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Tomas Penning and the National Youth Administration Work Center in Woodstock

By Bruce Weber

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In celebration of the opening on October 9th of the exhibition Native Stone: The Art of Tomas Penning at the Woodstock School of Art, I am publishing this article at Learning Woodstock Art Colony. A slightly different and less detailed version, with fewer accompanying images, appears in the September 30th, 2021 issue of Hudson Valley 1.

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During the period 1938 to 1942, the Saugerties sculptor Tomas Penning (1905-1982) played a principal role in the creation and operation of the National Youth Administration Work Center in Woodstock, New York, the current home of the Woodstock School of Art.[1] The establishment of the NYA as a New Deal Agency in 1935 was a testimony to the concerns and efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, who served as a messenger to her husband, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, on the plight of youth in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Woodstock was selected as the site because of the community’s reputation as a center for arts and crafts in America.

Young Male Workers of the

National Youth Administration


Following FDR’s establishment of the National Youth Administration in 1935, the agency would help over two million young people. Ninety-five percent of the national recruits came from families who were certified as in need of public relief, and whose children were a drain on their meager incomes. The NYA students were between 18 and 23, and consisted almost equally of both sexes, and of races in proportion to the general population.

Unknown Photographer

Eleanor Roosevelt at VallKill Industries, 1938

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Library,

Hyde Park, New York


The NYA Work Center in Woodstock provided young men the chance to learn such skills as wool processing, woodworking, metalworking, stone-carving and building, and was divided into four major craft units. Men dominated the population of the center, as the only program open to women was in the textile unit. The center was run as far as possible by students working in cooperation with elected group leaders, councilmen and home captains. The center was modeled after Valkill Industries, which was established by Eleanor Roosevelt and her friends Nancy Cool, Caroline O’Day, and Marion Dickerman. From 1927 to 1936 Valkill Industries sold reproductions of Colonial-era furniture, weavings, and pewter that were produced by New York State park workers.

Eugene Caille, 1940

Collection of Eugene Caille, Jr.

New Textile Building – Woodstock, National Youth Administration Work Center, 1941

Photograph, James Cox Gallery


Penning was hired as stone-carving instructor (and occasionally as ceramics instructor), and as a special craft consultant at the National Youth Administration Work Center. His fellow teachers included Ernest Brace as woodworking instructor; Eugene Caille as wool instructor; and Elliot Fatum as metalwork instructor. Artist, poet, and journalist Jean Wrolsen noted the presence at the center of some dozen stone cutters from the area who assisted in the school’s educational work.[2]

Detail from Photograph of

Norman Towar Boggs, Jr.

and May Boggs, 1937 or 1938

Gelatin silver print

Collection of Diana Boggs


Penning was hired by Norman Towar Boggs, Jr., an administrator, editor, writer and artist whose father had purchased property in the 1920s on the outskirts of the village of Woodstock, following the lead of John Dewey and other Columbia University professors. In the early 1930s, Boggs, Jr. returned to Woodstock after living abroad for several years, In 1938 he became closely involved with the planning, founding and operation of the NYA Work Center. Upon the inauguration of the organization in the autumn of that year, he authored a brief article in his periodical Order on the NYA’s “aim to provide experience to underprivileged youth in youthful skills.”[3] From 1939 to 1942, he served as the director of education, general craft coordinator and executive assistant to the director of the center. Among his first tasks was to hire Penning as stone-carving instructor.

