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Lost Quad Cities: Removed, Relocated, and Recovered Public Art PDF Print E-mail
Art - Feature Stories
Written by Bruce Walters   
Wednesday, 15 August 2012 08:28

Pre-1892 downtown Davenport

I recently came across a photograph of downtown Davenport taken from the corner of Second and Harrison streets and facing north. The photo has a 1907 copyright date but appears to have been taken before 1892, when the Redstone Building was built. As I looked at the image carefully, I was struck by the realization that nothing in this photo – not one building or object – still exists.

I also saw a set of century-old photos of a roller coaster, merry-go-round, music pavilion, bowling alley, tunnel of love, and steep water ride – proclaimed as the largest amusement park west of Chicago – at the present-day location of the Black Hawk State Historic Site. It is so strange to see old photos that are identified as places we know well, yet little in them is familiar.

From one year to the next, the Quad Cities seem to change little. Over the course of decades, however, the differences are dramatic.

The same is true of public artworks. Many dozens of artworks have been painted over, removed, or relocated. Not surprisingly, aging materials account for the disappearance of many of these artworks; the cumulative effects of sunlight and temperature extremes take their toll on paint and materials such as wood.

The decision to move an artwork to another site, on the other hand, usually stems from remodeling or changes in ownership of the property where the artwork was originally situated.

The following are some of the best-known artworks in the Quad Cities that have been removed or relocated. Some were painted on walls; some stood prominently in front of buildings; and some lived in parks and cemeteries. Some were created by renowned artists, others by area students. What they have in common is that they are no longer at their original sites.

'Davenport Blues.' Courtesy Loren Shaw Hellige.

Missing Murals

For more than half a decade, an enormous mural with a towering portrait of Bix Beiderbecke was one of downtown Davenport’s signature landmarks. Titled Davenport Blues, it was painted on the west side of the parking ramp at the corner of Second and Perry streets. It was featured in newspapers, brochures, and innumerable snapshots taken by fans of Bix and early jazz.

Loren Shaw Hellige painted the 25-foot-tall portrait and the entire sheet music for “Davenport Blues,” a song written by Bix and first recorded in 1925. She was assisted by Gene Hellige, who marked the location of the notes with charcoal before she painted them. It took six months, from July to December 1988, for the mural to be completed.

The mural was painted almost entirely in black and white. The high contrast of value drew attention, and – combined with the mural’s monumental scale – it created a sense of importance and seriousness. The mural wasn’t a visual interpretation of the music or an attempt to present the jazz icon in a new light; its restraint and use of the most familiar image of Bix made it feel timeless.

Even when the mural was first proposed, Hellige was aware that the ramp was structurally unsound. The parking ramp was torn down in 1995 and was replaced by the Radisson Quad City Plaza hotel.

'The River Styx.' Photo by Bruce Walters.

Several blocks to the east was The River Styx, a mural painted on panel by Pat Collins in 1994. Whereas Davenport Blues stood out through its sheer scale and visual clarity, this mural was brimming with cryptic symbols that invited thought and interpretation. Its location on a building near the foot of the Government Bridge – an entrance to the Rock Island Arsenal – gave the artwork a military context.

The 24-foot-long mural depicted the Mississippi River as it passes thorough the Quad Cities. Collins, however, transformed the familiar bridges and buildings into a personal narrative with the inclusion of symbolic objects – such as the reliquary with a skull and lit candle – and words written in Russian that were based, in part, on his travels in the Soviet Union. The artwork’s title, which is the name of the river in Greek mythology that separates the living world from Hades, adds another layer of references. Its total absence of living people and its maze-like staircases and ladders reinforced the mural’s surreal quality.

Only an unpainted rectangular area on the exterior wall of the Dam View tavern gives any indication that the mural ever existed. River Cities’ Reader Publisher Todd McGreevy acquired the mural in the past few years and said he hopes to display it publicly again.

'Wall of Faces.' Photo by Bruce Walters.

Wall of Faces was painted on the concrete wall on Lincoln Road near 18th Street in Bettendorf. The mural was created in the late ’90s by the Street Heat youth program, led by artist Glenn Boyles. It depicted a row of six-foot-tall heads that were uniform in scale and proportion, but with each face divided down the center and each half of the face differing in skin color, hairstyle, etc. The proportional sameness made the differences all the more striking.

The mural was replaced in 2011 by another, Active in Iowa, that weaves together patterns and a series of images – including a 19th Century bicycle, a catfish, and a soccer ball. Led by educator Michelle Garrison, students in the Quad City Arts’ Metro Arts summer youth program completed the mural in about six weeks.

'Active in Iowa.' Photo by Bruce Walters.

Murals don’t necessarily have a short lifespan. The building-sized mural of Black Hawk in the Rock Island District was painted in 1993 and is still in fine shape.

However, many area murals are more than their finished appearances; they are an opportunity for area youth to plan and execute an enormous project cooperatively. Boyles said that he likes the mural that replaced Wall of Faces and that he expected the mural he worked on to be painted over one day. And, as he pointed out, his piece replaced an even earlier mural.

A Survivor Among Sculptures

Floreciente neighborhood sculpture. Photo by Bruce Walters.In 1998, a welded metal sculpture was installed in Moline’s Floreciente neighborhood near Fifth Avenue and Seventh Street. The sculpture was created by lead artist Charles Knudsen and six youth from the neighborhood as part of the Street Heat program. Most if not all of the students participated in the Moline Boys & Girls Club. The brightly painted sculpture was centered on a sun symbol with stylized rays of light emanating from its center. On top of the sun stood a spread eagle holding a snake. Beneath the sun were twin lightning bolts and cloud-like patterns. The symbols drew from the area’s Latino heritage.

Though the sculpture was celebrated when it was created – even named to the honor roll of Midwest Living magazine’s 1998 Hometown Pride Awards Program – it was taken down in the next decade. Even the lead artist isn’t certain when it was removed. Or why.

During the First World War, two German war memorials in Davenport’s Washington Square were destroyed. One memorialized participants in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. The other commemorated veterans of the 1848 war over Schleswig-Holstein, a region between Germany and Denmark – a conflict that led to the first wave of German immigration to Davenport. This memorial was defaced with yellow paint and later, according to some reports, thrown into the Mississippi.

A replica of the 1848 memorial, based on a photograph, was dedicated in 2008 and placed near Lady of Germania, a bronze sculpture created by Jeff Adams in 2006 that sits at the foot of the Centennial Bridge in Davenport. Lady of Germania is itself based on a statue that once stood on a fountain in the center of Washington Square, a full city block that is the present site of the Scott County Family Y at 606 West Second Street. (See RCReader.com/y/germania.)

Century-old face in the Vander Veer conservatory’s windmill. Photo by Bruce Walters.

Other park sculptures – such as the central fountain in Spencer Square in downtown Rock Island, the statue at Stag Hill in Rock Island’s Longview Park, and the iron fountain at Vander Veer Botanical Park in Davenport – have also been removed over the years. One intriguing survivor is the cherubic face built into the center of the decorative windmill in the Vander Veer conservatory. It was taken from the original fountain when it was replaced in 1935. The iron fountain was donated to the park in 1906, making the face more than a century old.