June 28, 2021
Within the Hudson River National Historic Landmark District are two post offices both built in 1940 under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal—Rhinebeck and Hyde Park. A resident of Hyde Park, FDR took a personal interest in the construction of both post offices and brought in Rhinebeck artist, Olin Dows, to paint murals for both lobbies as part of the WPA program that was happening across America. Dows was tutored at Vassar College at an early age and attended both Yale and Harvard colleges where he continued to study art. He was a distant cousin of FDR and grew up at Foxhollow Farm, the Dows family estate in Rhinebeck. His father, Tracy Dows, was a prominent businessman and successful community organizer in the early twentieth century.
Concerns have been raised recently regarding the twelve-panel mural in the Rhinebeck Post Office and its depiction of people of color in subservient roles. The mural highlights historical scenes from Rhinebeck’s past. Out of concern for the offense these murals might provoke, as well as an interest in preserving the historical aspects of the Hudson Valley they represent, the Town of Rhinebeck commissioned a study by Myra Young Armstead, professor of historical studies at Bard College. Armstead has recently concluded her study finding that the images “depict an elite vision of people of color in subservient roles in a way that is narrow and incomplete”. Armstead recommends that interpretive signage be added to the displays in lieu of removal of the murals. “The murals correctly—yet disturbingly—reflect the racialized social hierarchy from the past in the town and region” and “is a critically important feature of history that needs to be preserved.” The Rhinebeck Town Board will be reviewing Armstead’s report and making recommendations to the US Postal Service.
The Hyde Park Post Office lobby similarly features nineteen panels depicting Hyde Park historical scenes between September of 1609 when Henry Hudson’s ship Half Moon anchored there along the banks of the Hudson River, to 1939 when FDR and the Hyde Park school board discussed plans for the Roosevelt High School. The content of these panels is not known to have generated concern.
For information on these Olin Dows murals, a booklet is available for $4 at the Rhinebeck Post Office with proceeds going to the Rhinebeck Historical Society. The Hyde Park Historical Society offers a small pamphlet for free at the Hyde Park Post Office.