A planning committee was initially established consisting of prominent local people in the arts, music, social work and literature. The committee chairman was the artist and art writer Julia Leaycraft; Tomas Penning was vice chairman, N. Jansen Smith was secretary-treasurer, and Anita M. Smith was assistant secretary-treasurer. Among other members of the committee were Boggs, Jr., Elizabeth Penning (Penning’s wife, who was active as an sculptor, painter, ceramicist and weaver), Carl Eric Lindin, Dr. John A. Kingsbury, Judson Smith, Miska Petersham, Peter Whitehead, Harold Rugg, Craig Vosburgh, Marianne Appel, and Dr. James T. Shotwell. Boggs and Penning were among the few members of the planning committee who became involved in the day-to-day activities of the NYA. Penning was in accord with the school’s emphasis on craft, explaining that the agency and he both felt “that we have all gotten too far away from our home industries and crafts---and that the surest though perhaps the slow way, to get our people off relief rolls is to train them back into the small home industries of their particular locales.”[4] Penning also believed that what the boys would learn of the craft of stonecutting was of more value to them than trying to become “indifferent” sculptors.[5]


Among the people in the Woodstock community most interested in establishing the center were artists, craftsmen and intellectuals. Boggs, Jr., later stated that the NYA Work Center could not have existed without the local community, which “fashioned the planning, construction, administration and teaching staff of the NYA Camp. . . . there was a climate of social idealism in the community that embraced individualism, self-reliance [and] social welfare.”[6] He also noted that the Saturday night dances at the Wilgus Country Store in the High Woods section of Saugerties, where Tomas and his wife Elizabeth resided, was a “meeting ground where ideas were exchanged about the establishment of the NYA school in Woodstock.”[7] In addition to having a long-standing tradition in the arts and crafts, Woodstock had an abundance of natural materials (bluestone and timber). The town also provided a ready pool for local instructors, and was near large urban centers so students would not have to travel far from home. People realized as well that the center would bring some financial benefits to the town as well as that of nearby Kingston.

John Kleinhans (b. 1942)

Former Site of Wildwoods Farms, Lake Hill, 2020


Initially, the NYA sought to establish a camp at Mink Hollow, approximately six and a half miles west of Woodstock. The original land furnished for the center was part of the city of Kingston’s watershed, and the city soon objected on the grounds that the center might pollute its water supply. In a spirit of cooperation, the Kingston Water Department offered a long leasehold at a token rent for approximately 37 acres at Easton Lane in Woodstock. The center’s first temporary quarters for boys was at a summer resort called Wildwood Farms in Lake Hill, a short distance from Mink Hollow, while its faculty and students plunged into clearing the site at Easton Lane. To initiate the programs of study, classes in stonecutting were begun in Penning’s studio in High Woods, while other classes found space in the Allencrest Hotel in Woodstock (now home to the American Legion). In a letter to the New York Herald Tribune of August 6, 1940, outlining the course of study, Penning reported that he had a group of 15 boys working in his studio who were learning to be stone cutters, which included operating their own quarry and getting out the stone.[8]

Over the next three years over 200 students participated in the program, more than three quarters of them young men, all residents of New York State—147 of them registered in Kingston. The majority were white but a number were Native American and African American. Lumber was cut onsite, and electricity was installed by local tradesmen, assisted by camp residents. There were various construction delays in receiving materials and the inexperience of the young construction crew.


Eleanor Roosevelt took great pride in the NYA Work Center in Woodstock, an outgrowth of her own personal interest in handicraft. She attended the laying of the cornerstone of the woodworking building in 1939, and arranged picnics with the students both in Woodstock and in nearby Hyde Park. Eleanor became friendly with the Pennings. They were invited to a picnic given by the Roosevelts, and also attended as members of the Woodstock- and Saugerties-based square dance group Cheats and Swings.

