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The history, mystery and purpose of War Memorial Auditorium in downtown Willmar, Minn., comes to light

The 75-year-old mural at the auditorium contains many mysteries. It tells the story of the settling of the Midwest, the legacy of the U.S.-Indian Wars, and those that followed: The Civil, Spanish-American and World War I. It celebrates the nation’s constitutional rights, from the right of assembly and the press to the end of slavery. It also contains airplanes that look like modern-day stealth bombers. Tribune photo by Gary Miller

WILLMAR — The 75th anniversary of the Willmar War Memorial Auditorium was allowed to go unnoticed last year, but there is a chance to make up for it.

This can be the year that Willmar celebrates the 75th anniversary of the Richard Haines mural it holds, and let the world know about all that is here, according to Dale Johnson, former parks and recreation director for the city.

Johnson is passionate about the history, mystery and purpose of this building on the National Register of Historic Places, and was eager to tell its story to a small gathering who came to hear about it earlier this week.

“(This) really is a room of reverence,’’ said Johnson of the building’s heart, the war memorial room. The artist who created the mural that tells a story on its four walls was already celebrated for his talents when he completed this project in 1938.

Richard Haines (1906-1984) was commissioned by the Works Progress Administration to complete nine murals during the Depression. He later became known worldwide as an American modernist for a wide range of works while teaching with the Chouinard Art Institute and later the Otis College of Art and Design in California.

Johnson chatted with the artist when he visited Willmar in the 1980s. He wishes he had asked him about the mysteries the mural contains. The mural tells the story of the settling of the Midwest, the legacy of the U.S.-Indian Wars, and those that followed: The Civil, Spanish-American and World War I. It also celebrates our constitutional rights, from the right of assembly and the press to the end of slavery.

Johnson said that Haines talked about artists who came weekly from the Twin Cities to help him. Different styles are evident in the mural, said Johnson.

There are also images in the mural that are not so easily understood. Airplanes that look like modern-day stealth bombers — and unlike any aircraft of the 1930s — are evident in one frame. An obviously war-ravaged landscape holding a rural town hall flying an American flag begs another question: Was the artist predicting an attack on U.S. soil?

There are other mysteries in the room, but the explanations are buried deep in the county landfill. Many of the original records for the building were tossed when their keeper died, said Johnson.  

William Ingemann was the architect for the Willmar War Memorial Auditorium. He also designed the Rice Hospital building in 1937. Ingemann was the architect for many public buildings, including at the University of Minnesota, Gustavus Adolphus College and Hamline University.

Originally built as a place to host conventions, the Willmar War Memorial Auditorium building cost $185,000. The city of Willmar provided $53,500 and the federal and state governments the remainder as a works project during the Depression.

At a cost of $125 apiece, artists created the molds for the three bas-relief panels that represent the military, agriculture and government above the front entrance to the building.  

Had the building’s records not been tossed, the stories of each of the 50 stones that line the walls of the war memorial room would be known. Each state sent a stone in response to requests from the American Legion in Willmar.  

The stories of some stones are known, and tell of their significance. Some came from Civil War battlefields, and one from a former headquarters for Gen. George Washington. California sent a stone excavated in the building of the Golden Gate Bridge. Montana shipped a rock that had been coughed up by an earthquake, said Johnson.

Two stones are misspelled: “Deleware” and “Conneticut.’’

“I don’t know why,’’ said Johnson.

The loss of the original records also means it may never be known what some of the symbols carved on the doors of the room represent. Also lost is all of the ornate iron works that once surrounded the building’s windows. The metal was removed and donated to the war effort during World War II.

Things could be worse. Some of the state stones were damaged when an attempt was made, and abandoned, to remove them and build a different room by the Legion.

Years of soot from a fireplace in the room and the cigars of those who gathered in it for meetings had damaged the mural too. It was restored in 1996.

The mural was re-dedicated in 1998. That would have been about a dozen years after plans to raze the building to make room for downtown parking were dropped, according to Johnson.

He knows of no current plans threatening the building but urges vigilance. He and his guests checked off a list of historic buildings torn down in the community. “As things changed, that’s what’s happened,’’ he said.

“Hopefully (this building) will stand for many, many years,’’ he said.

Johnson knows of no plans to mark the mural’s 75th anniversary this year, but is ready to tell its story should an event be held.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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