Veterans Memorial Building
The Veterans Memorial Building is an iconic fixture in the Cedar Rapids skyline. With its colossal scale and commanding features, this mammoth stone building dominates the river. Completed in 1927, this stately structure is only one of two buildings in Iowa that was purpose built as a veterans monument. The nearby Alliant Energy and CRST towers may surpass Vets Memorial in height, but certainly not in personality.

Veterans Memorial Building

Did you know that Cedar Rapids, Paris, and Osaka all have something in common? They are the only three cities in the world that have government seats in the middle of a river. Most people don’t realize that Vets Memorial and the Linn County Courthouse are on the same piece of land because they are separated by two bridges.

Aerial of Cedar Rapids, IACredit shutterstock_by Christopher Boswell

 A Public Tribute to Military Service

Did you know that the Iowa Code has a strict definition for memorial halls and monuments (Chapter 37, if you are curious)? Memorial buildings aren’t simply funded by public dollars – they must be voted into existence. These sites have to be approved by 10% of county voters or a member majority of all veteran organizations in the county. That might explain why the state only has two (the other was built in 1929 in Dyersville).

A memorial building also has to be used for specific programming:

For example, the old armory or muster area is located in the basement underneath the auditorium. It was an indoor firing range through WWII. Today, it offers a practice space for wresting and roller derby.

armory of Veterans Memorial Building

Photo courtesy of Mike Wood, fotomatpix

Vets Memorial is also a wonderful military museum, which helps fulfills the edict that it must honor military history and educate the public. Its collection goes back to the Civil War and has over 1,200 pieces.

view from the top of Veterans Memorial BuildingView from the centograph looking at the Linn County Courthouse and downtown Cedar Rapids.
Photo courtesy of Mike Wood, fotomatpix

Architecturally, Vets Memorial displays an interesting combination of Beaux Arts and Moderne. The Beaux Arts is expressed in the classical features and mirrors the Linn County Courthouse. The Moderne style is articulated in the prominent 10-story tower. This mix of styles perfectly suits a building that houses multiple public functions.

chandelier

“The Memorial Building … combines elements of this style with the verticality of the Moderne, the whole topped with classical funerary features which advertise its purpose as a war memorial. Beyond this obvious visual symbolism, this building represents a joint effort on the part of veterans’ groups, local government, and commercial and business interests, to combine in this structure a variety of functions: war memorial, city hall, and convention center.” (1)

view from the top of Veterans Memorial BuildingA little-seen view of City Hall from the top of Veterans Memorial Building.
Photo courtesy of Mike Wood, fotomatpix

Beyond its civic functions, Vets Memorial was (and remains) an attractive business amenity. With a huge coliseum on the first floor, it allowed Cedar Rapids to “compete with Des Moines in the lucrative convention business” (1). Before the U.S. Cellular Center was built in 1979 (originally the Five Seasons Center), the Vets auditorium headlined big acts such as Johnny Cash, Amy Grant, Metallica, KISS, and the Shrine Circus.

Auditorium of Veterans Memorial Building

This is from the annual Pancake Breakfast every 4th of July

An Example of Patriotic Architecture

The architecture of Vets Memorial thoughtfully includes tributes to wars from every era. Interesting, the original design plans were rejected because they were deemed “insufficiently symbolic” and did not “perpetuate … the spirit of those men who went and did not come back” (1). This final design, however, is strikingly patriotic.

The top of the building is a cenotaph, which is an empty tomb. It is modeled after one in Whitehall, London dedicated to unknown soldiers.

Cenotaph of Veterans Memorial Building

The fun thing about touring old buildings is that you get to confront your fear of heights!
Photo courtesy of Mike Wood, fotomatpix 

The gold-plated eternal flame was added in 2000 (backstory on its design here).

gold flame on top of Veterans Memorial Building

A lyric from a Civil War-era song is etched over the entrance: “May the wreaths they have won never wither nor the star of their glory grow dim.”

Underneath the quote is a bas-relief of the United States Seal.

exterior of Veterans Memorial Building

There is a also replica of the Tomb of the Unknown Solider at the entrance. A cast of the Iwo Jima statue is placed in front of it.

Even the light fixtures have an eagle emblem on them.

sconce with eagle emblem

But the most arresting feature is the Grant Wood Memorial Window. This piece honors soldiers from the Revolutionary War through WWI. It has such a cool story – please click here for a bonus post on this magnificent glass arch!

Special thank you to Teri Van Dorston, Assistant Director of Veterans Memorial Commission & Building, for sharing her wonderful knowledge! And much appreciation to Paul Pestel, Facilities Director, for opening up the cenotaph to me!

All photos personal unless otherwise noted.

References

1) May’s Island Historic District, National Register of Historic Places Inventory: https://npgallery.nps.gov/NRHP/GetAsset/NRHP/78001240_text

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Grant Wood Memorial Window