History - Cedar Rapids Nativity


History - Cedar Rapids Nativity
Histroy of the
Armstrong-Smulekoff Nativity
& Restoration
This set was purchased in 1959 by Robert Armstrong, owner of Armstrong’s
Department Store in downtown Cedar Rapids. Mark Hunter, a local historian,
believes it was purchased in Europe. It was first displayed Christmas 1959 in
the newly remodeled and expanded store windows. The store had been expanded to compete with Lindale Mall and to transform Armstrong’s into a store similar
to Marshall Field’s (now Macy’s) in Chicago.
Those who shopped in Downtown Cedar Rapids from 1959 to 2007 remember well the nativity scene and all the Christmas window displays the downtown stores
arranged annually. In January of 1991, Armstrong’s Department Store went out of business. By July of 1991, the Armstrong’s Nativity scene was purchased by
Smulekoff’s Furniture, who would continue to showcase the community’s Christmas landmark for the next 16 years in their store windows.
Christmas 2007 was the last time Smulekoff’s Furniture displayed the nativity set as the devastating flood of 2008 completely submerged the plaster set,
which was stored in a specially-created wooden crate in Smulekoff’s basement. When clean-up in the basement level began, the set was still in the crate but
obviously needed major clean-up. Most pieces had taken some bumps in the flood, and all the plaster pieces were weakened from so much time sitting in water.
Unfortunately, Joseph had collapsed into three sections and was missing a lot of plaster.
Restoration of Nine
In January of 2010, Smulekoff’s operations manager, Dennis Kelly, began to seek a church to accept the set as a donation with the intention
of restoring it. In early February, Laure Schaerr, Stake Director of Public Affairs of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, was
contacted about the set. After consulting with Paul Johnson, President of the Cedar Rapids Iowa Stake, she agreed to take a look at it. Dennis
Kelly and Denny Skaff, inventory clerk, showed the set to Laure, and that day she took four statues home to begin the restoration.
Over the next several months, Laure filled her garage with tables as more pieces went home with her in the back of her minivan. Many
volunteers came over to work on the pieces, which are made of plaster, burlap, and horsehair. Gently, the flood muck and loose paint were
removed. Holes were filled in, missing fingertips were replaced, and loose plaster was reinforced with new plaster. Kilz primer was used to
seal the plaster after the Jesus figure began to grow small dots of mold. Each piece was given two coats of primer, two coats of a base white
paint, and at least 2-3 coats of pearlescent paint that matched the original pearl paint.
Smulekoff’s Furniture delivered the camel, which is 69” tall and 89” wide to Laure’s house and picked it up again to deliver to the LDS Stake
Center as it was too large to safely transport in a van or truck. Nine of the pieces were completed by the end of July 2010, after over 130 hours
of work.
Joseph came to Cary Jacobs in three pieces in a large box. Although plaster was missing from edges of the sections and horsehair and burlap
hung loosely, Cary agreed to tackle the project. In August 2010, Cary and Laure began working on strengthening the sections and putting
Joseph back together. The pieces fit back together, but there were gaping holes to fill in. Cary consulted local artist, Maria White, who
suggested trying a product called Durham’s Water Putty. Cary and Laure used approximately 15 cans (almost 68
pounds) of water putty to reinforce the fragile sections with cheesecloth and burlap. More plaster was added to
fill in fingertips, various dents, and to restore the original lines of the statue. Nearly 70 hours, mostly by Cary,
were required to re-assemble and restore Joseph to his 5’9” size by the end of October 2010.
Special Thanks
Thank you to all those who made this restoration possible: Smulekoff’s Furniture for donating the ArmstrongSmulekoff Nativity and providing transportation for the camel; custom boxes donated by International Paper
& Ted DeMoe, Cedar Rapids; fabric for the display donated by Wallpapers Etc. & Roger & Sandy O’Quinn,
Beaumont, Texas; Mark Stouffer-Hunter & The History Center staff for assistance in researching this nativity
set’s history; Dale Nordby and his crew for building the scene back drop; and the many volunteers who put hours
of work into the cleaning and restoration process.
Restoration Volunteers
Kathy Bullock
Michaele Burris
Desi Carr
Estelle Carr
Leslie Chandler
Dawn Christensen
Arielle Coffman
Hannah Davenport
Heidi Davenport
Kerri Davenport
Stephanie Davenport
Deb Dupree
Mike Dupree
Margaret Ferreter
Jayne Gutierrez
Rachel Hasara
Laura Hernandez
Lynnette Hodson
Cary Jacobs
Dan Jacobs
Carol Kurth
Larry Kurth
Megan Mabe
Talee Mabe
Dale Nordby
Avis Orend
Cindy Richardson
Melissa Richardson
Tracey Riddell
Emma Schaerr
Ken Schaerr
Laure Schaerr
Kari Schatz
Deniece Schofield
Deb Sejkora
Colette Sherwood
Chuck Sorensen