The WPA and the Forrest Cemetery Chapel

July 25, 2014 chris
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This week The Vagabond talks about the Work Projects Administration and Forrest Cemetery Chapel.

In October 1929, the stock market crashed wiped out 40 percent of the paper values of common stock and triggered a worldwide depression. By 1933, the value of stock on the New York Stock Exchange was less than a fifth of what it had been in 1929. Business houses closed their doors, factories shut down and banks failed. Farm income fell some 50 percent.

By 1932, approximately one out of every four Americans was unemployed. Franklin Delano Roosevelt took the helm as president in 1933. As soon as he took office, Roosevelt began pushing through legislation that would become the nation’s largest relief program – the Work Projects Administration (WPA). The WPA was later renamed the Works Progress Administration.

New jobs were created by the construction of roads, bridges, airports, parks and public buildings. It provided the vast legions of unemployed in this country a job, an income and self-respect.

Between the years of 1935 and 1943, the WPA provided about eight million jobs. What was truly novel about the New Deal, however, was the speed with which it accomplished what previously had taken generations.

Even though it did better than most cities, Gadsden was able to benefit from WPA projects. Gadsden’s many industries continued to flourish. In 1930, it was reported that around 1,500 men reported to the Goodyear plant from three states looking for a job.

All was not as prosperous as one may believe. City of Gadsden officials borrowed huge sums in order to keep the city functioning. Despite the expansion of industry in Gadsden, there were 415 locals in 1930 looking for a job.

The first local WPA pro-ject – and the one that went on to attract national attention – was the Forrest Cemetery Chapel. The chapel was designed after a 12th century Old English parish church of Gothic design. Construction began in 1935, with Paul Hofferbert as the architect.

WPA superintendent M.H. Tardy found two experienced stonemasons in Jimmy Christopher and George Szymanski. These two men in turn trained 27 men who had been pipeshop workers.

The chapel’s stone was sandstone quarried from nearby Lookout Mountain above the falls. It was very hard to find proper type sandstone. These stones were cut to the desired size, matched and blended for the interior and exterior of the chapel. Inside, beams and trusses were handmade of hardwood logs.

The light fixtures were made of worn-out shovels, iron wheel rims and scrap metal. The large doors and woodwork were made in the WPA woodshop, which employed the physically handicapped.Even the door hinges were fashioned from the shop. 

Total cost of the chapel was $1,500, an amazingly low figure even for that time period.

At the same time the chapel was being built, the WPA project included filling in land to the west to enlarge the cemetery. Other work went into building curbs, driveways, stone walls, a small building and other improvements.

By 1980, the chapel had fallen into a state of disrepair. At one point, the building was used as a storage area for tools and machinery. Along with City of Gadsden Mayor Steve Means, the cemetery board and beautification board (chaired by Randall Cross) dedicated their efforts and established a successful restoration fund to renovate the chapel.

Forrest Cemetery dates back to 1872, when Capt. A.L. Woodliff purchased the property and had the site cleared for a cemetery. The first person to be buried was Woodliff’s infant daughter Sallie, who died July 13, 1872. At the time, the cemetery was located at the very western edge of the city, and the old cemetery (which was in the center of the block bounded by Fifth, Broad, Court and Locust streets) was becoming crowded. By 1926, the property was turned over to the City of Gadsden, who has cared for it since that time.

The stone works on the chapel and throughout the cemetery reflects the dedication of those who meticulously fitted them some 65 years ago. Today the chapel stands prominent in the beautiful settings of Forrest Cemetery.