December 2, 2020

Brucemore's Lost Living Landscape

In the last year, Americans across this country stepped outside into nature for a measure of solace and peace from the COVID-19 global pandemic. We’ve taken hikes at National Parks, held picnics in meadows, and sought refuge amid the various public gardens and landscapes at historic sites around the country. In a lot of ways these outdoor spaces have borne witness to a year filled with the unexpected. The role these historic places play in building community and providing a space for peace is felt more acutely when that landscape is damaged or lost.

In early August 2020 a severe weather event known as a derecho swept across the midwestern United States. In addition to torrential rain and hail, this storm brought with it winds that were equal to gusts from a Category 4 hurricane, creating widespread destruction in the matter of hours across eastern Iowa. One of the hardest-hit areas was the city of Cedar Rapids, the home of Brucemore, a National Trust Historic Site. When the winds faltered, Brucemore had suffered significant damage not only to all historic structures, modern buildings, and outdoor statuary, but also unimaginable injury to their historic landscape.

Brucemorchestra in 2013.

photo by: Brucemore

Brucemorchestra in 2013 marking five years after the 2008 flood.

For those native to Cedar Rapids, the mantra of Brucemore has always been, “If the gates are open, then you are welcome to come in.” Up until that storm, the 26-acre landscape served the local community as an outdoor gathering place. From an Annual Garden and Art Show, to an Outdoor Children’s Theatre or Cabaret in the Courtyard, this living landscape (on a normal year) hosted over 45,000 people a year, supporting a community of more than 300 artists.

In 2008 when most of the city was impacted by flooding, Brucemore, as one of the only cultural organizations with electricity, offered temporary office space and more to a city devastated by the cresting Cedar River. Cognizant of its place, the Brucemore staff worked with artists to develop commemorative events such as the Brucemorchestra to provide a space of healing from that devastation.

This summer, as the derecho hit Cedar Rapids, it impacted that community focal point, with the loss of over 75% of the site’s old growth trees, forever altering the familiar landscape of this Iowa landmark

For David Morton, Brucemore’s director of facilities, this loss is about more than just removing a bunch of trees. Rather, as a horticulturalist, he thinks about “the things these old growth trees can tell me, they speak to me. When you look at a tree and it has 100+ years behind it—and you can tell they are older by the size of their trunk, and their limbs which have these very unique sort of structures to them—yes, they are tall and majestic, but also you think of everything that tree might have seen in its lifetime on the property.”

At a time where we have so much to grieve about present circumstances, the loss of these historic trees illustrates the weight and power of cultural heritage beyond the built environment.

26 Acres of History

The land that Brucemore and Cedar Rapids now sits on was the home of the Meskwaki and Sauk Nations. After being driven out in the 18th century from their ancestral homes in Wisconsin to Iowa, both tribes were again forcibly resettled by the U.S. Government in the mid to late 1840s on reservations in Oklahoma and Kansas. In 1857 a group of Meskwaki returned to Iowa, near Tama, purchasing their first 80 acres, and today the Meskwaki Settlement is a sovereign nation living on land that they own.

Almost twenty years later, Brucemore’s history begins with the arrival of Caroline Sinclair and her husband T.M. to the young, growing city of Cedar Rapids. The meatpacking business first started by her husband, and later managed by her brother, became one of the largest employers of the area. Following T.M’s death in 1871, Caroline Sinclair supervised the construction of what she named “Fair Home” as a home for her six children, wanting to spend part of the year at a country estate with clean air.

While the original narrative of the house incorrectly positioned its significance around T.M. Sinclair on the city, it is Sinclair’s role in the construction of this estate and as a philanthropist that launched nearly 150 years of Brucemore’s legacy in the Cedar Rapids community.

In 1906, driven by a need to be closer to town, Sinclair switched homes with George and Irene Douglas who moved to the estate with their three daughters, formally naming the estate “Brucemore” and expanding its acreage. In 1937, their eldest daughter Margaret and her husband Howard Hall inherited the home, reducing its land to today’s 26 acres. Margaret Hall left the home to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 1981.

View of the Brucemore Formal Gardens in 2017

photo by: Brucemore

Brucemore's formal garden was designed by landscape architect O.C. Simonds. A hallmark of his design was his creation of sculptural spaces designed for viewing the landscape. This resulted in "rooms" in his design where lawn created the floor, shrub massings created the vertical plane, and the trees and skyline created the ceiling.

