by Bekah Porter
CEDAR RAPIDS – For 100 years, Cedar Rapids residents have enjoyed a home away from home.
“That’s what we like to think we are — the community’s other home,” said Maura Pilcher, assistant director at the Brucemore National Historic Trust Site. “We like to think that we are Cedar Rapids’ central park.”
According to Brucemore records, renowned landscape architect O.C. Simonds came to the estate in 1910 to design and plant a formal garden that he envisioned entertaining community residents for decades to come.
“That’s exactly what happened,” Ms. Pilcher said. “This has been a place where anybody is welcome to come and enjoy the outdoors.”
To celebrate this lasting legacy, Brucemore officials will again welcome the community to its annual Garden and Art Show on Aug. 28, but this time the event will be hosted with something a little special.
“Well, for starters, there will be cake,” Ms. Pilcher said.
Additionally, guests can enjoy special speakers and presentations, as well as a tour led by the head gardener, who will point out various aspects of Mr. Simonds’ vision.
Through this annual event, the community can see the continuing impact the nonprofit organization has had on the town’s quality of life.
“This isn’t a shrine to the wealthy families who lived here, but rather, it’s a community resource,” Ms. Pilcher said. “It’s so fun to see people come in and have picnics and play Frisbee and really use the estate like a city park. We try to be very open-armed to the community and make sure that everybody feels comfortable walking through our gates and that they know this belongs to them, too.”
Brucemore is a former family mansion that was built in 1885 by the Sinclair family after it found fortune with the Sinclair Meatpacking business. The building, which cost $55,000 to construct, was the most expensive city improvement in 1885 and included a great hall, grand staircase, eight bathrooms, nine bedrooms, 14 fireplaces and a conservatory.
In 1906, the Sinclair family traded its mansion for the Douglas family’s Second Avenue home, and the Douglases continued to serve as the city’s version of nobility — having co-founded The Quaker Oats Co., as well as Douglas & Co. During this time, the estate was given the name Brucemore, the gardens were built, and the property grew from 10 acres to 33.
The estate, already associated with glitz and glamour, became even more so when Quaker Oats co-founder and frequent Brucemore guest Walter Douglas drowned during the Titanic disaster. The community rallied behind his family, and decades later, he became the subject of national attention when the company that owns salvage rights to the Titanic shipwreck raised Mr. Douglas’ first-class berth from the ocean floor. Several other influential people dined at Brucemore, including former presidents Herbert Hoover and Harry Truman.
In 1937, the mansion and grounds were bequeathed to Margaret Douglas Hall and her husband, industrialist Howard Hall, who was involved in Iowa Steel and Iowa Works, Cedarapids Inc, Amana Refrigeration and more. Mr. Hall was known for owning a lion cub related to the famous MGM lion who roars onscreen.
When Mrs. Hall died in 1981, she bequeathed the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation for use as a historic site and community cultural center.
“Mrs. Hall didn’t want the estate to be a shrine to her family. She wanted it to be a place where the community could enjoy the property as if it were their own,” Ms. Pilcher said.
Since the estate opened as a historic site, officials have continued to work to further that goal. The site offers numerous events, including classic plays on the lawn, cabaret performances in the garden, museum tours and more.
“We’re always looking at unique ways of offering high-quality experiences for an affordable price,” she said.
And she wants the estate to keep doing so for the next 100 years.
“That’s something we’re always talking about,” Ms. Pilcher said. “You always have to talk about longevity.”
Site officials are working on a strategic planning initiative that includes restoring the greenhouse that was built in 1915, preserving the sleeping porch built by Grant Wood and expanding the green space.
“We always have to look at ways to stay relevant, because if an estate doesn’t engage the community now, it’s not worth preserving in the future,” Ms. Pilcher said. “So in the next 100 years, we’re looking at all of the studies that say the new trend will be green space. As so many communities are paving and building and expanding, green space is going to become even more important, and we need to work on preserving our green space so that it can be enjoyed in the next century.” CBJ