arkansas. Others, like Neville Harnsberger, did not continue a career in art. After working for the commission, she married and started a family in Atlanta.
By 1937, the project began to wind down, as indicated in the history division’s letters. In July 1937, Allyn wrote to the FAP’s assistant director, Thomas C. Parker, asking to keep Dorothea Farrington on the project, noting that Darby had been transferred. He also commented, “I realize it is becoming necessary to reduce the number employed on many projects.” Although the drawings were never published by the commission as intended, likely due to diminishing funds, the collection presents an important record of Virginia architecture, both traditional and vernacular, and includes images of structures that are no longer standing today.
Related resources and collections:
Rex M. Allyn to Edward A. Darby, February 10, 1936, WPA Artists Project Folder, Department of Conservation and Development, Division of History, Records, 1927–1950, Acc. 24806a-c, 25913, and 41571, the Library of Virginia, Richmond.
Rex M. Allyn to Thomas C. Parker, July 12, 1937, WPA Artists Project Folder, Department of Conservation and Development, Division of History, Records, 1927–1950, Acc. 24806a-c, 25913, and 41571, the Library of Virginia, Richmond.