Historic WPA Murals Rediscovered and RestoredA Controversial Past in City Hall, Cedar RapidsCEDAR RAPIDS, IAIn the City Council chambers at the new historic City Hall in CedarRapids, Iowa, art conservator Scott Haskins and his two assistantshave been working for three weeks to peel back 5 layers of overpaint,decades deep from the surface of the second of four historic,previously obliterated murals in the converted old federal courtroom.The colorful Depression Era mural, entitled "Inherited Culture" waspainted by Harry Donald Jones in 1936 as part of the WPA program.It depicts men discovering artifacts from ancient Mayan civilizations,learning the modern techniques of agriculture and watching theprogress of industry.The entire mural was painted over, then cleaned and then painted outagain right away in its controversial history when the building was afederal courthouse. In 1951, Judge Henry Graven had the muralcovered for what could have been a couple of reasons: the mostcontroversial reason includes complaints about the Evolution ofJustice scene. Located within the American Civilization mural on theeast wall, opposite the jury box is an image which depicts a frontier
criminal on horseback with a noose around his neck followed by thearrival of the American court system. However, the other reason ismore practical: The murals would have also been very dirty by thistime having been covered with unstable varnish and the buildingbeing heated with coal. The black soot on the ornate coffered ceilingremains under the accoustical tiles testify to dirtier days. In 1961 theoverpaint was cleaned off and the murals exposed supposedlybecause of a pang of regret given their historical nature; as thewhitewash was removed by unprofessionals (city workers) themural’s original paint layers were substantially damaged due to theharsh cleaning methods.Just three years later, due to public concern about the message ofthe artwork in 1964, Judge Edward McManus ordered the muralsphotographed and painted over again. Retired Judge McManus is stillalive in Cedar Rapids and in his late 90’s.Now that the civic drama from the 1960’s has passed, we come to thepresent day in the saga of the murals: when the federal governmentturned the Beaux Arts building over to Cedar Rapids after the 2008flood for the City Hall, the City was obligated to preserve the historicmurals on all four walls in its agreement with the federal government.The first mural to be uncovered on the north wall was restored by theU.S. General Services Administration in 2011. That process tookmore than 3 times longer and was at least 30% more expensive thanthe same sized mural being worked on by Fine Art ConservationLaboratories (FACL, Inc.), the City’s chosen mural restorationprofessionals for the second mural.Just as Haskins and his assistants build upon a work of genius bytouching up damage on the canvas with extra paint, they also have tomake up for the mistakes made in the murals 76-year lifespan.(CLICK HERE to see a short video of the retouching process) Hepoints out where the workers who painted out the mural sanded thesurface of the mural and did other damage. Haskins also had circledsections of the mural in chalk; they show the parts of the canvas thathave pulled away from one of the many layers of the wall. To fixthem, Haskins injects the wall with an adhesive to make sureeverything gets reattached. Long term preservation is a high priority.
Assistant City Manager Sandi Fowler hopes people will come by tosee the mural and appreciate the historic, artistic elements of the newCity Hall. "Its free and open to anyone that wants to come look at it,whether youre attending a meeting or you just want to come see it.Thats a pretty neat way to incorporate art into everyday life," Fowlersaid. If, for no other reason, to remember the past. "I mean, this isCity Hall. This is the center of government in Cedar Rapids, and Ithink its highly appropriate that there be a “time capsule” from thepast that shows people where the city has come from," Haskins said.The 48-foot long mural is the second of four that the city plans touncover in the room. Fowler is hoping to uncover a third in the fall ofthis year, but the city needs to get more grants and funding first. Eachmural costs about $125,000 to restore including associated buildingimprovements. A fund has been set up at the Greater Cedar RapidsCommunity Foundation for interested parties to make donations.To see the amazing overpaint cleaning process CLICK HERE.Art conservation questions? Call Scott M. Haskins 805 564 3438Follow us and be our friend on Facebook: Fine Art Conservation,Mural Conservation, Scott M. HaskinsWhat can you do to take care of your collectibles at home ? CLICKHERE.