Foundations: Breaking Ground with the WPA 

 In History

The global economic crisis of the Great Depression saw 5,000 U.S. banks fail and 25% of Americans out of work. Homelessness rose to hundreds of thousands. In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected president, signaling far-reaching change for the country with the introduction of numerous economic relief and recovery initiatives encompassed in the first New Deal. Two years later, a second New Deal was instituted and with it the establishment of the Works Progress Administration. The purpose of the administration was to provide jobs and income to the multitude of unemployed workers. Being the largest New Deal agency, it successfully employed 8.5 million workers over its eight-year existence. 

Projects undertaken by the WPA focused around infrastructure that would benefit current and future generations but also included beautification, park, and garden programs. Norfolk was the recipient of WPA support for use around the city such as the grading of Granby Street cut-off to Forest Lawn Cemetery, removal of dead trees, pruning, spraying, improvements to Lafayette Park, and garden maintenance of area cemeteries. During the Depression, Norfolk City Manager Thomas “Tommy” Thompson noticed that the azalea gardens of Charleston, South Carolina were turning a profit despite the harsh economy. Imagining that Norfolk could not only match but exceed their displays, Thompson convened with Parks Superintendent Fredric Huette to establish the Azalea Garden Project.  

On June 30, 1938, Virginia Congressman and Portsmouth native Norman R. Hamilton declared a grant was approved for $76,278 to begin the garden project. To turn the idea into a reality, a work force was needed. The economic downturn caused agricultural demand for labor to decline, especially at local spinach farms, leaving behind a pool of eager workers. Of these folks, 200 African-American women and 20 African-American men found employment at 25 cents per hour in the Azalea Garden Project. Ground was broken on September 15, 1938 


The project was conducted in three stages. The first centered on freeing the swampland of its natural covering; this involved stump removal, uprooting, earth-moving by wheelbarrow, and general clearing of the first 25 acres. During this most arduous portion of the project, workers faced all manner of natural hazards such as mosquitoes, ticks, poison ivy, oak and sumac, and most notably snakes. Temperate spring and fall gave way to suffocating summer heat and freezing winter gusts. Despite the harsh conditions, spirits were high. WPA workers said they were glad to have honest work during time of such drastic economic hardship. In 1939, the next stage of the project began, consisting of traditional gardening tasks like planting and topsoil dispersal. 4,000 azaleas were planted, along with 2,000 rhododendrons, camellias, and 100 bushels of daffodils—the total cost of the flora was around $6,000. During the final stage, observations, corrections, and fine-tuning were carried out. Plants were moved to better light and watering conditions, weeds pulled, walking paths established, the Mirror Lake shoreline bolstered, and dips in the ground filled. 

The initial funding didn’t extend through the project’s completion. During the spring of 1939, Tommy Thompson appealed to the WPA for further financing. With help from Albert Schwarzkopf, president of the Norfolk Association of Commerce, they successfully gained another $138,553 for city beautification and to finish the garden. By the time of its final WPA imbursement in March of 1941, the garden was 75 acres in size with five miles of walking trails and contained over 50,000 azaleas. On April 15th, the Azalea Garden Project was officially renamed Norfolk Municipal Garden, a reflection of the transition from concept to reality. The garden also transitioned from the WPA-funded workforce to a small garden staff which include Josephine Rollins, a WPA forewoman and the only member of the original workforce to stay on with the new establishment. 

Since the termination of Works Progress Administration involvement in October of 1941, the Garden has undergone many changes and improvements. In 2009, during the inaugural Norfolk Botanical Garden Annual WPA Garden Heritage Celebration, the Garden revealed the commemorative sculpture Breaking Ground by Kathleen Farrell at the dedication of the new WPA Memorial Garden. Both the sculpture and WPA Garden are located in the Mirror Lake vicinity, the site of the original Azalea Garden Project. 


Much of this material was sourced from the wonderful book The Norfolk Botanical Garden: A Natural Treasure by Amy Waters Yarsinske. If you would like to learn more about the Garden’s history, please consider purchasing a copy. 

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