116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Works Progress Administration mural will make Cedar Rapids’ new council chambers a treat to visit
Mar. 19, 2011 12:05 pm
CEDAR RAPIDS - Art and history may trump present-day city politics for a time come the end of April.
That's when the City Council returns downtown and moves to its new council chambers - in a former courtroom in the former federal courthouse here, which is being transformed into the new home of City Hall.
Greeting the council and the public will be a wall-length mural, hidden by an overcoat of paint since the 1960s, that now has been uncovered and is being restored.
The mural is one of a kind of art commonly referred to as Works Progress Administration art, which was painted by artists employed by the federal government during the Great Depression.
Mel Andringa, an artist and co-founder of Legion Arts in Cedar Rapids, stopped by to see the mural restoration on Friday and said a visit to a Cedar Rapids City Council will be a lot different here than in the council's current temporary home at the new Hiawatha City Hall.
“This is going to be a room rich in history,” said Andringa, who knows the mural's past and the WPA era of artwork well.
The theme and title of the restored mural is “Opening of the Midwest,” and Andringa said the mural's five scenes tell both a tale of history and politics through the eyes of Depression-era painters, led by Oskaloosa, Iowa-native Francis Robert White.
The scenes depict the suffering of American Indians and the hardships of settlers and workers before moving on to portray the life on the farm and in the industrialized city.
The less-than-well-known White was a student of Grant Wood at the Stone City Art Colony in 1932, but Andringa said the art of the mural takes a different turn than Wood's art did. Wood, he said, didn't paint about the 1930s, but instead painted about the pastoral settings of the 1890s that he remembered from his boyhood. The mural is about the 1930s. The mural's scenes, he said, feature heavy clouds and smoke from fires and industries, not the blue skies of Wood's work.
“It's a time of struggle, and that's what's represented in the mural,” Andringa said.
Arthur Page, whose firm, Page Conservation Inc. of Washington, D.C., is restoring the mural, was in the former courtroom on Friday with Andringa and said the mural is, first and foremost, “a really nice piece of artwork.” But its politics is apparent as with most WPA art, he agreed.
“What's really important about all this WPA art work is it's a record, an amazing record of this country in our roughest time,” Page said.
Every inch of the top almost five and half feet feet of the walls in the 49-by-61-foot courtroom is covered by murals, all of which were painted over in 1954 by one federal judge, uncovered by another in 1961, and recovered sometime in the 1960s.
Andringa said he hoped that the city and community finds additional resources to uncover the murals on three other courtroom walls, which together are titled “Law and Culture,” according to federal documents. One scene depicts an Old West lynching, which was displayed directly across from the courtroom's jury box and apparently helped make the argument to cover over the murals.
“Usually, the tide comes around and things become uncovered,” Page said.
Andringa said restoring all the murals will turn the room it into a community asset that can attract residents, school children and tourists to the new council chambers for many more hours than the few a week that the council actually meets.
“It's something that people would want to be informed about and would want to come and see,” he said.