We thought we were going to see a stained glass window, a beautiful piece of art, but that was all. Little did we know that the entire Veteran Memorial Building both inside and out is a piece of art from the architecture to the exhibits. Teri Van Dorston showed us the beauty and history of this highly photographed building that represents the heart of Cedar Rapids.
Teri explained her role has been, “To bring the focus of the museum component of the memorial to museum standards.”
With the Grant Wood’s Memorial window, the building is part of the Grant Wood’s trail. “In 1925,” Teri said, “The city was growing. City Hall was North West of the Cedar River and the veterans wanted a place to meet.”
Veterans at that time she pointed out included Civil War, Spanish American War Veterans and the recently returned home World War I vets. “They wanted a grand place,” Teri said. “Back then the Government had funds for Memorial Buildings. That’s how Solders Field, the Wells Fargo Stadium etc. were built. Our vets rallied and matched the funding and the Veterans Memorial Building was built between 1925-1927.”
It was the grand place they wanted and Grant Wood, a World War I veteran would make it even grander. Wood pitched a Veterans Memorial design for the Arc that was already in place in the building. During WWI, Wood served as Private and worked as a camouflage artist. “He felt privates did all the work so the uniforms of the soldiers (in the stained glass window) are of privates,” Teri explained.
Wood received the commission and designed an amazing piece. The Veteran’s Memorial Commission website describes the window. “The Memorial Window was designed in 1927 by the then relatively unknown artist Grant Wood. The Window stands 24’ high and 20’ wide and is made up of about 10,000 pieces of stained glass fitted together with lead, forming a stunning work of art…”
The upper half of the window is filled with a 16’ tall figure holding a palm branch of peace and the laurel wreath of victory. Teri said some call her the Republic Lady of Peace. Above her head are clouds designed, “to bring a sense of Heaven finding peace.”
The lady in the glass looks down on six life sized soldiers from the Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Mexican War, Civil War, Spanish American War and World War I. Insignias of the Navy, Army and Marines border the window. The Air Force was not yet in existence.
The window was painted in 1927 then like all government projects was sent out for bid to be fabricated. The window at that time was to be the largest single stained-glass window in the US. The bid went to a St. Louis company, however, due to the intricate detail of Wood’s design, the artisans there said he needed to go to Germany where the old world masters could perform the difficult job.
Grant went to Germany for the fabrication and this created a hailstorm of anger with the Daughters of American Revolution who accused Wood of being unpatriotic for allowing a German firm to manufacture materials for a U.S. veteran’s memorial. Their anger ultimately cancelled the public dedication. The dedication didn’t take place until recently when its restoration was completed in 2010 following the flooding of 2008.
Wood got his revenge on the DAR ladies with his 1932 unflattering portrayal of the women of the DAR. In the background behind the women is a treasured picture of George Washington crossing the Delaware that was painted by a German painter.
After the flood of 2008 which devastated exhibits and parts of the Veteran’s Memorial Building, they had to recreate space. Teri took advantage of the chance to rotate and downsize exhibits and move materials not on display into a protected climate controlled space. The Grand Army of the Republic has a display which includes an original drawing of the building plans.
The Vietnam Gallery “An Untold Narrative” Teri worked on with Vietnam Vets. This moving display will be open until 2017, and then a World War II display will take over this gallery.
The building is also a place where entertainment happened. “In the 1920’s, 30’s and 40’s, this was the place. Johnny Cash came here once,” Teri said.
Today the coliseum is where they hold local events and rent out space. The area has served as a space for gymnastics tournaments and more. The space is also home to the Cedar Rapids Roller Girls! The seats from the coliseum which needed a bit of work have been a project that veterans have taken on. “They are redoing 635 seats. We are done with work on the backs; it will be completed by spring.”
Upstairs there is a ballroom that is a great space for weddings or any occasion. The floor to ceiling windows and view are amazing. There is an area for events to be catered as well.
There is also a fitness center for vets and a new art therapy area as well. The art program is spearheaded by a talented artist and former vet, Scott Droessler who served in Desert Storm. He suffered from PTSD and found that art helped him. After his service, he obtained a degree in art and began teaching at Kirkwood College. Besides teaching he opened a studio where vets do wood working and painting and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, guys just come and hang out and play cards.
A display that has received new life is Robert Horsky’s In Flight model airplane display. This three time vet, died in a plane mission in Vietnam and his amazing collection was just moved to the Veteran’s Building. It had been on display at the airport.
The mission for the building is, “Spearheading veterans to be empowered and take the building to the next step.”
The mission for the Easter Iowa Veterans is, “Honor, Educate, Public Preserve and Exhibit”.
Both missions are being accomplished in this beautiful space. Out front of the building is an Iwo Jima statue, everywhere you look is a tribute to those that gave all for our freedom. It is a touching beautiful place to stop that is serving vets and where vets are serving us. Log onto http://www.cedar-rapids.org/local_government/city_boards_and_commissions/veterans_memorial_commission.php for more information!