While there are three families that shaped the history of Brucemore, it is the Douglas family who are the primary influence on mansion’s historic landscape. They hired Ossian Cole (O.C.) Simonds, a leader in the Prairie Style landscape movement. And while the resulting design reflected his style throughout the design and development process, Irene Douglas was a very involved client. Letters and journal entries indicate her interest in the development of the Formal, Evening, and Cutting Gardens.

According to the historic landscape report for Brucemore, Simonds “maintained that it was critical to provide a changing visual experience by creating a series of landscape pictures. By carefully manipulating driveways, topography and gardening patterns one ‘picturesque’ element could be enjoyed, while another awaited as a surprise around the corner.” His focus on texture, shape, and color in three-dimensional space (i.e. including the tree canopy and the topography as part of the design) resulted in the construction of outdoor “rooms”

This philosophy was evident in the way in which the land and gardens around Brucemore were shaped, first with a redesign of the estate’s circulation, and in 1909 the development of a woodland area and a pond. For Simonds the landscape provided homeowners with not only recreational space, but also enjoyment and education.

This landscape was further supported by the work of Helen Agnes DuPuy, a graduate of Smith College and apprentice of Simonds, whose plans that were used in the development of the Formal Garden in 1910. The use of geometric borders and varied plantings created Simmonds signature “rooms” that encouraged, as a draft National Register Nomination update says, “a feeling of discovery.”

As mentioned above, in recent years, the staff at Brucemore has been working to update the National Register listing of the site to rectify misunderstandings related to Caroline Sinclair’s primary role on the site’s construction, along with magnifying the role of the other women involved with the site. The listing revision also underscores the importance of Brucemore’s Landscape to cultural landscape evolution in the United States.

With that in mind, Kayt Conrad, Brucemore neighbor and volunteer, says the hardest thing about the damage from the derecho has been “the loss of the Douglas-era trees. They so deliberately laid out the grounds. They imagined it. Curated it. Designed it. Buildings can be repaired, grounds and gardens replanted. But the trees take time.”

View of the Brucemore Formal Gardens in September 2020

photo by: Brucemore

The majority of Brucemore's formal garden survived the storm in tact due to the placement of trees west and east borders of the garden. The destruction of these trees, however, does impact Simonds' intent for the landscape.

A Landscape Erased

Almost three months after the devastating derecho, staff and volunteers at Brucemore are still clearing the land of the trees that were lost. When asked about the impact, Morton says “I spent fifteen years outside with these beings, [these trees], and the connection you have with them is more spiritual than anything. Now, it feels like someone punched you really hard in the stomach and it is hard to catch your breath. Over time that pain goes away, and it’s the same with this—but in clearing the work it feels, day after day, like touching an open wound.”

In some sense, much like the tree rings, the loss of these arboreal witness trees on the historic site is one ring in a concentric series of losses, especially considering present-day local, state, and national contexts. All of a sudden, the place that brought so many together for solace and community, is no longer there for the city to experience, particularly as they grapple with their own recovery in the aftermath of the storm.

As of December 1, 2020, the Brucemore landscape is about 80% clear, with constant surveying to see what else may need to be removed. Following the clearing process, staff plans to spend time researching and understanding Simonds' original plans, while also consulting the neighbors through a community charrette and with landscape architects familiar with Simond’s work. All this information will contribute to a plan to move forward.

Even though there is hope for the landscape to return to its former self, it is important to recognize that this process is not just about replacing the old trees. Because Old Growth trees, were, in essence, time capsules, the memories of the new plantings will not be the same. As Morton says, “the challenge is to recreate what O.C. Simonds designed for us, but I’ll never see it in my lifetime. It will be for others that come after us. That’s what’s so hard, for those of us right now it’s simply just gone.”

While Brucemore will eventually be reopened again as a place for the Cedar Rapids community, the impact will be keenly felt. For Morton, that comes from the loss of an old oak and two older maples next to the 1915 Greenhouse. He says, “There was something about that little section—I had seen pictures of other gardeners standing in front of that greenhouse with those trees. That’s what I miss the most, driving down the lane and now they are gone, just a vast empty space.

I know that like people, things die, but I wasn’t finished listening to [their] stories.”

To follow the recovery process, or to support Brucemore and the Cedar Rapids community, visit www.brucemore.org.

Donate Today to Help Save the Places Where Our History Happened.

Support the National Trust for Historic Preservation today and you'll be providing the courage, comfort, and inspiration of historic places now, when we need it most.

While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

@priyastoric

Join us in protecting and restoring places where significant African American history happened.

Learn More