Tomas and Elizabeth Penning Square Dancing, Cheats and Swings,

c. 1940

Penning Family Archives


It was at the latter event that Penning possibly whirled Eleanor about the dance floor, and FDR looked on with approval, thanking him after he returned Mrs. Roosevelt to him in his wheelchair after the dance.[9] On one occasion Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Pennings while Elizabeth’s mother was in from Florida. Despite her mother's strenuous disagreement with FDR’s policies, she maintained an air of politeness.[10]


The overall design concept for the NYA Work Center is attributed to Edmond Cloonan, a local resident who served as an engineer for the WPA.[11] The design called for three buildings sited around an oval formed by a curving drive, and an interior road and foot path, large windows to provide north lighting, and cement flooring to support woodworking and heavy machinery. Norman Towar Boggs, Jr. recalled in an interview in 1992 with artist Paula Nelson (who has had a long and important involvement with the Woodstock School of Art, and before that, with the Art Students League’s summer school in Woodstock), that he did “not know of any master format or architectural plan for the NYA buildings. He surmises that the Stone and Iron Working Building was largely the plan of Tomas Penning. . . . also, that Eugene Caille may have had some input into the construction of the Wool Working Building. Further, that Ernest Brace, a carpenter, may have designed or built the arched windows [of the woodworking shop].”[12] William Cloonan believed that it was his father, Edward, who designed the Palladium-style window on the south side of what currently is the gallery and office building of the Woodstock School of Art.[13] Boggs, Jr., considered the NYA buildings “a collaborative effort," Nelson writes. "He speculates that the architecture evolved as the result of the use of the buildings, the materials readily available, and the opportunity to teach the students how to build with the materials.”[14] He further stated that “the Woodstock camp was unique [among the NYA camps throughout the country], having been constructed for the purpose; other camps utilized existing buildings and state college campuses . . . . that other camps [also] taught more traditional technical and vocational job-related skills.”[15]

Unknown Photographer Students Working on the Roof of the Stone-Carving and Metalworking Building,

National Youth Administration Woodstock Work Center, c. 1940 Selected NYA Photos,

Courtesy Woodstock Library


The construction of the center began in early March of 1939. Under the watchful eyes and support of their teachers the boys constructed the main buildings, and learned the principles of building a house. The program aimed to move the young people on the road to attaining jobs. They rotated from one department to another, in order that they could learn as many phases as possible of the various trades, and occupations. Boggs, Jr. related that two men were sent from the capital in Albany to consult in the organization of the construction of the project. He related that “A. A. Medved was one, and the other was [a black man named] Taylor [who lodged] with the Pennings when he was in town because no hotel or rooming house would register a black person at that time.”[16] In all, seven buildings were constructed on the property—the three main buildings, each having a space of between 3000 and 4000 square feet, and four sheds.


The long, low, straight-forward architectural forms of the three main buildings are in keeping with the rustic aesthetic associated with the Woodstock art colony, going back to the construction of the Byrdcliffe art colony at the turn of the 19th century. They were built of a combination of materials, including native bluestone, clapboard wood siding with undressed wavy edges (as well as with a milled finish), and some brick. The gable roofs were originally made of slate, but many now have been replaced by asphalt. The interiors generally consist of large open spaces under exposed roof trusses.

Tomas Penning (1905-1982)

Original Stone-Carving and Metalworking Building of the National Youth Administration Work Center (now Studio 3 and 4 at Woodstock School of Art),

opened early 1941

Photograph by John Kleinhans


Credit has been given to the architect Albert Graeser for designing the woodworking shop, which was the first structure to be built. Graeser was a leading local architect. His buildings include the elementary school across New York State Route 375 from the Woodstock golf course. The writer Sylvia Day, who resided close to the Penning’s property in the High Woods section of Saugerties, on land that abutted the Glasco Turnpike and John Joy Road, credited the artist with designing the stone-carving and metal-working building and co-designing the textile building, and supervising the construction of all three buildings.[17] According to Eugene Caille, Jr., his father Eugene indicated to him that he designed the textile building and oversaw its construction, but Penning may have had a partial voice in its doing. In a recent conversation, Caille related that his father liked Penning and likely learned from him.[18] It was the last of the three main buildings to be completed, opening in the spring of 1941. Anita M. Smith, the longtime Woodstock resident, artist and writer of an important history of the art colony who, as noted, served on the NYA planning committee, reported that Penning directed the students in building the pitch-faced bluestone walls for the three structures.[19]

