Mildred W. Pelzer – An Iowa City Artist.

Mildred Lenore Weenink – a Wisconsin native – born in 1889 – but raised in Montana – was serving as the director of the art department at Dakota State Normal School in Madison, South Dakota, when she met a nice young man – a fellow teacher – named Louis Pelzer.

Mildred & Louis fell in love and married on January 1, 1917 in Mildred’s hometown of Dillon, Montana. Louis – a 1907 graduate of the SUI – was working on his PhD while serving as an associate history professor – working alongside one of the best-known historians of the day – Benjamin Shambaugh. Now, fast-forward with me seventeen years…

Mr. & Mrs. Pelzer and their two sons – Parker and Henry – are now living comfortably in their home at 127 Ferson Avenue in Iowa City, and they are hosting a small dinner party. At this point in time, Louis is a very successful history professor at Iowa while Mildred is gaining a growing amount of attention in the world of art.

In October 1933, her painting of zinnias – “In the Window” – qualified her for membership in the Iowa Artists Association – an honorary organization of state artists. One of her many oil-on-canvas paintings will grace the front cover of Better Homes & Gardens later in July 1934, raising the level of her celebrity to a national scope. (L-0107)

The dinner guests that April evening include University President Walter Jessup, Professor Benjamin Shambaugh and his wife, Bertha, Carl Seashore, the Dean of the Graduate College, and his wife, Mary, and Charles Dutcher – a long-time Iowa City businessman, who at the time, was serving on the Board of the Jefferson Hotel. On the table that evening, besides the food, was a business proposition from Dutcher. The Jefferson Hotel was planning some major renovations and desired to commission Mildred – a talented artist with a growing reputation in oil, pen and ink, and water color – to create eight large historical murals that would become the centerpiece of the hotel’s main entrance.

Mildred had obviously already decided to tackle this ‘Iowa City And Its Past’ project, as the dinner conversation focused primarily on the specific subjects to be represented on each of the 4′ x 12′ murals. The overall effect the hotel was looking to achieve was to develop eight artistic representations of the rich history of Iowa City – specifically focusing around the theme of transportation. One can only imagine what the conversation was like around the table, as the dinner party discussed which major Johnson County events should be chosen to best represent our rich heritage. Just think of it – in the room we have:

  • Mildred Pelzer – a talented artist who studied under both Marvin Cone and Grant Wood – actually introducing Wood to Iowa City and serving as his publicist during the time he created and sold his American Gothic painting (1930),
  • Two knowledgeable historians, Louis Pelzer and Shambaugh – the founding father of the State Historical Society of Iowa,
  • Two influential University leaders – President Jessup & Professor Seashore, and
  • Dutcher – a long-time Iowa City businessman who had the financial backing to make a project like this fly – even as the nation was still coming out of the Great Depression.

By evening’s end, here are the eight subjects the team commissioned Mildred to create on canvas…

#1 – 1838 – Chief Poweshiek canoeing on the Iowa River.

#2 – 1839 – Iowa’s territorial commissioners searching for the best location for our new capital city.

#3 – 1840 – Pioneer families traveling to their new homes in Iowa City.

#4 – 1841 – Transporting materials for the construction of the new Stone Capitol.

#5 – 1844 – A steamboat rolling up to the Iowa City landing.

#6 – 1855 – A stage coach rumbling through the streets of Iowa City.

#7 – 1856 – The arrival of the Iron Horse with Iowa City townspeople laying tracks before her.

#8 – 1902 – The first automobile touring the streets of Iowa City.

The records show that Mildred got right to work – completing this massive project in less than five months! Apparently, she threw herself into her job, moving her art studio into a fifth-floor hotel room in the Jefferson Hotel where she labored through the hot summer, dousing herself on occasion with an iced-down towel since air-conditioning was not a common luxury in 1934.

(P-0304) The Jefferson Hotel located on the corner of Washington and Dubuque Streets – was built in 1913 by a group of prominent Iowa City businessmen. In its day, the Jefferson was the newest, most modern hotel of its kind, famous for its “modern” appointments, such as an electric elevator, an artesian well, telephones, electric lights, and hot and cold running water, making it one of the premier hotels in Iowa.

The fruit of her labors were introduced at a preview luncheon held in the Jefferson Hotel on Thursday, September 6, 1934.

