Our Iowa Heritage: The Murals of Mildred W. Pelzer.

Mildred Lenore Weenink, a Wisconsin native 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.

from the Atlantic, Iowa News Telegraph , January 8, 1917

They fell in love and married on January 1, 1917 in Mildred’s hometown of Dillon, Montana. Louis, a 1907 graduate of the State University of Iowa, was working on his PhD while serving as an associate history professor, coming alongside one of the best-known historians of the day, Benjamin Shambaugh.

April 1934 – 127 Ferson Avenue – Iowa City.

Now, fast-forward with me seventeen years…

Mr. & Mrs. Pelzer, and their two sons (Parker and Henry), are now living comfortably in their home on 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.

The dinner guests that evening included University President Walter Jessup, Professor Shambaugh and his wife, Bertha, Carl Seashore, the Dean of the Graduate College, and his wife, Mary, and Mr. Charles Dutcher, long-time Iowa City businessman, who, at the time, was serving on the Board of the Jefferson Hotel.

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.

On the table that evening, besides the food, was a business proposition from Mr. Dutcher. The Jefferson Hotel was planning some major renovations, and desired to commission Mildred Pelzer, 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.

Eight Murals – Iowa City & Transportation.

(P-0304) The Jefferson Hotel

Mildred had obviously already decided to tackle the 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 Jefferson 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 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, one of which is Shambaugh, the founding father of the State Historical Society of Iowa; two influential University leaders; and 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 commissioners walking the site for the new capitol building.

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

#4 – 1841 – Transporting materials for the construction of the 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 brick streets of Iowa City.

A Hot Summer at the Jefferson Hotel.

The records show that Mildred got right to work, completing this massive project in less than five months! Apparently, she threw herself into the work, 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.

Thursday, September 6, 1934 – Opening Day.

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 150 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.

Mural #7 – Railroad Arrives – 1856.

Let’s start here by looking a bit deeper into Mildred Pelzer’s seventh mural in the series, Railroad Arrives – 1856, (below) which depicts the famous New Years Eve/New Years Day completion of the Mississippi & Missouri Railroad line between Davenport and Iowa City in 1855/1856.

Mildred Pelzer does a magnificent job depicting the high drama. It’s New Years Eve – 1855 and the temperature is 25 degrees below zero. The good people of Iowa City had been working on getting the railroad to Iowa City for years, and in 1853 the city fathers had agreed to give M&M Railroad a bonus of $50,000 if the project could be completed on or before January 1, 1956. At 9 pm on December 31st, the M&M engine was still a thousand feet from the new depot. Click here to read more about the railroad coming to Iowa City.
Iowa City residents, Peter A. Dey and LeGrand Byington, two investors in M&M, are pictured by Pelzer (in the bottom right hand corner) urging the workers to beat the clock, thus win-win for everybody. As the historical records show, with only one hour left, the engine froze up! So, with the help of the Iowa City citizens, everyone pushed and pried the Iron Horse to its final destination, just as the bells of the city pealed in the New Year – 1856!

Mural #4 – We Build Our Capitol – 1841.

Mildred Pelzer’s fourth mural depicts Chauncey Swan (right), who is sometimes called the “Father of Iowa City” since he was part of the original team that selected the site and then stayed here until 1849, serving in a variety of leadership roles; and Father Samuel Mazzuchelli (left), a Dominican missionary priest, who designed churches in the Territories of Iowa and Wisconsin. Although no verification has ever been made of his role in designing the capitol building, the following passage does appear in his Memoirs (1843) describing it. . .”a structure whose dimensions are 120 feet long by 60 feet wide, with three stories, the whole built of stone. This building situated upon a beautiful eminence on one side looks down upon the Iowa River, and from the other commands a view of the Capital City; it rises from the center of a great square; it towers above the ancient oaks surrounding it.Click here to read more about the building of the stone capitol in Iowa City.

Mural #5 – At Our City Landing – 1844.

Mildred Pelzer’s fifth mural depicts the early days of Iowa City when citizens had a great hope that steamboats would become the primary way our city would prosper. From 1841 through 1860, an occasional steamboat would roll into town, and with it, restore that dream that the Iowa River could be deep and wide enough for smaller boats to successfully navigate its many perils. Pelzer chose the March 1844 visit from the Agatha to depict the excitement when a steamer pulled into the Port of Iowa City. But like all the others, when the Agatha left town, no one ever saw her again. Click here to read more about the era of steamboats in Iowa City.

