CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — A mural created more than 60 years ago depicting Czech arts and immigration has found a new home after facing an uncertain future.
The mural — a two-section piece by the late artist Edwin Bruns, a contemporary of Grant Wood — is being installed in the Cherry Building, 329 10th Ave. SE, a 1919 former dairy equipment facility in New Bohemia that is now home to artists and local businesses.
“It’s a good fit for everything we’re trying to do with the Cherry Building in terms of creativity and historic preservation,” said David Chadima, who owns the building with his wife, Lijun. “It’s nice to preserve something unique to Cedar Rapids.”
Nearly one year ago, Cheri Reider and Jack Minder of BetterLife, an insurance company with Czech immigrant roots previously known as Western Fraternal Life Association, reached out to Save CR Heritage — an all-volunteer nonprofit dedicated to saving historic resources in Cedar Rapids — to ask about finding a new location for the mural.
Save CR Heritage volunteers work to raise awareness of buildings at-risk of demolition and had just begun the process of saving an early-1900s home now used as its headquarters, but agreed to help find a new home for the artwork.
Constructed with five types of stone, the BetterLife building opened to a three-day ceremony during its dedication in 1959. Known as ZCBJ – for Západní Česko-Bratrská Jednota (Western Bohemian Fraternal Association) – at its inception in 1897, the association provided life insurance and a social connection to members’ Czech/Bohemian origins.
Bruns, a local artist who studied at the Chicago Art Institute and was a close friend of Grant Wood, spent eight months painting the mural on imported hand-woven Belgian linen canvas, which was varnished and attached to the walls of what was then the new headquarters of the Western Bohemian Fraternal Association.
In one portion of the mural, Bruns depicted Czech composer Antonin Dvořák seated as he composed the New World Symphony, surrounded by inspirations for the masterpiece, including African American spirituals and Native American drumming.
The mill at Spillville, Iowa, where Dvořák spent the summer of 1893, is also shown in the mural.
In other portions, Bruns symbolically depicts Czech immigration, with a central figure of Columbia — the female personification of the United States — next to the torch of freedom, flanked by Tomáš Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, and President Abraham Lincoln.
The mural also illustrates the Charles Bridge in Prague, villages and cities where Czech immigrants originated, a sod house of early pioneers, and the frame house of Alois Blaha, the first secretary of the Western Bohemian Fraternal Association, where the national office was located for its first 10 years at 14th Avenue and Second Street SE in Cedar Rapids.
ZCBJ moved its headquarters from the house to a new building in 1908 that still stands at Third Street and 12th Avenue SE in Cedar Rapids. Now known as The Olympic, the building also is depicted in the mural.
The Bruns mural was celebrated in news and journal articles when it was introduced at the next headquarters in 1959 at 1900 First Ave. NE.
Plans called for demolition of the mid-Century building to make way for a Kwik Star convenience store and car wash when BetterLife moved its headquarters from Cedar Rapids to Madison, Wisconsin, last summer.
The BetterLife site was back on the market late last year after the convenience store proposal was met with outcry from neighbors, but could still face demolition under any potential new owners.
Save CR Heritage reached out to multiple entities to find a suitable location for the mural in a visible spot in Cedar Rapids. Most cited space limitations or expenses associated with installing the mural before Lijun and David Chadima agreed to display it in the Cherry Building.
Tony Kartsonas, a mural expert who has done work at Brucemore in Cedar Rapids, provided advice on removing the mural, and All-American Scaffold of Cedar Rapids offered the use of scaffolding to reach the mural, high on the walls of the BetterLife building.
Portions of a wall covering that obscured parts of the mural after it was installed first had to be cleared.
Save CR Heritage board members Jay Vavra and Lance LeTellier, with an assist from Realtor Mike Esker and Bob Peterson of the Linn County Historic Preservation Commission, removed the mural in September, rolling it onto large cardboard sonotubes until they could be installed elsewhere.
Together, the two portions of the mural are more than 30 feet long, and over 5 feet tall.
Mark Debner, president of DPI Quality Custom Finishes, along with Tanner Lehr, installed the murals Jan. 11, 2022, on the second floor of the Cherry Building, outside of the office of Shoemaker & Haaland Professional Engineers. Woodwork artist John Schwartzkopf will create a frame for the artwork.
The Chadimas have asked a local artist in the Cherry Building to restore the mural in sections that were cut out at some point in the past to accommodate shelving at its previous location.
Along with providing spaces for businesses and artists, the Cherry Building also hosts art shows and other events.
Lijun Chadima noted that they invest in a major art project nearly every year, such as the installation of a giant cherry sculpture for the Cherry Building’s centennial in 2019, and a replica ice wagon at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library last year.
“This year is the mural,” she said.
See more photos from the BetterLife building and the mural installation in the Cherry Building, below: