Living history

Brucemore's new director looks to past for present and future

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Time doesn’t stand still, even for an estate like Brucemore that gives modern visitors a snapshot of the past.

“Brucemore is always evolving. One of the strengths of Brucemore is that it has always adapted to the needs of Cedar Rapids and to the community, whether that means changing programs” or making physical modifications, says Tiffin native David Janssen, 44, who stepped into the historic mansion’s executive director role on Jan. 1.

“Preservation is ongoing,” he says, at the 26-acre estate at 2160 Linden Dr. SE.

The stunning visual centerpiece of the estate is the 21-room Queen Anne-style mansion, once home to local captains of industry and society, the Sinclair, Douglas and Hall families. Guided tours are offered March through December.

The parklike estate also houses a Visitors Center with changing exhibits, staff offices, a flower shop, formal gardens, Duck Pond stage for the annual Classics at Brucemore play and a children’s show, as well as a sweeping front lawn that’s home to such popular summer entertainment events as the Freedom Festival Balloon Glow, Bluesmore blues concert and Brucemorchestra, Orchestra Iowa’s season-opening concert.

Driveway, lighting, parking and tiling projects over the years have made the estate more user-friendly for event audiences and tourists.

“When Brucemore Inc. took responsibility for the site in 1981, from that point forward there’s always been maintenance and preservation and major projects to restore and conserve and preserve,” Janssen says. “So in that way, it’s always physically changing — the landscape as well, which is an artifact in and of itself.

“But then also, the way we’re used and the way we address the needs of the community always evolves because the community changes and the needs change, and the programming needs to adapt to that,” he says.

Janssen, who was vice president of collections and interpretation at the Detroit Historical Society before accepting this position, saw plenty of changes at Brucemore during his stint as assistant director from 1993 to 2001, including the new Visitors Center, created in 1999 inside the 1911 carriage house. One of the latest projects, the rehabilitation this past year of the estate’s 1915 greenhouse, is new to him.

“It’s going to be an exciting year for me,” he says. “I get to experience the program mix again and go to some things I’ve loved going to and go to some new things I’ve heard so much about,” like Brucemorchestra.

His new tasks include overseeing the $1.2 million operating budget, managing the staff, planning the programming and preserving the historical resources, landscaping and architecture at Iowa’s only National Trust Historic Site. That all fits his interests, education and experience at other museums, including a past position as the vice president for internal operations at the 87-acre Edsel and Eleanor Ford House in Grosse Pointe Shores, Mich.

His wife of 18 years, Cedar Rapids native Kristin Sullivan, and their three sons, Michael, 14, Nic, 13, and Benjamin, 10, are staying in Grosse Pointe through the end of the school year. Janssen makes the eight-hour drive home when time allows and keeps in touch with modern technology and chess matches via good, old-fashioned letters.

“This is my chosen career, this is what I’ve been trained to do,” says Janssen, who has a bachelor’s degree in history from Dartmouth, where he played football, a master’s in history from Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and a master of business administration (MBA) from the University of Iowa.

“The reason I like history is the same reason I chose this career. The reason I like history is that it incorporates so many other topics. To be a good historian you have to understand sociology and economics and psychology and business. The reason I like historic leadership is that it requires all that, as well.”

He plans to build on the legacy of former Brucemore directors Peggy Boyle Whitworth and Jim Kern. He’s stepping into a season and a budget already in action.

“My goal is to go through a whole year of programming and get a feel for the site again and deliver this wonderful slate of programming that’s already scheduled and work with staff to add value to that going forward, which is exactly what Peggy did. That’s exactly what Jim did. You assess, try to make some decisions and try to adapt.”

Kern, 62, of Cedar Rapids, hasn’t been resting on his laurels. He’s getting back in touch with his theatrical side by rehearsing the role of Reverend Canon Chasuble in “The Importance of Being Earnest,” running Friday through Feb. 18 at Theatre Cedar Rapids. He also hopes to do more traveling and sit in the audiences at local arts events, including those at Brucemore, all on his own timetable.

During his Brucemore tenure — six years as assistant director and four years as executive director — he’s proud of four


major accomplishments: “Bringing home the concept of it being the community’s home; how well we responded to our cultural partners in the aftermath of the flood; the way we managed to finagle our way through the recession; and that we rescued the Lord & Burnham Greenhouse that was in imminent danger of falling down.”

But the man who also has been a high schoolteacher, waiter, restaurant owner, professional actor, theatrical director and fundraiser isn’t shutting the door on future employment opportunities.

“I’m leaving all options open,” Kern says. “I’ve had a few interesting offers. I’m not agreeing to anything yet. I want to officially sit down and take a breath and do some of the things I want to do. But I’m quite sure there’s yet another opportunity out there somewhere.”

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