A few years ago my mother sent me a newspaper article about the closure of the William Penn Annex Post Office in the Robert. N. C. Nix, Sr. Federal Courthouse. She circled the name Donald De Lue in the image credit. De Lue was a renowned sculptor who had executed several pieces on the facade of this building. My mother had taken an interest in his work from a young age when she visited the sculptor’s studio in the artist colony of Leonardo, New Jersey. She vividly remembers venturing into his workspace with my grandmother on several occasions to view his finished clay sculptures before they were shipped off and cast in bronze. As I learned of this remote family connection and began to explore De Lue’s life and works, I was shocked to learn that the Depression-era building that his reliefs reside on was not listed on the Philadelphia Register.
Without a local historic designation to legally protect the building, the Robert N. C. Nix, Sr. Federal Building remains vulnerable to demolition. Razing this building would erase New Deal public art that is scarce in Philadelphia’s current landscape–art that became synonymous with the style of federal buildings erected during the Depression. It would also further diminish the contributions of De Lue, who used this federal art commission in the late 1930s as a launching pad for his career.
De Lue began professionally sculpting under the shadow of the economic crisis of the 1930s. During that time, public trust and confidence waned not only in the stock market, but in the government’s ability to care for their well-being. President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized a series of massive public works projects aimed at rejuvenating both the economy and public spirit. The Nix Federal Building was one such grandiose New Deal public art project. Its unique style came to typify American industriousness, strength, determination, and hope through such bleak times.
De Lue was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1897. He had a passion for art as a child and it has been said that he impressed many people with his drawings. De Lue began to apprentice with local sculptors at 12-years-old and several years later trained at Boston’s School of the Museum of Fine Arts. He also studied internationally in Paris and Lyon. In the midst of the economic crisis of the 1930s, De Lue forged his own distinctive style often depicting the human form in a smooth fusion of realism and classicism. This created a style in which De Lue was able to generate human like figures who appeared almost angelic in nature, and represented the quintessence of ideals–exactly what the U.S. government wanted to inspire its people. When the federal government presented the opportunity to fund commissions for public art, De Lue was ready and he quickly began submitting designs for projects in Washington D.C. and New York.
De Lue’s big break came when the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture selected him as one of the emerging artists to make sculptural reliefs on the facade of the Nix Federal Building that was commissioned in Philadelphia in 1937. De Lue received a recommendation for this project in 1939 because he was a runner-up in the Federal Trade Commission Building in Washington D.C. The Nix Federal Building’s architect, Harry Sternfeld, was opposed to having a public art competition for his building. The Section of Fine Arts compelled Sternfeld to choose De Lue because they wanted to award commissions to artists who had competed in their Washington D.C. competition. De Lue submitted preliminary sketches for the reliefs and received a contract which the committee promptly approved.
The building’s Moderne architecture reflects popular trends in the 1930s that are few and far between in Philadelphia. Law, Justice, and Eagle‘s patriotic themes speak to the function of the federal building. This was De Lue’s first public commission, yet his reliefs were placed prominently near the main entrance and two eagle models in the elevator lobby. De Lue received $2,000 for each of the relief sculptures and $1,000 for the eagles. Edmund Amateis executed the remaining mail carrier reliefs on the adjacent facade of the building. Amateis’ pieces spoke to the building’s use as a post office, highlighted in a Hidden City article in 2016.
De Lue was not a traditional sculptor and forged a distinctive iconography that is recognizable in much of his later works. While he chose to incorporate identifiable symbols of patriotism in federal projects, he imparted his own unique style into the clay. The Michelangelo-inspired sculptor typically imbued his pieces with energy, exaggerated characteristics, elongated gestures, defined muscles, and curvilinear motions. Justice and Law are seated, flanking parallel sides of the main entrance. Behind the pair are eagles with their wings thrust open. Justice holds a flame in her left hand, which symbolizes truth. In other examples of American public art, symbols of justice are depicted with a scale. Nodding to this tradition, De Lue chose to have Justice stretch out her right hand as if the figure depicted would weigh the actions of the individual herself. Law rests his right hand on fasces, which serves as a symbol of power and authority. The defined muscular tones and elongated robes convey a sense a power. These two sculptures symbolize the function of the courthouse: to uphold the law and ensure justice.
De Lue’s work on the Nix Federal Building opened many doors for future commissions. He used this opportunity to introduce himself to Paul Cret, the French-American architect who, at the time, was working on the Federal Reserve Bank Building down the street from the courthouse. As he recounted in The Sculptures of Donald De Lue: Gods, Prophet, and Heroes, this networking opportunity enabled him to gain commissions at the University of Pennsylvania, the old Federal Reserve Bank in Philadelphia, Boy Scout Monument in Washington D.C. and Spirit of American Youth in Omaha Beach Cemetery in Normandy. When viewed in this context, Law, Justice, and Eagle mark the ascendance of De Lue’s career.
In 1990 the Nix Federal Building gained federal designation on the National Register of Historic Places because of its architectural significance as a structure built in the Moderne style. Sadly, a listing on the National Register does not guarantee the survival of buildings in Philadelphia. Owners of nationally-designated buildings can remodel, alter, demolish, or sell off their property with no restrictions without heed to the building’s structural, historic, or cultural integrity. Without a listing on the Philadelphia Register Donald De Lue’s works could hypothetically be eradicated from the city’s landscape. The demolition would diminish not only the legacy for the artist, but a living part of Philadelphia’s built history. De Lue’s privately funded works Alchemist, on the exterior of the University of Pennsylvania’s Cret Wing, and Triton Fountain, standing behind a fence at 925 Chestnut Street, while important, occupy far less prominent positions in the city.
Privatization and demolition are not uncommon fates for New Deal public art across the country. In 2005, the Philadelphia Civic Center was torn down after a decade without a regular tenant. The building opened in 1931 and served Philadelphians by hosting concerts, famous speakers, sporting events, and Democratic and Republican National Conventions over the course of its lifetime. Architectural modelers and sculptors Brockhouse and Kerner executed several limestone friezes for the exterior of the building. The artworks referenced education and sporting events the Civic Center hosted. Before its demolition, Olde Good Things, an architectural antique dealer, salvaged the New Deal artwork and sold it to buyers in New York, New Jersey, and Russia.
These bas relief sculptures represent the federal government’s investment in artists during the Depression. Artists like De Lue gained invaluable experience and exposure through these commissions. Like the Philadelphia Civic Center, Law, Justice and Eagle could be relocated within the city or to new locations across the world. However, a new venue would distort the way the artist intended for these works to be presented.
Buildings on the National Register of Historic Places like the Nix Federal Building should be legally protected in Philadelphia and automatically qualify for placement on the Philadelphia Register. De Lue’s public art was meant to beautify and inspire civic space and should remain doing so for generations to come.