On the 4th day of March 1925, a petition was filed with the City Clerk of Cedar Rapids for construction of a Memorial Building.
The proposition was formerly brought to a vote of the citizenry on June 1, 1925, and carried 9th of May, 1925.
Over 40 civic bodies participated in the original planning for the structure and support grew for an $800,000 bond issue for insurance to complete the massive project. With publicity and public support, the bond issue carried and the City was ready for the next step: to form a Veterans Memorial Commission, as set out in Chapter 33 of the 1924 Code of Iowa. As outlined in Iowa Law, delegates from various Veterans Organizations met and elected a five member Commission who would facilitate construction and supervision thereof.
The plans were drawn, placing the building on an island in the Cedar River so that it would be centrally located to the growing populace.
In order to make the structure financially feasible, City Hall offices were incorporated into the building which would also give—for 80 years—Cedar Rapids the distinction of only one of two cities in the world with their government on an island, the other being Paris, France. Other than the Veterans Memorial Commission administrative office and staff, City Hall departments resolved not to return to the Memorial Building after the Flood of 2008.
Being a Veterans Memorial Building, certain other memorials were created as part of the structure. Specifically, these are: the Memorial Window, Memorial Coliseum, and a Cenotaph; an empty coffin to honor the City’s war deceased. In 1926, original architect Henry Hornbostel modeled the cenotaph Memorial after the famous monument that stands in Whitehall, London, England.
The Memorial Window was designed in 1927 by the then relatively unknown artist Grant Wood. The Window stands 24’ high and 20’ wide and is made up of about 10,000 pieces of stained glass fitted together with lead, forming a stunning work of art. According to a Cedar Rapids Gazette article from 1928 by reporter Naomi Doebel, "Mrs. Nan Wood Graham, sister of the artist, modeled for the heroic central figure, a woman standing sixteen feet tall and wearing a Grecian robe. The figure, with toes pointed down, floats in the clouds giving the spiritual effect found in many of the Renaissance paintings. Draped over the woman’s head is a mourning veil of blue. In her right hand she holds the palm branch of peace, and in her left the laurel wreath of victory.”
The female figure looks down upon six male life-size soldiers, outfitted in the uniform a Private would have worn from (left to right) the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish American War and World War I. Insignias of the Navy, Army, and U. S. Marines border the window. The glass was stained in Munich, Germany, and brought back in pieces to be installed in 1928 as a Memorial to Veterans of all wars, at the time through World War I.
The Memorial Coliseum usually has seven banners of veterans’ organizations and seven American flags posted just below ceiling height.
It has been argued, that the City of Cedar Rapids did very little to further such memorials until May 30, 1960. That was when a (miniaturized) bronze replica of the Iwo Jima Memorial designed by Felix de Weldon was cast and placed in memory of “both World War II and the Korean conflict” at the front of the building. The stone base is etched with a quote by then President of Coe College, Dr. Joseph E. McCabe: “Our finest tribute to their valor will be the quality of our own lives.”
In 1966, the Veterans Memorial Commission formally instituted a museum dedicated as “the Spanish American War Memorial” that would showcase the ever growing collection of military art and artifacts for the public. What started out as a grand cabinet of curiosities has evolved to a professional minded collection with gallery space flanking both sides of the Memorial Window. The collection has grown to over 1,200 pieces and it contains items from the Civil War through present day wars.
In July 2000, a gold-plated “eternal flame” was placed atop the cenotaph at the very top of the building. This project was paid for by donations from community citizens.
A lyric from a Civil War era song—the imprint across the face of the Veterans Memorial Building proclaims: “May the wreaths they have won never wither nor the star of their glory grow dim.” Join us in celebrating and keeping all Veterans’ memory shining brightly in the public eye.