Council Bluffs has become home to an impressive array of public art in recent times. Though not part of a formal plan, there have been prominent features over the years that could be considered — if not art — at least part of the visual identity of the city.
What qualifies as art is typically thought of as a personal thing in the eye of the beholder. An exception would be Suzibelle, who had the distinction of likely being the only feature officially determined to be art by a judge. The 17-1/2 foot molded plastic statue of a woman first came to Council Bluffs in about 1970 as a promotion of U.S. Rubber. She spent over a decade in storage until appearing in front of Lyle’s Discount Tire at 501 E. Broadway. Suzibelle’s presence was not universally welcome.
A citation was issued under the city’s sign ordinance along with concerns that the 300-pound figure wasn’t anchored securely enough to prevent falling over in heavy wind. An out-of-court agreement was reached allowing her to stay for 90 days; the store’s owner donated a dollar toward the city’s Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial for every tire sold while Suzibelle remained standing.
Suzibelle went into storage at the end of the 90 days then reappeared in 1991 by the store’s new location at 103 West Broadway after the tire store moved into the old Danish Hall building. The same criticisms emerged, but more acute this time as the new location was in the urban renewal district with its requirement that signs must relate to the downtown urban renewal neighborhood.
This time, Suzibelle got her day in court and she won. Pottawattamie County Magistrate Donald Heath ruled Suzibelle did not violate ordinances as she wasn’t a sign, but rather was more or less a work of art.
The Midlands Mall Clock
A 7-foot tall orange, red, blue and hot pink clock with visible gears ranging in size from 10 inches to 4 feet was hard to miss near the Phillips store inside the Midlands Mall (now the Omni Center). The timepiece was installed in 1976 as a bicentennial project of the Parent Teacher Association; the $1,500 cost was paid by contributions from elementary school students.
Sunnydale School donated the most per student so had the honor of turning the clock on when it was finished. The clock was designed by Neal Astle, the same architect that designed the mall. The clock was selected by the PTA as a project because it was something that would help the children remember the bicentennial in the future; over the years they could look at the clock with pride knowing their contributions made it happen.
The clock was removed after the mall was remodeled into the Omni Centre Business Park and for a time found a home at Iowa Western Community College. Following that it went into storage and appears to have since been scrapped.
The Big Chicken
The Big Chicken was a signature feature along the South Omaha Bridge road for many years. The chicken was part of the miniature golf course at Cerv’s driving range. Cerv’s was operated by Dick Glasford from 1960 until 1977; Glasford also operated Club 89 in Omaha and purchased Club 64 from George Elias in 1979. The landmark disappeared then the miniature golf course site gave way to development in the 1990s.
500 Block Artwork Mural
The Chamber of Commerce sponsored a contest in 1978 to come up with a design to paint on the side of the old J.C. Penny store in the 500 block of West Broadway. The wall had become exposed in 1975 following the demolition of the adjacent Strand Theater, which had been destroyed by fire the previous year.
Marcia Joffe-Bouska won the $500 prize with her design featuring balloons. Then-chamber president Bob Blumenthal told those attending the dedication the colorful balloons show Council Bluffs is happy. The painting was replaced in 1985 with a Scenes of History mural painted by Mike Branigan, a project that took four months to complete.
In a 1989 Nonpareil interview, Branigan was quoted as saying, “It really got people pumped up about the history and heritage of Council Bluffs. That’s why I did it, to get people to take pride in the past.” The mural was lost when the building was torn down after a fire.
A significant landmark for over a half century of Abraham Lincoln High School students wasn’t man made, but was certainly sculpted by humans. A rugged section of the Loess Hills known as Gibraltar sat just east of the school at Fifth Avenue and Third Street.
Photos show it to appear much like the city’s other bluffs at the dawn of the 20th Century, becoming increasingly jagged as ever increasing excavation chopped away at it. Most school yearbooks made some reference to it; the Class of 1920 hoped they would stand as long as does Gibraltar at the rear of the school. The Class of 1929 commented on the world as it appeared “from Gibraltar’s mighty summit.”
In the 1930s, the mountain of dirt was the scene of “pre-game snake dances and pep fests.” The Girl Scouts held camp fires there in the 1940s, and many a broken limb was reported in the newspaper over the years from climbers whose skills proved insufficient for the clay precipice.
The once robust landmark was no match for civilization. In 1955, the peak was lowered 15 feet to give residents of Clark Avenue a better view. By 1957, new houses claimed the spot. The name lives on as the label given to what is one of the oldest residential areas of the city. The Historic Gibraltar Neighborhood represents an intact residential section of the city representing Council Bluffs’ development from 1855 to 1930.
— The Historical and Preservation Society can be reached at information@TheHistoricalSociety.org.