Mural #6 – Stage Ready – 1855.

Mildred Pelzer’s sixth mural depicts the excitement when a stage coach came into Iowa City. In 1840, a traveler could pay Frink & Walker $3 for the thirty-mile trip to Bloomington (Muscatine) via a two-horse coach. By 1842, another firm advertised tri-weekly service for only $1.50. These early companies were stationed at (Chauncey) Swan’s Hotel located on the northeast corner of Jefferson and Capitol. By the mid-1840’s, other roads were connecting Davenport, Muscatine, Burlington, Des Moines and Marion with Iowa City, and by 1854, Western Stage, located on Iowa Avenue, entered the Iowa City market, announcing daily four-horse coaches running in all directions. Yes, in 1855, one year before the railroad came to town, the only way to travel in style was by coach! Click here to read more about the building of roads into Iowa City.

Now, for the Sad Part of Our Story.

After fifteen years of being prominently displayed in the Jefferson Hotel, a remodeling of the lobby occurred (1949), and this is where our Mildred Pelzer Mural Story story gets really sad. Apparently, sometime during the remodel, the eight murals were taken down and stored haphazardly by some very (shall we say?) stupid fellow. My guess is that this idiot was a Minnesota Gopher fan, but no one, of course, can prove that!

A Dane to the Rescue, by George!

In the early 1970’s, as the University was in the process of purchasing the Jefferson Hotel building, George R. Dane, a loan officer with Iowa State Bank & Trust, was assigned to inspect the property. According to Iowa City historian, J. Patrick White, Dane found two of Mildred’s paintings (Stage Ready and Railroad Arrives) rolled up and stored away in the basement. A search for the other six murals discovered that only three (First Families, Build Our Capital, and City Landing) remained and had been rescued from the furnace room of City Hall by a local auto dealer, Dick Fedderson.

George Dane, the man who “rescued” two of Pelzer’s murals in the 1970’s. To make a very long story a bit shorter, George Dane convinced Iowa State Bank to pay for a restoration for the two he had found in the Jefferson Hotel basement, and then had them donated to the Iowa City Community School District, where they’ve been displayed at Longfellow Elementary School (which was built in 1918 very near the location of Iowa City’s first train depot) since the late-1970’s. A local auto dealer, Dick Feddersen, took the other three, re-framed them, placing them in his auto dealership. In 1992, Feddersen donated his set of three to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, where two of the three (Build Our Capital and City Landing) have been partially restored.

Mural #3 – Our First Families – 1840 – Still Awaiting Restoration.

Our First Families – 1840 (pictured above) was donated (along with Build Our Capital and City Landing) to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in 1992. All three were in very poor condition, and as of 2021, two have been partially restored but Our First Families still awaits the costly process. Click here to read more about the great influx of settlers to Iowa City.

Click here to read more about the early Native American tribes of Johnson County.
Click here to read more about the decision of where Iowa City would be built.
Click here to read more about the coming of the horseless carriage to Iowa City.

Sadly, there are three Pelzer murals, #1 Roused Bear – 1838 (above), #2 Locating the Capital -1839 (below), and #8 Hold Your Horses – 1902, that may very well be lost forever. The only memories left are the titles and these two “sketches/pictures” from the Pelzer archives which depict #1 and #2.

So, today, of the eight Pelzer murals, only five survive, with four of them restored to the place where we can truly appreciate the beauty and history they contain. In 2017, when Longfellow School was in the midst of a major remodel, Iowa City lawyer, J. Patrick White, took it upon himself to find a temporary home for Stage Ready and Railroad Arrives while the renovations at Longfellow occurred.

A brilliant move indeed, because with the publicity that surrounded the temporary re-location of these two treasures (Iowa City Senior Center and Iowa City Public Library) more people had an opportunity to find out about these hidden gems and actually see them up-close and personal. Click here to watch the entire 1.5 hour presentation given at the Iowa City Library for the 2017 Weber Days Celebration.

Here are some of Mildred Pelzer’s other amazing Iowa-related works…

Iowa Prairie Chronicles in Picture (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 on 25 July 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 on April 24th 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.

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

(BH-148) 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

George R. Dane (1922-2018) Iowa City Press Citizen

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