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Arts and Culture

Federal Courthouse Mural

The mural entitled “Law and Culture” in the former Federal Courtroom, now the Cedar Rapids City Council Chambers, was commissioned in 1936 by the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP). An extension of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” policy, TRAP followed other federal jobs programs, like the Works Progress Act (WPA), and the Public Works of Art, the first of many separately funded programs enacted to benefit professional artists. The Treasury Relief Art Project existed from 1935 to 1938 and under the supervision of the Treasury Department employed artists to create paintings and sculptures for existing federal buildings.

The mural is 5-feet, 6-inches high and over 200-feet long spanning the four walls of the new Council Chambers. The four panels of the “Law and Culture” mural were created by a group of artists led by Francis Robert White (1907-1986), including Howard Johnson (1913-1962), Everett Jeffrey (1906-1983), Harry Donald Jones (1906-1995), Arnold Pyle (1908-1973), and Don Glasell (1895-1965). The artists were contemporaries of Grant Wood at the Stone City Art Colony.
Completed in 1936, the courts received complaints for almost twenty years about the murals’ graphic images, and in 1951, Judge Henry N. Graven (1893-1970) had the mural covered. Complaints centered around a scene in the panel on the east wall, “Evolution of Justice,” opposite the jury box. The image shows a frontier criminal on horseback with a noose around his neck, dangling from a tree, followed by an image depicting the arrival of the American court system. In 1961, the whitewash was removed and the murals were once again exposed. In 1964, Judge Edward McManus ordered the mural photographed and painted over again.
In March 2011, nearly fifty years since being painted over the last time, the U. S. General Services Administration utilized a historic preservation grant to hire Page Conservation, Inc., Washington, D.C., to uncover the north wall of the mural. The wall was created by Francis Robert White and depicts “The Opening of the Midwest.” The panel depicts the suffering of American Indians, the struggles of the early settlers, slaves and immigrant workers on the Mississippi, laborers building the transcontinental railroad, the rise of single family farms, followed by industry, tenements and pollution.
In May of 2013, Scott M. Haskins, Chief Mural Conservator for Fine Arts Conservation Laboratories and a team of two other experience mural conservators restored the south wall entitled “Inherited Justice” created by Harry Donald Jones and depicts men discovering, documenting and preserving ancient Indian cultural objects. Tests were done to make sure the chemicals used to remove the overpaint would not damage the original painting; however, during a previous uncovering in 1961 the whitewash was stripped using harsh cleaners that damaged the original painting. Scott and his team removed 5 layers of overpaint, applied an interim varnish to help brighten up the colors and then retouched the painting.
Click here to view a video of the cleaning of the south wall.
Click here to view a video of the retouch and completed look of the south wall.
The City of Cedar Rapids is required by the conservation easement conveyed when the building was transferred to the City from the federal government to assist the GSA in seeking grants to reveal the artwork. The mural restoration process is funded by City funds and matching funds from private donors. The City is responsible for additional work required to repair plaster, adjust ceiling heights and install appropriate lighting. A City Hall Mural Fund has been established at the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation to raise additional funds for the remaining mural restoration work.
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