Original Construction of Woodworking Building, NYA Center, 1939

Former Woodworking Building, NYA WorkCenter

Currently Gallery and Offices,

Woodstock School of Art


The stone-carving and metalworking building was begun in mid-1940 and was completed in early 1941. Its near completion was reported in December in the Woodstock press as being “designed by Tomas Penning [and] being built of native stone, and when completed part of its equipment will be two 20-inch industrial lathes which have just arrived from the U.S. Army arsenal at Watervliet.”[20] The single-story structure now houses the graphic workshop and printmaking studio of the Woodstock School of Art. The walls of the building were made entirely of bluestone masonry, except for a small section of board and batten siding. The north side has a large dormer window, and on the west elevation there is a very large semicircular arched window, which serves as the focus of the design. The interior was originally divided into two sections to accommodate the metal and stone-carving programs. The design of he structure relates to that of the bluestone house Penning designed for his home in the High Woods section of Saugerties.

Tomas Penning (1905-1982)

Phoenix, c. 1940 Bluestone Graphics and Printmaking Studio, Woodstock School of Art

Photograph by John Kleinhans

Tomas Penning (1905-1982)

Cover Image: The Phoenix, Spring 1939

Historical Society of Woodstock

Tomas Penning (1905-1982)

Hippo c. 1940 Bluestone Graphics and Printmaking Studio, Woodstock School of Art

Photograph by John Kleinhans


On the walls of the metal shop (now the graphic workshop) are two stone relief panels, one a phoenix rising in flames that relates to Penning’s cover design of the period for the Maverick art colony periodical The Phoenix (and an appropriate motif for a metalworking shop), and the other a hippopotamus. Boggs, Jr. believed that Penning may have carved the hippo “as a whimsy.”[21] Both panels were made from small separate slabs of bluestone and then assembled.

Unknown Photographer

Young Men Working on Stone, National Youth Administration Woodstock Resident Work Center, c. 1941

Historical Society of Woodstock


Beginning at Penning’s studio and quarry, students learned the use of elementary tools such as the pitch, point, chisel, bull-set and hand drill, as well as the compressor, jackhammer and derrick, while cutting building stone and roughing out stock for shop work. In the workshop at the NYA, they learned to letter in stone and to design and fashion garden furniture, monuments, gravestones, fountains and urns. Over the course of their study the youths had the chance to spend some of their time learning masonry, and laying stone walls, building fireplaces, terraces, flagstone walks, stops, or in setting curbing. It was reported that the students “made many interesting pieces such as bird baths for the Kingston parks, monuments of various types and many smaller pieces, expertly cut.”[22] At the center the youths also studied designing, tool sharpening, types of rocks, stone diseases, proper use and treatment of stone, and a brief history of stone cutting through the ages. Blacksmithing and ironwork were also sometimes included in the work of Penning’s craft unit. Students were provided experience with working with several different kinds of stone, but especially bluestone.


A dozen of the NYA students became journeymen stonecutters under Penning’s tutelage. According to Sylvia Day, one of Penning’s former students carved the tombstone laid over the grave of the Maverick’s Hervey White.[23] At the time of White’s death in 1944, Penning was serving abroad in the armed forces in World War II. According to Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt’s biographer, Eleanor “was heartened by NYA programs that trained white and colored youth in stonework, which had resulted in an ‘epidemic’ of new stone houses.”[24]


