The Works Progress Administration comes to Orlando


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The Davis Armory shortly after its final construction in 1938. (Photo courtesy of Orange County Regional History Center)

The Works Progress Administration (WPA) stands as one of the United States government’s most ambitious and far-reaching programs. This policy, enacted during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency from May 6, 1935, until June 30, 1943, aimed to combat the widespread economic crisis of the Great Depression.

It cost $5 billion ($186 billion today), employed 8.5 million workers and completed more than one million projects during its eight years. It funded historical research and public works of art, and its subsidiary, the Public Works Administration, constructed roads, airports and other public buildings. Two of the most notable national projects include the Golden Gate Bridge and New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

Downtown Orlando has three remaining sites of WPA projects, all beloved icons today. The first was the Orlando Stadium, now known as Camping World Stadium. Although the site has undergone several demolitions, renovations and new structures, the site has been continuously operated as an outdoor sports stadium since opening in 1936.

In 1947, the stadium was renamed the Tangerine Bowl and hosted college football’s first Tangerine Bowl, wherein Catawba College beat Maryville College 31-6. The stadium has changed significantly in its 83 years. It went from a 9,000-seat, municipal stadium to a 65,000-seat host of several annual bowl games.

Another WPA project is the Davis Armory located at the corner of West Bentley Street and Parramore Avenue. Built in 1938, it was intended to house the Orlando and Orange County National Guard units. Renovation and construction of National Guard armories were an area of focus for the WPA, with 850 such projects nationally.

During World War II, the Davis Armory served as a headquarters for the U.S. Army in Orlando and was later dedicated to the first local casualty of the war, Lieutenant Colonel Robert C. Davis. After years as a military complex, the City of Orlando repurposed the building as the Downtown Recreation Complex, which has housed the Orlando Pottery Studio since 1968 and has served as a practice facility for the Orlando Magic.

A picture postcard of the Downtown Post Office in Orlando. (Courtesy of Orange County Regional History Center)

Built on April 15, 1941, sitting at the corner of Jefferson Street and Magnolia Avenue, the Downtown Post Office was the final WPA building constructed in Orlando. The WPA’s immense construction boom employed its own architectural style called PWA Moderne, named after the Public Works Administration.

Characterized by architectural symmetry, recessed windows and smooth-stone surfaces, this unique style is reflected in thousands of public spaces built during the years of the WPA.

The post office and the armory are both designated historic landmarks, the former in 1989 and the latter in 2017. They stand as a reminder of Florida’s place in the national Great Depression story, and their singular architecture will now be preserved for future Orlandoans.

The Orange County Regional History Center is always looking for images of historic buildings, especially the Orlando Stadium. So, if you have any you are interested in donating or allowing us to scan, please contact Collections Manager Whitney Broadaway at Whitney.Broadaway@ocfl.net or (407) 836-8587.

Daniel Bradfield is the Oral Historian at the Orange County Regional History Center.

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