Brucemore, Cedar Rapids, Iowa

It was Downton Abbey, the popular PBS series, that led me to the Brucemore mansion in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  Brucemore is on a list of estates to visit in the U.S. that are similar to Downton Abbey.  As a professed Anglophile, that seemed like a good reason for a drive to eastern Iowa.


You learn through a guided tour that the history of Brucemore is really the story of three wealthy families.  Caroline Sinclair, a widow whose husband, Thomas, had made a fortune in the meat packing industry, completed the home in 1884.  In 1906, George and Irene Douglas became the new owners, and later their eldest daughter, Margaret, and her husband inherited the estate and lived there. The last two families were associated with the Quaker Oats Company.  (There is still a large Quaker Oats cereal mill in downtown Cedar Rapids.)

Some of the stories along the way were surprising.  The house itself was very Downton-Abbey-formal, to be sure, but the families who lived there preferred to be informal.  Kids roller skated in the halls and played ping-pong on the dining room table.

The last owner’s husband, Howard Hall, added a kitschy Tahitian Room and Grizzly Bar in the basement to entertain his business associates. He also kept pet lion cubs on the grounds and liked to wrestle with them for relaxation.

Tahitian Room                        Credit:Brucemore Estate

Another visual treat inside the house is some early work by Grant Wood.  Brucemore’s second owner, Irene Douglas, was active with the local arts organizations.  She knew Wood before his American Gothic fame when he was living and working in Cedar Rapids.  In 1925, Mrs. Douglas hired Wood to decorate the walls of her daughter’s sleeping porch.  His work is now considered the most important art in the home.

img_0883 The three families who occupied Brucemore for nearly 100 years were very generous to the community.  They contributed to the local arts, churches, Cedar Rapids’ Coe College, and numerous charities.  Margaret Douglas Hall was the last family member to live in the house and died in 1981. In her will, she donated Brucemore to the National Trust for Historic Preservation with the understanding that it would be a cultural center as well as a museum.


The property covers 26 acres and includes several outbuildings.  A greenhouse was built in 1915 to provide fresh flowers for the mansion during the winter months in addition to bedding plants in the summer.  Beyond the greenhouse is a row of homes where the servants once lived.


A 1927 Art Moderne swimming pool is an unexpected feature on the grounds.

img_0907 The carriage house is now an attractive Visitors’ Center.  It offers a gift shop and a museum with interesting displays of items from the Brucemore families.



Before you leave, be sure to take a walk through the gardens and pond area.  You’ll enjoy the grounds as much as the house.


Bonus stop:  Louis Sullivan Jewel Box Bank


Noted architect Louis Sullivan designed eight small banks in the Midwest during the early 1900s.  They were nicknamed “Jewel Box” banks because of their compact size and ornamentation.


The second of Sullivan’s eight banks is located in downtown Cedar Rapids, at 101 Third Avenue, SW.  It served as a bank until 2008, when flooding damaged the interior and closed it.  Today it is a restaurant, Popoli, and respectfully preserved.


The former vault is a private dining room.  It can seat up to eight people and is a popular spot in the restaurant.

Cedar Rapids has culture, history, and art to enjoy.  And it was Grant Wood’s home for several years.  More on that in a future post!

Stronghold Castle, Oregon, Illinois


Don’t have time for a trip across the pond to Merry Ole England?  Then have a Midwestern British experience by visiting Stronghold Castle in Oregon, Illinois.  They host a two-day English Faire every year in October.


Stronghold Castle was completed in 1930 for Walter Strong, owner of the Chicago Daily News. He built the house as a summer get-away for himself and his family.  They enjoyed it for thirty years before it was sold to the Presbyterian Church, which now uses the property as a conference center and retreat.


The Old English Faire takes place on the Stronghold grounds.  There’s entertainment, music, food, and a merchant’s bazaar.  This year, 2016, the Faire is October 1st and 2nd.




The merchants’ booths offer interesting wares, and you’ll have opportunities for some great photos as you stroll the area.





The castle is open for tours during that weekend, too.  You never know what you’ll see!



The Stronghold English Faire is a unique fall event held in a beautiful setting.  Plan to attend, and you and your family will have many lasting memories.

Bonus stop: Eternal Indian


Keeping watch over the Rock River is Lorado Taft’s Eternal Indian, also known as Blackhawk Statue.  It’s not far from Stronghold Castle.


The statue was completed in 1911 and dedicated to all Native Americans.  It’s made of concrete and stands 48 feet tall.

Lorado Taft studied art at the University of Illinois and later in Paris.  He became a well-known sculptor and received many commissions.  He also taught at the University of Chicago where he had a studio in the area.   Although there is a long list of Taft’s work on display in Illinois, his art can be seen as far away as Seattle and Washington, D.C.