Brucemore Mansion: A Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Attraction and National Trust Historic Site

Brucemore Mansion: A National Trust Historic Site


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 to 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.

Brucemore History

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.

George and Irene Douglas' extensive renovations included shifting the main entrance of the house to the Linden Drive side and adding Craftsman-style porches.

George and Irene Douglas' extensive renovations included shifting the main entrance of the house to the Linden Drive side and adding Craftsman-style porches.

1906: The Douglas Family

Irene Douglas installed this Art Moderne swimming pool in 1927 after George's death.

Irene Douglas installed this Art Moderne swimming pool in 1927 after George's death.

The 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.

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.

Landscape architect O.C. Simonds designed  the formal garden in 1910.  The greenhouse, circa 1915, is visible in the back right of the photo.

Landscape architect O.C. Simonds designed the formal garden in 1910. The greenhouse, circa 1915, is visible in the back right of the photo.

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.


Brucemore Today

The mansion's front lawn is the venue of the annual Bluesmore music festival.

The mansion's front lawn is the venue of the annual Bluesmore music festival.

Brucemore hosts the popular Balloon Glow event each June as part of the city's Freedom Festival.

Brucemore hosts the popular Balloon Glow event each June as part of the city's Freedom Festival.

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 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 age 6-18.

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.

Brucemore at Christmas

Brucemore at Christmas

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.

Learn more.

Cedar Rapids' Lost Treasures

"And we will probably be judged not by the monuments we build but by those we have destroyed." Farewell to Penn Station, New York Times editorial, October 30, 1963.

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:

People's Church, demolished 2011

People's Church, demolished 2011

  • 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.

Terra cotta detail on the Louis Sullivan-designed Peoples Bank building.

Terra cotta detail on the Louis Sullivan-designed Peoples Bank building.

Significant Sites in Cedar Rapids History


Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on March 27, 2015:

Thanks, all. Glad I was able to put my hometown in the spotlight for a day.

ketutwisnusanjoyo on March 27, 2015:

well done

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on March 27, 2015:

Well done for winning HOTD for this one. Well deserved.

Mary Craig from New York on March 26, 2015:

I agree with Bill, this is what a HOTD should look like. The history is so comprehensive and the pictures perfect for this hub. Such great information for someone living in NY.

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.

Aunice Yvonne Reed from Southern California on March 26, 2015:

Wow! Love this HOTD hub. I was born and raised in Iowa and so very familiar with Cedar Rapids. Nice to see all that they've done with the old building.

poetryman6969 on March 26, 2015:

It's pretty cool that they can use the place for the balloon glow. Nice photos.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on March 26, 2015:

I don't get too excited about HOTDs, but I do enjoy it when a friend of mine receives recognition for a job well-done, so congratulations, Deb. This really is a well-written article and, as a bonus, it was interesting. :)

Mary Hyatt from Florida on March 26, 2015:

I believe old historic buildings should be saved. We have many in our area that have been torn down and replaced with new modern buildings, and that makes me very sad.

I enjoyed reading this HOTD, and congrats!!

Voted UP, etc. and shared.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on March 26, 2015:

Thanks, everyone. Quite the surprise to have this named as HOTD today. And nice to see some other Iowans here. A happy postscript to the article: The Peoples Bank building has been saved; it was renovated and turned into Popoli, an Italian restaurant. And on a sad note, Bluesmore is no more. I need to update the article, I guess.

akshay from india on March 26, 2015:


i like this a lot

Dr Penny Pincher from Iowa, USA on March 26, 2015:

I have peddled past this on my bicycle, but have not been inside yet. I didn't realize there was a swimming pool from the 1920s there- interesting. I'll have to check this out sometime.

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on March 26, 2015:

A beautiful home that should be preserved and shared by others. Your photos are wonderful and give us a real look in the past. It is sad about the People's Church being demolished. They say this is progress, I prefer the history. A very good hub.

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on March 26, 2015:

Deb, congratulations on Hub of the Day! As a fellow Cedar Rapidian it's great to see your hub in the limelight.

Patricia Scott from North Central Florida on March 26, 2015:

The photos hold much mystery ...O if those walls could talk ..thank you for speaking for them.

I passed through Cedar Rapids many times and did not know of this site.

Thanks for sharing.

Congrats on HOTD

Angels are on the way to you this morning ps

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on July 15, 2013:

Thanks for reading and for the good news, Au Fait. I hadn't checked to see where this one was at on Google. It's a shame about the old buildings. The demolition of People's Church especially was upsetting. My brother got married there and it was a beautiful old building replaced by a generic office building.

C E Clark from North Texas on July 13, 2013:

An interesting history lesson, excellent photos. Sounds like it was pretty expensive even back then. Noted this hub is on the first page of Google for Brucemore Mansion Cedar Rapids, IA. Congratulations!

A shame so many of the other historic buildings were destroyed.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on January 10, 2013:

Vespawoolf, have you shared your Cedar Rapids connection with me already? I can't remember. Next time you are in the area, let me know!

