Preservation, restoration create new council home

By Sarah Binder

CEDAR RAPIDS–Perhaps among the most symbolic of flood recovery projects, Cedar Rapids’ new City Hall became home to several departments in June after an extensive renovation.

It is the first time the Cedar Rapids city council and branches of the city government have ever been housed in a building called City Hall, and a meticulously restored depression-era mural completes the council’s chambers.

The mural, titled “Law and Culture,” depicts the opening of the Midwest and the development of agriculture, science, law and justice. It was commissioned in 1936 under Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, in one of many programs that funded art for public spaces. It was created by a team of artists led by Francis Robert White, all former students of Grant Wood at the Stone City Art Colony.

The original mural, more than 200 feet long, wraps around the entire room. So far, only one wall, the north side, has been uncovered, but the city is seeking grants and proposals to reveal the full mural.

Hidden under a layer of yellowish-beige paint on the east wall is a scene that might have been the reason for covering the murals in the first place: an image of vigilante justice that includes a hanging.

“It really got down to, who was the presiding judge and their sense of decorum,” said Al Varney, executive vice president of Ament Inc., a Cedar Rapids-based architecture firm. He said the paintings were covered and uncovered multiple times in the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

Arthur Page, the conservator who studied and uncovered the first wall of the mural, said it is ironic that it was ever painted over.

“The important thing to realize is that hanging — lynching — was a huge problem in the  United States,” Mr. Page said. “The whole point of having that scene depicted is that, what justice stands for is to stop that. The justice department and the government went after stopping lynchings in a big way. It’s ironic, to me, that they painted it out. It was a part of history and a big step in our justice system.”

Mr. Page is the chief conservator at Page Conservation, Inc., based in Washington D.C. His main business is conserving and restoring smaller paintings in his East Coast studio but he also specializes in historic murals, traveling around the country to study and preserve them.

He has studied more than 800 murals from the New Deal era.

“The fact that this set of murals was painted over is relatively uncommon, but not unheard of, which is, obviously, not a good thing to do to a painting,” he said.

Other than being covered in paint and a bit of water damage, however, he said the Cedar Rapids murals are in relatively good condition. Uncovering the north wall was about a month-long process, involving thousands upon thousands of cotton swabs dipped in a solvent that could remove the top layer of paint without damaging the murals themselves. Then, Mr. Page inpainted the damaged areas and covered the mural with a protective varnish.

Although restoration work is extremely meticulous, it isn’t designed to be permanent.

“You do not inpaint an oil painting with oil paint. You inpaint with something that’s more soluble, so you can get it off in the future. Everything is reversible.”

Mr. Page was actually hired to uncover the murals just before the federal government turned the building over to the city as “sort of a goodwill gesture.”

Al VarneyFor Mr. Varney, and the architect of record for the project, the murals were just one fascinating historic element to the complex old building. The use of historic tax credits took the renovation project from about $4 million to $10 million.

“With every gift there comes some strings,” he said of the credits, which create stricter limits on what can be done to a building.

Many of the other features in the council’s chambers, including the dias, benches, woodwork and leather-wrapped doors are original from when the space was a federal courtroom.

“To occupy it as council chambers was perfectly appropriate,” Mr. Varney said. “The setup is basically the same.”

However, some features, like the flatscreen televisions that project notes for the audience, are obviously new.

An important requirement was that when they did add something new to the building, it was obviously new so visitors wouldn’t confuse it with a historic element. Other new finishes can be seen on the interior signage and exterior railings.

“It’s blending new with old,” he said. “We chose finishes that were complimentary to the space.”

After studying the building inside and out, Mr. Varney knows all too well what challenges the city will face in restoring the other murals. On the sides of the chamber, the ceiling was lowered decades ago to make room for a larger mechanical system in the attic. Along with the murals, lowering the ceiling also covered ornate plaster crown moldings that once adorned the ceiling.

“It was very popular in the ‘50s to, quote, ‘modernize,’” he said. “In essence, they bastardized the ceiling that was here.”

He estimated that to restore all of the murals and the plaster would cost $500,000 or more.

Mr. Varney has been an architect in Cedar Rapids since 1981, and says he has a passion for uncovering the hidden potential of a building.