Brucemore, a National Trust Historic Site in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Rebuilds After a Devastating Storm
August 10, 2020, dawned hopeful for Gerard Estella at Brucemore, a 26-acre estate of forest, garden, and lawn with a three-story Queen Anne–style mansion in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. As artisan in residence at the property, one of three National Trust Historic Sites in the Midwest, Estella had helped reinvigorate the 19th-century estate by curating concerts, plays, and other performances and gatherings. This day he was hanging stage lights for the week’s scheduled “Music in the Courtyard” concert.
Prior to the pandemic, Brucemore—which has drawn more than a million visitors since it opened to the public in 1981—held events around 40 nights a year. But there had been no performances during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Music in the Courtyard would provide a haven in Brucemore’s leafy outdoors for neighbors to safely meet again after months in isolation.
“The job of an artist is to make people feel better. If you’ve done that you’ve made a case for culture,” said Estella, a musician who has toured with Earth Wind & Fire.
Art here is true to the visions of the two Progressive-era women responsible for the building and expansion of Brucemore, as well as that of the pioneering Midwestern landscape architect who planted the verdant grounds that many call “the Central Park of Cedar Rapids.” The upcoming concert exemplified Brucemore’s mission to “inspire community interaction with history, preservation and the arts.”
Summer rainstorms are common in the humid Cedar River watershed. But the dark clouds that gathered around lunchtime were so menacing that tornado sirens sounded. Estella raced into his basement in a former servant’s house, where he heard wind blasting 140 miles per hour, glass shattering, rain pelting, trees snapping.Cedar Rapids was rocked by a violent storm known as a derecho—effectively an inland hurricane. Across a swath from Illinois to Indiana it killed four people, did more than $11 billion in damage, and became the costliest thunderstorm to ever strike the United States. It toppled 70 percent of Cedar Rapids’ mature trees—across parks, along sidewalks, in backyards—and also power lines, cutting electricity to nearly all of the city’s roughly 136,000 residents.
At Brucemore, which sits on a slight rise, about three-quarters of the maples, oaks, hickories, and pines—more than 400 trees—were snapped or toppled. An old sugar maple crashed onto a renovated Lord & Burnham greenhouse. Another punched through the back window of the house where Estella was sheltered. When he emerged from the basement after 45 minutes, the air was sickly green with shredded plant particulates.
When Estella’s coworker Tara Richards, chief operating officer at Brucemore, came out of her basement shelter, she was speechless—the sky was suddenly everywhere. The trees that had shaded the estate and surrounded the mansion lay on the cratered ground in impassible tangles. “How are we going to survive?” she recalls thinking.
Damage to buildings at Brucemore totaled $3 million. That did not include the devastated landscape. But the site’s caretakers were determined to find a silver lining amid the derecho’s destruction. The storm gave Brucemore an opportunity to start over. It was a chance to reseed and replant a diverse mix of flowers and trees and design the landscape to align with the previous owners’ vision, while becoming more resilient and sustainable for the future.
“We came to understand, as traumatic and devastating as the storm was, it gave us a clean slate, tabula rasa, to do a full restoration of the landscape of this iconic part of the mosaic of Eastern Iowa,” says Brucemore Chief Executive Officer David Janssen.
Brucemore owes its start to Caroline Soutter Sinclair. The Philadelphia native had married Irish immigrant Thomas McElderry Sinclair, who in 1871 opened a meatpacking plant in the growing river town of Cedar Rapids. Soon T.M. Sinclair & Co. was Iowa’s biggest meatpacking company and the fourth largest in the world.
T.M. Sinclair died at his plant in 1881 after falling into an elevator shaft. Caroline continued with philanthropic investments in community churches, missions, and the YMCA. With care and cultivation in mind, in 1884 she bought 10 acres a couple miles from downtown and commissioned a three-story, 15,000-square-foot brick house for herself and her six children. She called it “Fairhome.”
It became “Brucemore” in its second and grandest era. In 1906, when Caroline’s children were grown, she traded houses with a couple downtown. The husband was George Bruce Douglas, an heir to the Quaker Oats Company. In 1903, George founded Douglas Starch Works with his brother Walter (who would die on the Titanic in 1912). In homage to his heritage, George christened his home with a title that combined his middle name, Bruce, with the Scottish suffix “more.” Brucemore stood as a monument to the industrialists who built the Midwest, produced food for the country, and provided jobs to thousands of immigrants.