Vespa Woolf from Peru, South America on January 07, 2013:

Although we've been through Cedar Rapids, we've sadly never visited the Brucemore Mansion. Next time we're in town, we definitely plan to take the tour! This histories of the families who lived in this mansion were fascinating. I didn't know about the Douglas family's connection with Quaker Oats. Very interesting! Thanks!

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on September 12, 2012:

Thanks for reading about my city, Ms. Dora, and thanks for the kind words.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on September 11, 2012:

Voted Up, Beautiful and Interesting! Thanks for the view of Cedar Rapids and the rich history which has been preserved there. Such stability in the community (as well as the people who created them) deserve to be cherished. Good job!

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on September 01, 2012:

Thanks, Peggy. I appreciate your help in spreading the word about the importance of historic preservation!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on September 01, 2012:

My husband was born in Iowa. I know that he will be very interested in reading this hub. Wonderful to know that the Brucemore mansion is preserved and open to the public. It certainly has had an interesting history! Sad that some of the other buildings in Cedar Rapids could not be saved. Hopefully the People's Bank will fare better than the others that have been lost. Up votes and definitely sharing. Thanks for writing about this.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on August 21, 2012:

Thanks you , bravewarrior, for the great comment. It makes me so sad to think of all the history that's been lost. The historical church I mentioned in my hub that was torn down earlier this year will be replaced by 40 surface parking spots. 40. That's it. It seems like such a huge price to pay. And the other church that was torn down late last year (the one in the picture) was where my brother got married. It was absolutely gorgeous on the inside. I don't know why people can't see the benefit in repurposing these structures. Why couldn't that church have been converted to a unique office space instead of torn down and replaced with a generic office building? Such a shame.

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on August 20, 2012:

Deborah, what a beautiful lesson in history! However, the demolishing of the remaining historic buildings of which you speak is a cultural travesty. To raize these beautiful pieces of architecture that have withstood the sands of time and replace them with parking lots is complete disrespect for the beauty of the buildings and the history of which they spoke.

Has commercialism come to this? How truly sad! Thank God for Margaret Douglas Hall's forsight and appreciation of history and memories lived!

Awesome piece. I enjoyed it immensely, although was saddened by the loss of history and fortitude.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on August 15, 2012:

Thanks, teaches. It's really beautiful at Christmas when the house is all decorated, inside and out. It's pretty spectacular. Thanks for stopping by.

Dianna Mendez on August 14, 2012:

What a beautiful home and I would love to see at Christmas time with all the lights and greenery! You have written this well and made it very enjoyable to read. Voted up.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on August 09, 2012:

Thanks, aviannovice. I appreciate the comment and compliment.

Deb Hirt from Stillwater, OK on August 09, 2012:

This is an excellent piece, very well done. Awesome and up.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on August 09, 2012:

I'm glad you found this hub, David, since you're the only other person I know from Cedar Rapids who's on Hubpages. Thanks for sharing the Leo story. I hadn't heard that one before! Do you ever make it to any of the Brucemore events? I was just there on Saturday for Bluesmore (I've only missed 2 in its18-year history) and will be back again for the garden and art show. Thanks for reading and commenting.

David Hunt from Cedar Rapids, Iowa on August 09, 2012:

Very nice article, deborah. There is a story (supposed to be true) about a couple plumbers working in Brucemore's kitchen. They were not aware that a lion roamed the premises. When Leo trotted into the kitchen, the two men locked themselves in the cabinet under the sink until someone led Leo away. Also, you're right about Cedar Rapids getting carried away in the 1960s during the urban renewal craze. If we still had Union Station, it would rival Brucemore as the jewel of the city. Thanks for writing this.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on August 08, 2012:

Awesome, Jools! Let me know when you get here. I'll be happy to show you around.

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on August 08, 2012:

It's too well kept a secret Deb - although I think Bill Bryson has been selling the place to me in every book I've read by him :o) I have decided my next adventure in the states (I have flown all over the states twice ...so far) will include Iowa and other places I would never consider visiting.

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on August 08, 2012:

Thank you for visiting, Mark!

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on August 08, 2012:

Thanks, Jools. I actually used to live within walking distance when I was in town, which was great for attending all the events there. I hope you get a chance to visit sometime. I have a friend from the U.K. who's been to visit me several times now. She loves Iowa. : )

Curiad on August 08, 2012:

Very interesting Deborah, thank you for the tour!

Deborah Neyens (author) from Iowa on August 08, 2012:

Thanks, Bill. Since it looks like I'm not getting a real vacation this summer, I'm in full staycation mode. Glad you are enjoying my Iowa hubs.

Jools Hogg from North-East UK on August 08, 2012:

Deb, very interesting hub and I love your photos - especially the balloons! I was just thinking, if I ever came back to the USA, it would never enter my head to visit Iowa but it looks so pretty. You are lucky to live so close to Brucemore and the park.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on August 08, 2012:

What a magnificent building! Thank you for the history and fantastic pictures. Keep the Iowa hubs coming; I'm living vicariously through them.

Related Articles