July 13, 2015

Brucemore's Basement: The Grizzly Bar & Tahitian Room Below the Surface

  • By: Kara Timberlake
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The Tahitian Room provided Howard Hall a unique place to entertain guests.

Homes are a lot like people -- there is always more than what appears at first glance.

The Brucemore estate, a site of the National Trust since 1981, is no exception. Upstairs, the 26-acre park-like estate bears witness to a Wagnerian mural, rich woodwork, and a striking pipe organ. The basement, however, tells a different story, reflecting the quirky personalities of its last residents.

From 1884 to 1981, three families, all of which had profound influences in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa community, called Brucemore home. Through renovations and general modernizing, each family transformed the home to meet individual needs, infusing their personalities into the estate, while embodying changes in architectural style.

Passing through the hands of the Sinclair and Douglas families, Brucemore’s final residents became Howard and Margaret Douglas Hall.

In 1937, Margaret inherited the mansion, prompting the Halls to move from the Garden House to the estate, where Howard saw the basement as his opportunity to convert his imagination into reality.

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The interior of the Tahitian Room was designed to allow visitors a temporary, exotic escape.

One of the earliest examples of people using a basement as living space, Brucemore’s basement reflects Hall’s less conventional life. Working with local craftsmen, he transformed the space into the masculine Grizzly Bar and colorful Tahitian Room.

To enhance the spirits of his guests, Howard instilled a bar thought to be from a downtown Cedar Rapids bar. Named after the bear-skin rug that used to lie on the floor, the saloon-themed Grizzly Bar was where Howard entertained friends and businessmen. Covered in birch bark, the room features a craps table, a player piano, and memorabilia, reflecting Howard’s fun-loving personality.

In the adjacent room, designed to look like a tiki hut, the Tahitian Room transplants visitors to a new exotic destination. Statues of hula girls surround the space amongst bamboo-like furniture. The back of the room holds a hibachi grill, adding an aroma of the South Seas.

Welcoming guests, a map on the floor shows Tahiti’s location and exhibits a compass. Dioramas are cut into 18” walls, and the room displays another unique feature: Water can be circulated on the tin roof to emulate rain, giving visitors the sensation of immersion.

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The annual Tahitian Party held at the Brucemore

Serving as a gathering place, the basement reflects more than mid-twentieth century attitudes and kitschy décor -- it tells the story of business savvy, too. Businessmen invited by Howard to discuss Cedar Rapids development would remember the visually interesting basement, fermenting the talks in their memories. What’s more, it demonstrates a change in American lifestyles as the days of formality faded and a more casual era took root.

In the years since, the basement has inspired the theme for the Tahitian Party, an annual fundraiser held in June at the Brucemore to support preservation projects at the estate. While partying poolside, guests don exotic garb while feasting on suckling pig and performing limbo to the steel drum band.

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Poolside at the Tahitian Party

With a manufacturing career that influenced industrial development in the Cedar Rapids community, it seems fitting that Howard would make a lasting mark in his home. And similar to guests of yesteryear, party-goers today leave with a memorable impression of the basement, showing that Howard’s vision remains ageless.

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