“It sits so prominently in the center of the community; it always has, physically and culturally,” says Brian Fagan, a member of the site’s board.
Brucemore may have been named by George Douglas, but its spirit came from his wife, Irene. She was passionate about music, literature, poetry, theater, painting, sculpture, decorative bookbinding, and dance. After George died in 1923, Irene focused on raising their three daughters in a house vibrating with art.
On the first floor she had installed a Skinner player pipe organ, which stretches to the top floor and still shakes the house with Dvořák melodies. Around the adjoining Edwardian Great Hall—site of piano concerts, theater performances, and salons—Irene commissioned a wraparound oil-on-canvas mural depicting Wagner’s Ring cycle operas. Images of dragons and knights swoop up to the second floor. More rooms paneled in cherry, butternut, and basswood are styled with colorful curtains, wallpaper, rugs, paintings, and chandeliers. Irene had a daughter’s sleeping porch decorated with bas-reliefs showing twisting vines, leaves, animals, and flowers. It is the work of one of many local artists she sponsored, Grant Wood (who would later paint American Gothic, the Midwest’s Mona Lisa).
“Irene had a very clear vision,” says Jessica Peel-Austin, curator of museum collections at Brucemore. “She loved sharing with the community and hosting events.”
Irene’s largest-scale vison, though, was for the Brucemore grounds.
The Douglases had expanded the property to 33 acres, and Irene dreamed of creating a country estate of forest, pond, and garden. She and George hired landscape architect Ossian Cole (O.C.) Simonds—a founding member of the American Society of Landscape Architects, the group’s only Midwesterner, and a pioneer of the Prairie Style landscape movement.
The style emphasized horizontal vistas, outdoor rooms, and harmonizing layers of pond, lawn, garden, shrub, and tree canopy. O.C. Simonds’ landscaping, exemplified at Brucemore, used curving pathways and carefully chosen plantings to present a succession of experiences, scenery, and vantages.
“Landscape is one of the best ways to build common ground, public space for public good.”Brett Seelman
Collaborating with Irene, Simonds built a winding road from the wrought-iron entrance gate. It passed through shady forest and presented a long view of a swan-filled pond. The drive then guided visitors toward a garden abloom in seasonal rhythms of peonies, daisies, roses, and poppies, to name a few. On the other side of the mansion sloped an immense Sinclair-era lawn of clipped grass edged with the property’s signature tree, the American elm.
Upon her death in 1937, Irene willed Brucemore to her eldest daughter, Margaret, and the estate entered its most eclectic era. Margaret had married a colorful businessman named Howard Hall. In the basement of Brucemore, Hall built a pair of theme rooms. One, the Grizzly Bar, decorated with rough-hewn logs, looks like an Old West boomtown saloon. Another, the Tahitian Room, brings the South Pacific to the Corn Belt with colorful lighting, seashells, and mermaid statues. Visitors in this era included ex-presidents Harry S. Truman, of Independence, Missouri, and Herbert Hoover, of West Branch, Iowa.
The Halls had no children, but they kept a series of pet lions that left a strong impression. Neighbors would have been able to hear them bellow. Today, Brucemore’s emblem is a lion, and a staff rallying cry is “Restore the roar.”
In the 1970s, high school student Kayt Conrad found Margaret Hall’s number in the phone book and took a chance. She asked if she could visit to write a school report about Brucemore. To Conrad’s (and her teacher’s) delight, Margaret agreed. She even shared her plans for Brucemore’s future.
“She said she was going to give it to the National Trust,” says Conrad, now 64, who gives tours of Brucemore. “I said, ‘I would love to live in this house!’ She just laughed.”
“[Brucemore] sits so prominently in the center of the community; it always has, physically and culturally.”Brian Fagan
Margaret kept her word when she died in 1981, a decade after her husband. Curators began restoring the mansion to its Douglas-era heyday. But the grounds looked far different from the way Irene Douglas and O.C. Simonds had imagined. Dutch elm disease arrived at Brucemore in the mid-20th century and killed off the American elms. Margaret and her husband sold 7 acres and planted phalanxes of white pines and Norway spruces. These fast-growing trees changed the microclimates of the garden rooms, causing many of the plantings that walled them to die off over time.
Brucemore’s grounds remained a community oasis of green leaves and flower petals, a destination for joggers, dog walkers, birders, picnickers, hide-and-seekers. Groundskeepers worked diligently to keep it shady, lush, and inviting. But an incongruity grew between Brucemore’s interior and exterior. Inside the mansion, preservationists meticulously re-created the era from 1906 to 1937, the “period of significance.” Brucemore’s employees—who with great esprit de corps consider themselves part of the estate’s “fourth family”—never thought they would need to restore the grounds.
