Iowa City, Johnson County, and Eastern Iowa history, as seen through the eyes of postage stamps, postcards, letters, coins, books, and other collectibles.
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.
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.
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.
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:
#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 JeffersonHotel 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.
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.
Mural #4 – We Build Our Capitol – 1841.
Mural #5 – At Our City Landing – 1844.
Mural #6 – Stage Ready – 1855.
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.
Mural #3 – Our First Families – 1840 – Still Awaiting Restoration.
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.
Here are some of Mildred Pelzer’s other amazing Iowa-related works…
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 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.