At the dedication banquet – attended by one-hundred and fifty people – the head of the political science department, Benjamin Shambaugh, noted the significance of Pelzer’s achievement to document the history of Iowa City with her artwork. Louis Pelzer – Mildred’s husband – wrote an introductory piece for the murals which was distributed in brochure form at the festive banquet at the hotel.

Over the next fifteen years (1934-1949), the murals were proudly displayed in the Jefferson Hotel lobby, attracting many visitors.

Sadly, there are no photographs of all eight murals, only shots like the ones above that give us just a glimpse at what these massive murals might have looked like hanging in the lobby. Iowa City historian, J. Patrick White, tells the story that when he was a small boy, growing up in Iowa City, he remembers standing in the lobby of the Jefferson and feeling caught up in the amazing stories these paintings represented.

Sadly, only five of Mildred Pelzer’s eight original murals survive today – with only four of them partially or fully restored. For the complete story of how these Iowa City classics were saved – click here.

Now – let’s explore some of Mildred Pelzer’s other Iowa-related works…

Iowa – Prairie Chronicles in Picture (October 1934). This 37″ x 26″ map tells the story of Iowa politically, industrially, and agriculturally. Produced for the State Historical Society of Iowa.
Symphony of Iowa 1833-1933 (1935) This amazing 80″ x 121″ oil-on-canvas mural was painted for the Iowa City Press-Citizen owner Merritt Speidel, which he hung in the lobby of the newspaper’s new art-deco building (1937) in downtown Iowa City. The mural, which celebrates Iowa’s rich heritage, is now owned by the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.
A Letter from Home in 1856 (1937) Pelzer won the federal commission (WPA) to complete the post office mural for Waverly, Iowa, as part of the Section of Painting and Sculpture′s projects. The mural depicts a scene of a couple on their farm, where the wife had brought a letter from their previous home to the field. As her husband paused his plowing, the wife read the letter to him, as their child grasped at her mother’s skirts.
In 1940, Mildred was one of the founders of the Iowa Artists Association and served as the chair of the organization. That same year, she was recognized with a national award given by the GFWC for her work in promoting art and with young artists.

The World War II years were tough ones for Mildred. The Pelzers lost both their sons in the war — Parker in a military training flight in California in 1942 and Henry in Europe in 1945 — and then Louis died of a sudden heart attack in 1946. A widow and childless, she moved to Hawaii in 1949, creating landscapes and a line of hand-painted dresses.

Mildred remarried (July 25, 1952) to retired Major General George Arthur Lynch. After her marriage, Pelzer-Lynch continued to paint with the encouragement of her husband. When he died in 1962, she traveled to Hawaii, Mexico, Spain and attended international exhibitions including the Venice Biennale and documenta in Kassel. A retrospective of her works was held in 1969 at the Loch Haven Art Center of Orlando.

Mildred W. Pelzer – October 9, 1889 – April 24, 1985 – died in Orlando, Florida at the age of 95. She and her first husband’s papers were donated to the State Historical Society of Iowa and the collection, Pelzer family papers, spans the period from 1904-1962. An annual scholarship is awarded in her name in art, American history and music, through a fund Lynch established prior to her death and a graduate fellowship bearing her name is given to art scholars pursuing graduate level studies at the University of Iowa.

Thank you, Mildred, for your amazing life and the works of art you’ve left us in remembering Our Iowa Heritage.

Read more her-stories – Women of Iowa who truly impacted our community, our state and beyond.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Mildred Pelzer was listed in the Iowa Artists of the First Hundred Years, 1939, p 164-165

Historic Scenes by Mildred Pelzer – 1934, Bob Hibbs, Johnson County Historical Society, 2009

Time Machine: Mildred Pelzer, a Student of Grant Wood, Diane Fannon-Langton, Cedar Rapids Gazette, August 19, 2018

83-Year-Old Murals Go Downtown While Longfellow Renovates, Zach Berg, Iowa City Press Citizen, May 20, 2017

Mildred Pelzer 1934 map, Iowa History 101 – Iowa Dept of Cultural Affairs

Murals – 1934 Works by Local Artist, Jim and Melanie – Our View from Iowa webpage

Mildred W.Pelzer, Wikipedia

Telling Mildred Pelzer’s Story, Bob Hibbs, December 9, 2009, Iowa GenWeb Project

Railroad Arrives, Mildred Pelzer, Iowa City Public Library

Louis Pelzer, Wikipedia

Louis Pelzer, Find-A-Grave

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