Then came the derecho.
Shortly after the storm, as the staff toiled with chainsaws, Brett Seelman introduced himself. Raised on a farm 30 miles from Cedar Rapids, Seelman became a landscape architect, studying at Iowa State University and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. He’s worked on projects such as the George W. Bush Presidential Library, the United States Embassy in Mexico City, and the Four Seasons Hotel Boston. He eventually moved back to his home state with his wife, and the couple and their two boys regularly picnicked, played, and strolled in the “Central Park of Cedar Rapids.” Anguished by the derecho devastation, Seelman offered to be a resource. He was exactly who Brucemore needed.
“Landscape is one of the best ways to build common ground, public space for public good,” says Seelman, who founded Seelman Landscape Architecture in Cedar Rapids. “That’s what motivates me.”
With help from the Brucemore staff, Seelman studied images and artifacts from the Douglas era. This research, as well as guidance from Iowa State Associate Professor Heidi Hohmann, helped him map out the landscape from that period. But he knew he could not precisely duplicate the past. For all the beauty of the decision to forest Brucemore with American elms during the Sinclair era, it proved disastrous upon the arrival of Dutch elm disease. With climate change, the future of tree survivability is even less certain.
One part of the solution, Seelman says, is to use an array of tree species. Instead of a monoculture of American elms, he selected varied trees that grow to similar shapes and sizes, with big, sturdy trunks and broad, elegant canopies. They include honey locusts, native oaks, and Princeton elms, a cultivar resistant to Dutch elm disease. By planting these trees in the places where historic photos show American elms, Seelman intends to bring back “the genius loci, the spirit of the place,” he says.
“Tree and shrub diversity is key,” he adds, striding across the grounds. “That’s going to allow Brucemore to be more resilient.”Seelman also re-mapped the original outdoor rooms, walled with shrubs. He plans to convert an obsolete alfalfa field into a wildflower meadow with mown walking paths and a fragrant hedgerow of glimmering Philadelphus.
Brucemore’s regrowth will take time and effort. The huge amounts of sunlight that have reached the ground because of the decimation of the tree canopy have allowed in opportunistic, noxious weeds such as garlic mustard and black locust. To keep them in check, in the fall of 2022 the site hired a unique, frequently photographed gardening crew: a herd of hungry goats.
In the decimated forest area, beside the pond, there now stand scraggly young trees, their skinny trunks in plastic sleeves for support and deer protection. Many were donated by the nonprofit Monarch Research Project to create sustaining habitat for the vibrant orange butterflies. Beside each of these trees is a 5-gallon bucket with a small hole in the bottom. Volunteers regularly fill them with water to provide constant hydration. It is an example of the human commitment to Brucemore’s landscape.
Only days after the derecho, Brucemore’s fourth family decided the show must go on. Music in the Courtyard premiered about two weeks later. Musicians sat on fresh-sawn logs, a drummer played stumps, the stage was decorated with fallen pine boughs. The song that received the most cheers, Glen Campbell’s Wichita Lineman, played in honor of the workers who restored Cedar Rapids’ power.
“It was like coming home,” remembers Marlyse Strait, a retired teacher. “You want to believe you’re back to normal, the arts would survive, Brucemore would survive.”“It just felt so good to be able to do this again,” adds her husband, Terry Strait.
The spirit of that first comeback show is alive in the evening air in June of 2023 as around 200 friends of Brucemore, toting picnic baskets and wine, again fill the courtyard for a show. Gerard Estella is running the sound; a young musician he’s mentored, bassist Lincoln Ginsberg, will lead the six-piece band through an evening of popular love songs. (In the audience is Ginsberg’s fiancée, Grace Henk, whom he proposed to at Brucemore.) Women in summer dresses will later kick off their sandals and dance in the soft green grass as a white-footed tabby cat steps between them. A big strawberry moon will shine down on tomorrow’s trees silently growing across the landscape. As 20-something singers Melissa Tormene and Caleb Woods get ready backstage, they talk childhood memories of Brucemore and critique the new trees.
“Seeing them start to sprout and get a little bigger, that was really cool,” says Tormene, who made the trip from New York City.
Woods adds, “It’s exciting to see what it’ll be like in the future, for future generations.”
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