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A Piece of Cedar Rapids History Preserved
Just east of downtown Cedar Rapids on the city's main thoroughfare, a stately mansion stands at the top of a vast green lawn. Its incongruous position between high-rise condos and drab medical buildings offers a hint of its historical significance. While lesser structures have long since given way to commercial development, the magnificent edifice remains to tell its fascinating story.
Brucemore Mansion was occupied for nearly a century by wealthy industrialists and philanthropists who helped shape the city of Cedar Rapids. The home's last owner, Margaret Hall, in one final act of benevolence, bequeathed Brucemore to the National Trust for Historic Preservation upon her death in 1981. Now Iowa's only National Trust Historic Site, the historic house and the 26-acre estate on which it sits continue to play an important role in the community.
Brucemore's story illustrates the importance of historic preservation to a community. The home provides a link to the city's past. Not only does it preserve the memories of the important families who lived there, it tells new generations how these families helped transform Cedar Rapids from a sleepy river village to the Midwestern industrial center it is today.
1884: Caroline Sinclair
Sinclair Memorial Chapel
Brucemore wasn't Caroline Sinclair's only architectural contribution to the City of Cedar Rapids. She also constructed a chapel on the Coe College campus in memory of her late husband. An angry janitor set fire to the chapel and destroyed it in 1947. It was rebuilt as Sinclair Auditorium in 1951. A small chapel within the building features the smoke-stained windows from the original chapel.
Widowed at the age of 33 after her husband, Cedar Rapids meat-packing magnate Thomas McElderry Sinclair, died from a fall into an open elevator shaft at his plant, Caroline Soutter Sinclair purchased 10 acres of land two miles from town as a rural retreat for her six children. She began construction on the three-story, 21-room Queen Anne-style house in 1884 and moved her family there in 1886. Beginning in 1887, the family lived in Caroline's hometown of Philadelphia during the school year but returned to their country estate in Iowa each summer.
In 1906, after her children were grown and gone from home, Caroline Sinclair decided to move back to town. When plans to convert her home to an orphanage fell through, she negotiated a trade with the Douglas family for their home on Second Avenue in Cedar Rapids and $125,000 cash. At the time, it was the largest private real estate transaction in Cedar Rapids' history.
Caroline lived at the Second Avenue home until her death in 1917 at age 69. She is buried at Oak Hill Cemetery in Cedar Rapids.
1906: The Douglas Family
Douglas Family's Triumphs and Tragedies
George Bruce Douglas' father, George Douglas, Sr., was a Scottish immigrant who co-founded the cereal company that later became Quaker Oats.
After gaining business experience working for their father, George Bruce Douglas and his brother, Walter Douglas, formed Douglas Starch Works, a Cedar Rapids company that manufactured cornstarch products. On May 22, 1919, an explosion destroyed the plant and killed 43 employees. It was the worst industrial accident in Cedar Rapids history. Following the accident, George sank into a deep depression.
The plant explosion wasn't the first tragedy to have befallen the Douglas family. Seven years earlier, George's brother Walter had perished on the Titanic. His wife Mahala escaped in a lifeboat, but Walter remained behind on the ship to assist the other women and children.
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Today, Penford Products produces industrial starch on the former Douglas Starch Works site.
Cereal heir George Bruce Douglas, his wife Irene Hazeltine Douglas, and their two daughters acquired the mansion in 1906 and moved there after completing extensive renovations. Youngest daughter Barbara was born at Brucemore in 1908, the only person to be born in the house.
The Douglas family made many changes to the property, including bestowing the name "Brucemore," a combination of George Douglas' middle name and a nod to the Scottish moors of his heritage. They altered the exterior of the house to reflect the popular Craftsman style of the era and added more land, buildings, and landscape features to the property. Their additions to the estate included a bookbindery, greenhouse, tennis court, and pond, among many others.
The Douglas family also made significant changes to the interior of the house. They added some of the home's more unique features, including Craftsman-style exposed ceiling beams and butternut paneling in the great hall on the main floor, a mural of the Wagnerian opera Ring of the Nibelung around the top of the great hall and up the staircase, and a built-in pipe organ, with the console on the first floor, the motor in the attic, and a pipe room in a third-floor bedroom.
George died in 1923 of a cerebral hemorrhage. Irene lived another 14 years and continued to improve the estate until her death at Brucemore in 1937. She left the estate to her oldest daughter, Margaret Douglas Hall.
1937: Howard and Margaret Hall
The Halls' Business and Charitable Concerns
After serving in France during the First World War, Howard Hall returned to Cedar Rapids to make his fortune. He and a business partner bought a controlling interest in Carmody Foundry, which they renamed Iowa Steel and Iron Works. In 1922, Hall and his partner co-founded Iowa Manufacturing Company to make rock crushers used as road-paving equipment.
