As was the fashion at the time, when Eugene Eppley built the Hotel Chieftain in Council Bluffs in 1927, he commissioned an artist to paint murals of local scenes on the walls in private dining and meeting rooms. Grant Wood, who created the murals for Eppley, was not a household name at the time but is now an internationally known artist and painter of the iconic American Gothic. Eppley’s commission with Wood called for murals in both the Hotel Chieftain’s “Corn Room” and the “Pioneer Room.” The 1927 commission also called for Wood to paint murals in Eppley-owned hotels in Sioux City and Cedar Rapids. Although now converted into apartments, the Hotel Chieftain is the only Eppley hotel still standing that once housed Wood’s corn murals.
In 1959, 32 years after the Corn Room murals had been painted, Clifford Powell, then manager of the Hotel Chieftain, said that the mural had “faded and deteriorated” to the point that the hotel’s owners were planning to cover them “in a more modern style.” In less than a month, a community funding drive led by Mrs. Carleton Woodward, a resident of the Chieftain, a civic leader and patron of the arts, neared its $2000 goal. Professor Byron Burford of the University of Iowa, a one-time student of Wood, was hired to restore the murals.
But in 1970, when the hotel was to be converted to senior housing apartments, the murals once again faced destruction. Because of the prohibitive cost involved to save the works of art, Sam Brown, an official with Bluffs Homes Inc., allowed anyone to come in and take them down, providing they did not sell them for profit.
The Corn Room murals were taken down in pieces. The Historical Society of Pottawattamie County, headed by Myron Allerton, took down the majority of the Corn Room mural pieces and later the Bluffs Arts Council framed and sold segments at a “Buy a Piece of the Wood” auction in 1987.
In 2000, two pieces owned by US Bank and a third piece, owned by the Bluffs Arts Council, were restored. Eight years later, in 2008, the Bluffs Arts Council set its sights on collecting and restoring the Corn Room murals. Upon learning of these plans, an anonymous donor stepped forward in the spring of 2008 and donated an 8-foot by 8-foot segment of the mural that had been taken down in three sections. When it was painted in 1927, the Corn Room covered an area approximately 96 feet long by 8 feet high. Since that time, several other segments have been donated. All pieces were taken to the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center in Omaha where they were conserved. Research conducted by Dick Miller, chairman of the Grant Wood Corn Room Mural Restoration Committee, found that there are at least 20 known segments.
Fifty years after the successful 1959 community campaign to raise money to restore the then-whole Corn Room murals, the Bluffs Arts Council renewed the effort to save the Grant Wood Corn Room murals from the Hotel Chieftain. They raised the funds needed to acquire and conserve the various pieces of the mural that are now on display in the Pottawattamie County Courthouse Lobby. Although it may not be possible to reconstruct the entire Corn Room mural, the goal is to eventually
place the Corn Room mural fragments on permanent display in an art and cultural center that would allow Council Bluffs residents and visitors to enjoy this rich part of the city’s history.
“We need to assure the future of these pieces,” said Julie A. Reilly, associate director and chief conservator at the Gerald R. Ford Conservation Center at the time of this project.
|2004 Iowa State QuarterThe Iowa quarter design features a one-room schoolhouse with a teacher and students planting a tree, and the inscriptions”Foundation in Education” and “Grant Wood.” The design is based on “Arbor Day,” a painting by Grant Wood, who was born nearAnamosa, Iowa. He spent his career as a proponent of small-town values, which he celebrated in the iconic images of small-town plain folk and verdant Midwestern vistas for which he is world-renowned.|
In its ongoing effort to preserve Council Bluffs’ art history, the Bluffs Arts Council embarked on another project that will further endure the heritage of renowned local artists. On October 30, 2012, Council Bluffs native Louis Frederick Grell joined the Grant Wood exhibit in the Pottawattamie County Courthouse to showcase this nationally-recognized muralist and portrait artist.
Louis Frederick Grell was born in Council Bluffs and lived here until 1900, when, at the age of twelve, his parents decided to send him to Germany, the art epicenter of the world, to attend Europe’s finest art institutions. Grell would study at the School of Applied Arts in Hamburg, Germany, the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Munich, Germany, the University of Munich and in Paris and Italy.
Just before World War I started, Grell escaped Germany through Norway, landing in New York City where he designed stage sets for large Broadway productions. The Chicago Academy of Fine Arts recruited Grell in 1916 to become lead art professor at what was the oldest and most prestigious fine art academy in America at the time. His most famous student at the Academy was Walt Disney from 1917-1918. Grell would teach at the Academy until 1922, when he was recruited to become Life Drawing, Poster Design and Commercial art instructor at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1922-1934.
Grell was a life-long member of the Tree Studios artist colony in Chicago’s near North side from 1917 until 1960 with other famous artists including Tarzan & Jane illustrator J. Allen St. John; Omaha St. Cecelia Church sculptor Albin Polasek; Joslyn sculptor John Brcin; Chicago Board of Trade sculptor John Bradley Storrs; impressionist Pauline Palmers; painters Edgar A. Payne, Oliver Dennett Grover, William S. Schwartz; muralist John W. Norton and Taos Artist E. Martin Hennings and others.
Grell was a very hard working artist who earned countless mural and portrait commissions from 1907 until his death in 1960. Grell’s commissions were typically for significant National Historic Landmark structures, such as Paramount Picture’s Corporate Headquarters, the Times Square Paramount Theatre, Washington D. C.’s second best address the Mayflower Hotel, Netherland Plaza Hotel in Cincinnati, City of Detroit’s Water Board Building, Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Paramount Theatre, Denver Paramount Theatre, the 1907 Utah State Fair Manufacturers’ Hall exhibit, Citizens’ National Bank in New York City, Eldorado Hotel in New York City, Toledo Paramount Theatre, Manos Theatre in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, Hotel Lafontaine in Huntington, Indiana, and many others.
In Grell’s adopted city of Chicago, he earned more than fifteen commissions including the Chicago Theatre in 1921 and again in 1933, Gateway Theatre, Congress Plaza Hotel in 1940, 1952 and 1955, Assumption Catholic Church, Notre Dame de Chicago and Assumption Greek Orthodox Church.
Special thanks to the Bluffs Arts Council, the Grell Family, Dick and Deanne Miller and the Iowa West Foundation. Please visit the Bluffs Arts Council and Louis Grell Foundation websites for more details.