Penning found the young people a delight to work with. He explained that “one reason [they are a delight] is that they are given time for quality workmanship. Our machine-driven age has done much to stifle both workmanship and the creative ability. They require time and elbow-room. . . . We’re a pretty happy family---and a busy one. . . . I hope to get these boys scheduled in useful trades for which there is an actual demand. One practical angle of putting men to work in the bluestone field is that there is no expensive equipment required. You see I am stressing the practical in this venture. For that reason, I plan in the near future to teach these young men the science of fireplace and chimney-building. I want to combine the practical chimney-building stone-mason with the creative stone-carving artist. . . . there have always been two distinct classes of stone artists---the purely theoretical artistic type, and the day-working stone mason. We start right at the beginning with petrology. . . . the study of stone composition. Stone is not a dead but a living thing---subject to disease and disintegration. Its welfare for example is dependent upon the very angle at which it is laid. It should be laid in masonry as nearly as possible in the same position as it lay in the quarry. The figuring of proper stresses in masonry, we call the masonry of fracture. . . . It is a real study . . . essential to the art of laying and carving stone.“[25]


Penning was proud of the level of craftsmanship achieved by his students. In late 1939 he arranged an exhibit at the Woodstock Artists Association of stonework and pottery by his students at the NYA. A special exhibition of stonework held at the NYA in June of 1941 featured examples by the “stone-cutting unit, of which stone carving, quarrying, [and] lettering design is . . . displayed [and] tools used in such work and a block of stone partly finished as to design, the carving being done by students.”[26]

Tomas Penning (1905-1982) (designed)

Bill Carver (?-) and Bob Eck (?-?) (carvers)

Eight Relief Panels on Base of Flagpole, National Youth Administration Work Center, 1940

Bluestone

Woodstock School of Art

Photograph by John Kleinhans

Mrs. Roosevelt Raising the Flag, N.Y.A. Center, Woodstock, 1940

Photograph, James Cox Gallery


Penning designed three works that stand on the lawn of the Woodstock School of Art. The most prominent is the series of high reliefs on the eight sides at the bottom of the flagpole to the left of the entrance road. The reliefs were carved in 1940 by Penning’s students Bill Carver and Bob Eck. The same students also carved the cornerstone on the woodworking building. The reliefs illustrate aspects of the camp’s teaching curriculum, and the camper’s daily activities, among them images of masons, metalworkers and woodworkers, farm workers, agricultural products, ceramics, and leisure sporting activities, and a panel featuring a spinning wheel, the shearing of sheep, and the mechanics of a loom. In mid-August of 1940, Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated the bluestone base of the flagstaff. Following her visit, she attended a tea at the Penning’s home, which included artists Charles Rosen and Carl Eric Lindin.

Tomas Penning (1905-1982)

Birdbath,1940

Bluestone

Woodstock School of Art


The grounds of the Woodstock School of Art is also home to a birdbath by Penning that he gave as a gift to his journalist friends Polly and Sid Kline. The base was carved by one of Penning’s students during his NYA days—incised at the bottom of the base is the inscription “NYA 1940.” A photograph of a birdbath with the identical base was included in the Woodstock School of Arts’ A New Deal for Art exhibition of 2011. Upon seeing the photograph in the exhibition, the Klines' daughter Nancy donated the birdbath to the institution. Also located on the school’s lawn is a bluestone sundial, donated by the artist and designer Petra Cabot, which was purportedly created by Penning at the time of the school’s initial construction in 1939. Similar sundials were on his property in High Woods, some of which now are on the grounds of the James Cox Gallery in Willow. A house on the Cox property has a fieldstone fireplace and chimney designed by Penning, which was probably constructed by his NYA students in the course of 1939 when they were residing approximately a mile away in Lake Hill.


The National Youth Administration Work Center in Woodstock closed in early 1942 following the entry of the United States into World War II. Many students joined the armed services; in one day, three quarters of the men left for the war effort. At the end of the war a few of them returned to live in Woodstock. From 1947 to 1979, the Art Students League utilized the buildings, and the Woodstock School of Art followed suit. The buildings continue to survive with great integrity.

