Century-old mural returns to view in new Cedar Rapids restaurant

Popoli restaurant set to open in April in Louis Sullivan-designed building

April 1, 2014 | 9:29 am

Art lovers had a scare not long ago when a photograph surfaced that appeared to show a beloved 1911 mural inside an historic Louis Sullivan-designed bank had been whitewashed.

Allen E. Philbrick's "Banking, Commerce and Industry" had been out of view after the People's Bank building it was housed in was closed due to the 2008 flood, so naturally people were protective of the important piece of Cedar Rapids history.

Of course, the fear was unfounded, and the whitewash was actually just a protective white covering to preserve the mural, which had been restored.

The old bank building, most recently Wells Fargo at 101 3rd Avenue, SW, is getting whipped into shape for a soon-to-open Italian restaurant called Popoli. The owners began the slow process of unveiling the beloved mural this week.

"We thought it would be a little brighter, but for 103 years old, it looks pretty good," said Brandon Godwin, general manager of the restaurant, due to open in April.

Godwin said the mural will be a prominent feature of the upscale establishment, set to open in April. It wraps around four upper walls just below stained glass windows at the center of the dining room.

The murals feature scenes of agriculture and ancient banking on wall canvases of about five feet tall, with the two shorter pieces at about 12 feet long and the two longer pieces at about 20 feet long.

An under-construction wraparound bar with a white quartz bar top is being designed to reflect the color of the painting, he said.

"It's not often you get a 103-year-old piece of art work built into the building," Godwin said. "I can't imagine how much it would cost to get something like that."

The painting represents an important piece of Cedar Rapids history, historian Mark Stoffer Hunter said, and he is glad to see it going back on display.

"The murals are something people hold near and dear to their hearts," Stoffer Hunter said. "Seeing the mural is a key thing to remember from when it was a bank."

He said many people remember staring up at the paintings while waiting to conduct their business at the bank.

Part of the mural's significance is the historic nature of the building, which was designed by noted Chicago architect Louis Sullivan. It has drawn people from all over to see it, and the painting was the first mural of its kind in the area when it was painted, he said.

In fact, Philbrick, who is from Utica, N.Y. and lived from 1879 to 1964, was likely an inspiration for Grant Wood, Stoffer Hunter said.

"They likely inspired Grant Wood," he said. "At the time the murals were painted, Grant Wood was just getting out of high school, and he likely would have seen that being painted and saw the style."

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