January 25, 2018

Before He Was Famous, Artist Grant Wood Redesigned This Small Sleeping Porch

  • By: Lauren Walser

photo by: Richard Roche/Flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

Brucemore, a National Trust Historic Site in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Five years before he completed American Gothic, one of the most recognizable paintings in American art, artist Grant Wood finished a very different kind of project: decorating a small sleeping porch at Brucemore, a 26-acre estate in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

“It’s kind of an unexpected surprise [for visitors] here,” says Jessica Peel-Austin, museum program manager at Brucemore, a National Trust Historic Site.

But Wood was long a fixture in Cedar Rapids’ arts community. He converted his carriage house dwelling into his studio, which he called 5 Turner Alley, and he completed numerous interior design projects for the city’s wealthy families.

One of those projects was commissioned in 1925 by Irene Douglas, president of the Cedar Rapids Art Association and wife of George Douglas, of the Quaker Oats and Douglas & Company fortune. The Douglases were the second owners of Brucemore and made a number of renovations and upgrades to the 1884 mansion—including a redesign of the brick sleeping porch (an outdoor space for sleeping during warm-weather months) located off their youngest daughter’s second-floor bedroom. And in looking for the right designer for the task, Irene Douglas turned to Wood.

“We think she was taken with his artwork and decided to hire him for this project,” Peel-Austin says.

Wood transformed the space.

He created murals on the walls made of plaster and paints: “Basic hardware store material,” Peel-Austin says. He applied the plaster on top of the porch’s original brick and crafted a design of curving vines with hand-molded flowers, along with woodland creatures such as birds, deer, rabbits, squirrels, and a snail. He then coated the plaster with several layers of paint washes.

“It’s kind of whimsical—and definitely different from the artwork we normally associate with Grant Wood,” Peel-Austin says.

At the time, the porch wasn’t enclosed, leaving it completely exposed to the elements. Add to that, the Douglases and the estate’s next owners, the Halls, had varnished the walls and scrubbed them harshly with destructive cleaning materials.

By the time the National Trust took ownership of Brucemore in 1981, the porch had lost some of its luster. Staff enclosed the porch to protect it from the region’s harsh weather in the 1980s, and they conducted an initial conservation assessment in 1996. Finally in 2013, Brucemore launched a major conservation effort.

porch during conservation

photo by: Brucemore

The sleeping porch, during a 2013 conservation project.

The conservation team cleaned the walls of the layers of dust, grime, and cleaning material build-up that had accumulated throughout the years. In doing so, some of the original colors began to shine through again. They also ensured the plaster was securely affixed to the wall.

A few years later, in 2016, Brucemore staff built a new Plexiglas viewing deck so that visitors can step into the porch and see it up-close. (Previously, the room had been roped off, so visitors could only peer into the space.) Staff also created a new interactive exhibit in a room adjacent to the porch, with interpretive videos and archival materials on display.

viewing deck

photo by: Brucemore

The plaster relief Wood designed for the porch depicts vines, flowers, and woodland creatures.

It’s a way for Brucemore staff to highlight not only a lesser-known creation by Wood, a giant in American art, but also how the estate’s second owners had an early relationship with him.

“They were early patrons of his, providing some work for him during this period when he was still trying to find his way as an artist and making a name for himself,” Peel-Austin says.

interactive exhibit

photo by: Brucemore

Visitors are encouraged to touch this new 3D panel in the exhibition space to feel the texture of Wood's design.

Today, 93 years after he completed the sleeping porch and 88 years after American Gothic made its debut at the Art Institute of Chicago, fans flock to Cedar Rapids, where the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art has much of his work on display. And this spring, the Whitney Museum of American Art is running a major exhibition on his work called Grant Wood: American Gothic and Other Fables, running from March 2 through June 10, 2018.

“It’s always exciting when there’s a revival in interest in [Wood’s] artwork,” Peel-Austin says. “And here [at Brucemore], you can see this lesser-known, understudied period of his art.”

Lauren Walser headshot

Lauren Walser served as the Los Angeles-based field editor of Preservation magazine. She enjoys writing and thinking about art, architecture, and public space, and hopes to one day restore her very own Arts and Crafts-style bungalow.

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