[1] I would like to thank Paula Nelson and John Kleinhans for generously sharing the material they gathered in the course of working on the exhibition A New Deal in Art, which was held at the Woodstock School of Art in 2011. Many additional people have provided valuable help in making my work on Penning possibe, including Mary Giuliano, daughter of Tomas and Elizabeth Penning, Nina Doyle, Executive Director, Woodstock School of Art, Kim Apolant, Librarian, Woodstock Public Library; Emly Jones, Archivist, Woodstock Artists Association and Museum; James Cox; Peter Jones; the late Father Carl D, Johnson; Diana Boggs; Nancy Kline; Matthew Leaycraft; JoAnn Margolis, Archivist, Historical Society of Woodstock; Kate McGloughlin; New York Public Library; the late John Penning; Marc Plate; Tad Richards; Joel Rosenkranz; Saugerties Public Library; Michael Sullivan Smith; and Joanne Pagano Weber. [2] Jean Wrolsen, “Louise Remembers II,” Old Dutch Post Star, November 3, 1983, p. 23. This is the second of two articles by Wrolsen concentrating on Louise M. Fatum’s memories of the development and history of the National Youth Administration Center in Woodstock. Fatum was the wife of Elliott Fatum, the center’s teacher of metalwork. The first part of the article appeared in the Old Dutch Post Star on October 27, 1983, page 17. [3] Norman Towar Boggs, Jr., “NYA Inaugurates Craft Experienced Center,” Order, vol. 2, no. 4 (Fall 1938): 3. [4] Transcript of a radio Interview with Tomas Penning by Frances Hasbrouck for her program Gadabout, c. 1939-1942, unpaginated, Penning Family Archives. Hereafter referred to as “Radio Transcript.” The name of the radio station at which the program was broadcast is not known. [5] Ibid. [6] Paula Nelson, Telephone Interview with Norman Towar Boggs, Jr., March 9, 1992, unpaginated. I would like to thank Paula Nelson for sharing her detailed notes of this conversation. [7] Ibid. [8] “Mr. Penning Writes,” New York Herald Tribune, August 6. 1940. The page number is missing from the copy in the Penning Family Archives. [9] This story was passed along to Paula Nelson from various sources. [10] Mary Giuliano, daughter of Tomas and Elizabeth Penning, shared this story relating to the Roosevelts and the Pennings. [11] The attribution to Edmond Cloonan is noted in Kathleen LaFrank, "National Register of Historic Places Registration: National Youth Administration Woodstock Resident Work Center,"New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation (March 1992). I would like to thank Paul Nelson for providing a copy of this informative and important document. Another excellent source for information on the National Youth Administration Work Center in Woodstock is Alf Evers, Woodstock: History of an American Town (Woodstock, New York and New York: The Overlook Press, 1987), pp. 597-598. [12] Nelson, n.p. [13] Email from Paula Nelson to Bruce Weber, July 25, 2021. [14] Nelson., n.p. [15] Ibid., n.p. [16] Ibid., n.p. [17] Sylvia Day, “Serenity, Contemplation, Emotion are Evident in Penning’s Work,” Ulster County Gazette, October 5, 1978, p. 15 [18] Conversation with Eugene Caille, Jr., December 2, 2019. [19] Anita M. Smith, Woodstock History and Hearsay (Woodstock, New York: Woodstock Arts, 2006), p. 173. Smith’s book was first published in 1959 by the Catskill Mountain Corporation in Saugerties, New York. [20] “NYA Center Product Becomes Part of U.S. Housing Exhibit,” Woodstock, December 20, 1940, otherwise unidentified newspaper clipping, Penning Family Archives. [21] Nelson, n.p. [22] “N.Y.A. Center at Woodstock Now Aids National Defense,” Kingston Daily Freeman, February 8, 1941, p. 7. [23] Day, p. 15. [24] Blanche Wiesen Cook, Eleanor Roosevelt: The War Years and After, 1939-1962, (New York: Viking, 2016), 3:160. [25]“Radio Transcript,” n.p. [26]“Hobby Show Closes; It was Successful,” Saugerties Telegraph, June 20, 1941, p. 71.

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