Howard and Margaret Hall were generous benefactors to the community. They helped found the Hall Radiation Center, the first of its kind in Iowa, and the Hallmar long-term care facility. The Hall-Perrine Foundation, which the Halls established with Howard's mother and his sister and brother-in-law, Irene and Beahl Perrine, continues the family's philanthropic legacy today.
Margaret Douglas was ten years old when her family acquired Brucemore in 1906. She met Cedar Rapids businessman Howard Hall at a party in 1923. They were married a year later at the estate. Following their wedding, the couple lived in the estate's Garden House, which the Douglases had constructed in 1912 as a guest house.
After Irene Douglas died in 1937, Howard and Margaret moved into the big house. They modernized the house and its furnishings in the popular mid-century style. Their most notable improvement was finishing the basement to create the Grizzly Bar, a man cave for Howard that was decorated in a Wild West saloon motif, and the Tahitian Room, a rec room designed to look like a tropical island, which the Halls used for their extensive entertaining.
Margaret and Howard had no children but maintained a large furry family on the grounds of Brucemore. Their numerous pets included, among others, several German Shepherd dogs and their legendary pet lions, all named Leo. The most famous Leo lived at Brucemore from 1937 to 1951 and is buried in the pet cemetery on the grounds. A statue of a German Shepherd marks the entrance to the cemetery.
Howard died in 1971 and Margaret followed him ten years later. After Margaret's death in 1981, Brucemore was opened to the public.
Today, Margaret Hall's vision of her home as a center for cultural activity in Cedar Rapids has been realized. The lawn on which her pet lions used to roam has been the venue of Bluesmore, a popular blues music festival, since 1994. Although there are no longer any real lions on the estate, a person in a lion costume strolls the grounds during the annual festival posing for pictures and handing out candy.
Other annual events at the estate include the poolside Tahitian Party to raise funds for the estate's preservation projects; Balloon Glow, part of the city's two-week Freedom Festival celebration; "The Classics at Brucemore" outdoor theater; a "Cabaret in the Courtyard" nightclub event; and the Brucemore Garden and Art show. The estate also hosts outdoor children's theater, concerts, landscape hikes, educational exhibits, special holiday programs, and other special events.
Tours of the mansion are available from March through December, beginning on the hour from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and from noon to 3:00 p.m. on Sundays. Admission is $7 for adults and $3 for students aged 6 to 18.
The Visitor Center, which houses the Brucemore Museum Store and Cutting Gardens Flower Shop, is open year-round, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and from noon to 4:00 p.m. on Sunday. It is located in the estate's former carriage house, which was built in 1911 to house animals and vehicles.
The National Trust for Historic Preservation
Founded by a Congressional charter that was signed by President Truman in 1949, the National Trust for Historic Preservation is a privately-funded nonprofit organization that works to save America's historic places. The organization's programs identify endangered historic places and take action to save them through advocacy work, education, and fundraising. The National Trust has a collection of 29 historic sites that it owns and/or operates, most in partnership with other nonprofit organizations. It also offers a number of travel resources for people seeking to explore America's heritage.
And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed.
— New York Times editorial, October 30, 1963.
Cedar Rapids' Lost Treasures
While Brucemore's preservation has been secured through Margaret Hall's generosity, other Cedar Rapids properties have not been as fortunate. These are just a few of the historically significant buildings that are lost forever to the City of Cedar Rapids:
- Old Washington High School: This three-story brick building with a white belfry was the largest public school in Iowa at the time of its construction in 1855. It was located on what is now Greene Square Park at 4th Avenue and 5th Street SE. Originally a grade school, it became a high school in 1869. The school closed in 1935 and was demolished in 1946 after a failed preservation effort.
- Union Station: The grand Union Station located on 4th Avenue and 4th Street SE opened in 1897 and served as the train depot for the Chicago & North Western and Rock Island railroads. It was demolished in 1961 and replaced with a parking structure.
- People's Church: Cedar Rapids' oldest church, built in 1875 and torn down in 2011, was the first building in Cedar Rapids listed on the National Register of Historic Places to be demolished without having been damaged by fire or natural disaster. An office building was constructed on the site.
- First Christian Church: Famed architect Louis Sullivan was a consultant on the church, and glass artist Louis Millet designed the windows. Although the church, which was constructed in 1912, was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, efforts by local preservation groups failed to save it. It was razed in 2012 to make way for a medical center parking lot.
Now Cedar Rapids' most endangered property, as identified in 2012 by Preservation Iowa, is the Peoples Bank building, located at 101 3rd Avenue SW. Architect Louis Sullivan designed the jewel-box bank in 1907. The building was used as a bank up until a flood inundated all of downtown Cedar Rapids in 2008. The building has been shuttered ever since. Will its history be lost to the city, too?
Fortunately for Cedar Rapids, Margaret Douglas Hall had the foresight to save Brucemore.