Historical courthouse murals gain new life:

WPA Great Depression paintings were twice whitewashed due to their content


The North Wall created by Francis Robert White.
The North Wall created by Francis Robert White.


By Andrea Rodriguez


Inch by inch, painstaking work continues in Cedar Rapids to unveil a colorful mural cycle that was painted on the third-floor walls of the former federal courthouse during the Great Depression that not once, but twice, was whitewashed because it was deemed as inferior or offensive.


The mural cycle, “Law and Culture,” which now serves as the back drop to the new Cedar Rapids City Hall, was one of thousands painted nationwide during the Great Depression in the 1930s as part of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Art Program — an outlet for artists to decorate federal buildings that were considered social centers of cities.


The mural in Cedar Rapids was painted by a group of less-than-well-known artists working for the government’s Treasury relief Art Program funded by the Works Progress Administration. Their work surrounded the top portion of all four walls of the 49-foot-by-61-foot former courtroom, though some of it later was hidden. The federal court whitewashed a portion of it in 1951, cleaned and uncovered a portion of it in 1962 and repainted it in 1963.


The reason? Some thought the art inferior to other WPA work of the era, while others took offense to some of its disturbing images, including one of a lynching or hanging. There are also scenes that depict the suffering of Native Americans and the hardships of settlers and workers.


The quality and direction of each WPA mural was subjective to a supervising overseer when they were created about 80 years ago and the one in Cedar Rapids is no exception. The artists who were hired for the commission of the “Law and Culture” mural cycle had trained at the Stone City Art Colony, which was founded by legendary Iowa artist Grant Wood and others in the summer of 1932 in Anamosa.


The art colony encouraged artists that could not travel abroad during the Great Depression to come to the Midwest. Artists Marvin Cone and others came to Stone City to teach alongside the founders. The program curriculum taught Regionalism: art movement defined as harnessing and personifying the land as bountiful and enduring. With the curriculum set on embracing the local and its scenery, the program “discouraged any kind of abstract art or subjective, imaginary painting” as Wood believed that, “[Regionalism] was a matter of commitment to locale, not of style.”


The team of artists commissioned to decorate the federal courthouse, which was built in 1933, was led by Oskaloosa native Francis Robert White. The federal courthouse was believed to be an ideal location for a mural that would connect history and the evolution of law and culture as judge and jurors are held accountable for their verdicts.


As the supervisor of the “Law and Culture,” White must have faced and addressed aesthetic and institutional limitations. Preliminary sketches were authorized by the WPA in Washington, D.C., though it is uncertain whether the WPA committee approved the changes in the final presentation. Though the murals are a long chain of events, they are a reflection of the dark and confrontational attitude about the direction of the country during the Great Depression.


American artists were searching for “a unique ‘American’ art that was not based on French models, [looking] to the Mexican muralists, who were politically radical and [responsible for the] creation of an epic national style.”


The mural cycle shows a clear and direct connection to Thomas Benton’s mural cycle, “A Social History of the State of Missouri,” completed in December 1936. Controversy lies in Benton’s portrayal of slavery, lynching and Mormon abuse much like Everett Jeffrey’s portrayal of frontier justice in the Cedar Rapids courtroom mural cycle.


The artists drew on Benton’s scenes to depict Iowa’s history in the same way. The controversy lies in a section of the East Wall painted by Jeffrey in his depiction of a lynching. The jurors sat across from the scene, which was problematic according to the judges at the time of the unveiling and afterwards. Jeffrey may have wanted to remind the judge, but mostly the jurors, that they were held accountable for the verdicts they passed. Because of this scene, the murals were hidden for decades until now.


TO READ MORE ABOUT THIS STORY AND OTHER FASCINATING STORIES ABOUT IOWA HISTORY, subscribe to Iowa History Journal. You can also purchase back issues at the store.