Post office murals offer glimpses into the past

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post office mural Photo by Warrenton Postmaster Carrie Brown

Brushstrokes Through Time



Tucked away in Williamston, a small Inner Banks community of just over 5,000, is a treasured mural by well-respected artist Philip von Saltza. “First Flight of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk” and the construction of the post office where the art is displayed were part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s promise when he accepted the Democratic nomination for president in 1932: “I pledge myself to a new deal for the American people. This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms.”

“We do have some asking about the mural,” says Martin County Tourism Director Chase Conner. “It definitely is a one-of-a-kind mural to have in our downtown post office. The mural made front-page news on September 19, 1940…We even offer a postcard of the mural to tourists.”

American masters executed murals and other artwork in new federal building construction from 1934 to 1943, including post offices. Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s relief administrator, said in response to criticism of federal support for the arts, “[Artists] have got 
to eat just like other people.”

George Biddle, a Philadelphia artist, first suggested commissioning artists to decorate federal buildings. In 1933, a pilot program was created as a New Deal initiative. Because of the pilot’s success, project administrators created a unit within the Treasury Department—the Treasury Section of Fine Arts—which became known simply as “the Section.”

Artists, chosen not based on need but through anonymous competitions, were sometimes well-established with national reputations, such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, and sometimes young unknowns whose commission provided them with their first public exposure. 

Williamston mural artist von Saltza corresponded with one of the Wright Brothers while working on the mural to ensure accuracy. Von Saltza also painted murals at post offices in Saint Albans, Vermont, “Haying” and “Sugaring Off;” Milford, New Hampshire, “Lumberman Log-Rolling;” and Schuyler, Nebraska, “Wild Horses by Moonlight.”

Laying the Cornerstone of Old East" by Dean Cornwell at the Chapel Hill Post Office. Photo is public domain.

A Swedish immigrant and a graduate of Columbia University with a degree in mining engineering, von Saltza served in the 306th Field Artillery during WWI. After the war ended, he emerged as a professional painter.

All post office artists followed a flexible format—the art was to reflect the town’s heritage. The art would provide the average American a chance to view professional works; it was intended to lift people’s spirits and give them a shared sense of community during the troubled times of the Great Depression. The artist met with the postmaster and residents, sought the U.S. Post Office Department’s approval, and finally, the Section approved their sketches before work began.

More than 1,300 murals and 300 sculptures were commissioned nationwide. One percent of the funds appropriated for a building project was set aside for these “embellishments.”

Each project was unique in both subject and execution. For example, Beaufort has four murals with particular meaning for the place and time they were painted: “Crissy Wright,” “Goose Decoys,” “Mail to Cape Lookout” and “Sand Ponies,” all painted in 1940 by Simka Simkhovitch, a Russian artist and American immigrant. 

post office murals
"First Flight of the Wright Brothers at Kitty Hawk" by Philip von Saltza inside the Williamston Post Office. Photo by Martin County Tourism Director Chase Conner.

Simkhovitch also painted the mural at the federal courthouse in Jackson, Mississippi, “Pursuits of Life in Mississippi.” Other works of his art are in the permanent collections of the Dallas Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

All the images in these works are positive. The artwork offers a snapshot not only of history, but also of hope. Every post office mural has its own story: a window into the artistic tastes of the 1930s and ’40s and what subject matters residents felt would best reflect the community’s successes.

In Warrenton, a town of less than 1,000 residents located northeast of Raleigh, Alice Dineen created “North Carolina Pastoral,” a lovely natural scene positioned above the postmaster’s office door, where many of these commissioned murals took pride in place. Little is known about Dineen’s life except that she was born in New York City in 1908. Her art, which portrays natural subjects such as animals and flowers, occasionally comes up for auction. 

A few of these commissioned art pieces have disappeared over time, while others need repair. Sometimes these masterpieces have been moved from their original locations, or the post office buildings have been sold and used for a different purpose. Located throughout the state and across the country, these works are treasures to be appreciated for their beauty, the artists who painted them and the history they portray. If you haven’t yet visited any depression-era postal facilities, take the time—it’s everyone’s heritage. 

Visit Midtown Magazine for more feature stories.


Ahoskie (destroyed), Albemarle (destroyed), Beaufort, Belmont (building now used as Belmont City Hall), Boone, Brevard (moved to Transylvania County Library), Canton, Chapel Hill, Concord (destroyed), Dunn (now The Daily Record office), Eden, Elkin, Forest City, Gastonia, Hamlet, Kings Mountain, Laurinburg, Lincolnton, Louisburg, Madison, Marion (now Marion Public Library), Mebane (replaced with copy in 1964), Mooresville (now Mooresville Graded School District office), Morganton, New Bern, Red Springs, Reidsville (now used as Reidsville City Hall), Roanoke Rapids (missing), Rockingham, Roxboro (moved to Piedmont Community College), Sanford, Siler City, Southern Pines, Statesville Post Office and Courthouse (located in the courtroom), Wake Forest, Wallace, Warrenton, Weldon, Whiteville (moved to Southeastern Community College), Williamston and Wilmington.

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