The Mildred Pelzer Iowa City Murals.

In an earlier post, we told you about the Iowa City artist – Mildred Pelzer. In 1934, she was commissioned by The Jefferson Hotel in downtown Iowa City to create eight 4′ x 12′ murals – all surrounding the historical theme of transportation in Iowa City’s past.

The opening day for her murals was September 6, 1934 – see story here – and over the next fifteen years (1934-1949) Mildred’s artwork was proudly displayed in the lobby of the Jefferson.

In July 1939, several of Mildred’s murals were featured in the Iowa City Press-Citizen’s special 75-page Centennial Edition. Pelzer was actively involved with Iowa City’s 100th birthday celebration and her murals – which were displayed in the Jefferson Hotel lobby – played a big role in the July 4th weekend events. Read more here.

In his book, Historic Scenes by Mildred Pelzer – 1934, Bob Hibbs gives us this overview of the eight murals…

(P-0304) (P-0037) (M-0143) 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 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.

This postcard shows the scene of the crime – the Jefferson Hotel lobby after Pelzer’s murals were removed. According to Iowa City historian Bob Hibbs – “Eight Pelzer murals – each measuring about 4 feet high by 12 feet wide – hung in this Hotel Jefferson lobby, just below the ceiling in spaces between pilasters. Smaller by a width of 16 inches, the ‘We Build Our Capitol 1841’ hung above the fireplace.”
(P-0276) City Hall looking west on Washington Street. City Hall was built in 1881 and remained on the corner of Washington & Linn Streets until 1962.

Based on what we know today, the eight murals remained in storage in the Jefferson Hotel for a short period of time before someone (another stupid idiot?) – in the 1950’s – decided to break up the set – moving up to six of the eight murals down Washington Street into the basement of City Hall. Now, let’s fast forward to the 1970’s…

In the early 1970’s, as the Jefferson Hotel building was being sold, 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 murals (#6 Stage Ready – 1855 and #7 Railroad Arrives – 1856) rolled up and hidden away in the hotel’s basement.

According to White, when George Dane did some more exploring, he discovered that a local auto dealer – Richard (Dick) Feddersen of Nall Motors – had rescued three or four other murals from the basement of City Hall when the building was being torn down in 1962. It’s believed that Dick was particularly interested in Mural #8 – Hold Your Horses – 1902 (the automobile theme), and once in his possession, he had some of the murals framed and then hung on the walls of Nall Motors – the corner of Burlington & Linn Streets – well into the 1970’s.

We know, for a fact, that George Dane, after he discovered the two murals – #6 Stage Ready – 1855 and #7 Railroad Arrives – 1856 – convinced Iowa State Bank to pay for their restoration. The bank then donated the pair of murals to the Iowa City Community School District – where they’ve been proudly displayed at Longfellow Elementary School since the late-1970’s. Longfellow – as you can see from the maps below – is located very near where the first Mississippi & Missouri Railroad station was first built in the 1850’s. An appropriate location for Mural #7!

As for Dick Feddersen and Nall Motors – in 1992, three murals – #3 Our First Families – 1840, #4 We Build Our Capital – 1841, and #5 At Our City Landing – 1844 – were donated to the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, where, as of today, only two of the three (#4 & #5) have been partially restored.

So, today we are left with five recovered murals with three missing ones – #1 Roused Bear – 1838, #2 Locating The Capital – 1839, and #8 Hold Your Horses – 1902. Some believe that #8 – with its automobile theme – hung, unframed and unprotected, in Nall Motors for so many years that it became full of fumes and oil stains. Feddersen, before he died in 2016, never admitted to such a fate – but sadly, #8 is now gone and no pictures of it exist today! As for #1 & #2, it’s presumed that both are lost forever – discarded at some point during their time in one of the two downtown basements (1949-1962). Fortunately, two photos from the 1940’s remain (see below) – taken from the 1934 opening ceremony placemat – so we can, at least, get an idea of what these beauties might have looked like. So now – let me present…

Here, Pelzer depicts an early encounter of the American fur-traders as they interacted with Chief Poweshiek – The Roused Bear – and the proud Meskwaki tribes who lived here in Johnson County. Read more.
All that remains of Pelzer’s mural #2 is this early sketch used on the 1934 opening-ceremony placemat. The piece depicts Chauncey Swan, John Ronalds and Robert Ralston – the three commissioners chosen to find an appropriate location for Iowa’s new territorial capital. Read more.
Mural #3 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 – see pics below. Pelzer’s work depicts Johnson County’s earliest white settlers who made their way westward to settle in Iowa’s new capital city. Read more.
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. Together they are working with others to raise up Iowa’s new capitol building in Iowa City. Read more.
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. Read more.
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! Read more.
Railroad Arrives – 1856, 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. Read more.
While we have no pictures of Pelzer’s mural #8 – we can only imagine that the early automobiles didn’t have an easy time getting around Iowa City and Johnson County. Read more.

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 #6 Stage Ready and #7 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 White gave at the Iowa City Library for the 2017 Weber Days Celebration.

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

Iowa City Press-Citizen 75-page Special Edition, July 1, 1939

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

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

Railroad Arrives, Mildred Pelzer, Iowa City Public Library

Richard T. Feddersen 1919 – 2016, Iowa City Press Citizen Obituaries

Visting Nall Chevrolet 1930-1946, Daryl Scott, Throwing Wrenches, January 19, 2014

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

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