116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
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A light is shining brightly through the veil of the dual punch of the pandemic and the Aug. 10 derecho that damaged every building and destroyed 450 trees at Brucemore.
Forty years ago, the 26-acre historic family estate in southeast Cedar Rapids became a living landmark that has opened its grand gates to more than a million visitors. In the past decade alone, guests have arrived there from all 50 states and more than 50 countries.
Before that, three families called the Queen Anne-style mansion home: Thomas Sinclair’s widow, Caroline Soutter Sinclair, who had the 21-room structure built between 1884 and 1886, and lived there with her six children until 1906; George and Irene Douglas and their three daughters, who lived there from 1906 to 1937; and Howard and Margaret (Douglas) Hall who inherited the mansion in 1937. They were its final occupants until Howard’s death in 1971 and Margaret’s death on March 15, 1981.
Each family left its mark on the 15,000-square-foot mansion — built for $55,000 — and upon the estate, through updates, expansions and varied social uses.
Upon her death, Margaret Hall left the estate to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, to be used as a community cultural center. Owned by the National Trust, the property is operated by an independent nonprofit, Brucemore Inc.
Appropriately, Brucemore is celebrating that 40-year milestone by bumping up its outdoor entertainment offerings this spring and summer, with pandemic protocols in place.
Performances begin at the end of April with a nearly sold-out run of “A Spring Saloon.” This casual, outdoor take on SPT Theatre’s elegant indoor evening of stories, songs and Champagne, titled A Modern Salon, will bring audiences to a new, intimate lawn venue behind the Servants’ Duplex.
Events continue with concerts and plays in the Courtyard; the new back lawn site; and the outdoor amphitheater named in honor of the late Peggy Whitworth, Brucemore’s first executive director.
Where: Brucemore estate, 2160 Linden Dr. SE, Cedar Rapids
Tickets and information: Click on the event dates at brucemore.org/events/calendar/
Pandemic protocols: Masks required, social distancing; details at brucemore.org/visit/covid-19/
A Spring Saloon with SPT Theatre: 7:30 p.m. April 29 to May 2; outdoor casual concert on the lawn behind the Servants’ Duplex; nearly sold out, some tickets may be available for May 2.
A Touch of Grant Wood: Take-and-make art project; $30, order by April 26, pick up tiles 9 a.m. to noon May 1 or 2 at Brucemore; all materials included. In 1925, Grant Wood created a whimsical decorative design of flowers and animals on a sleeping porch. Iowa Ceramics Center used a 3D replica to create a ceramic tile that you can take home to paint; for kiln firing, take your finished tile to the Iowa Ceramics Center in the Cherry Building, 329 10th Ave. SE, Suite 117, Cedar Rapids.
“Little Women”: 7:30 p.m. Friday to Sunday, May 21 to June 6, Brucemore Courtyard. Presented by Theatre Cedar Rapids and Brucemore; tickets $25 on sale April 23 through Theatre Cedar Rapids Box Office, theatrecr.org
Live from the Artisan Studio: Anna Wilde, 7 p.m. June 8, lawn behind the Servants’ Duplex; $15 adults, $10 students in advance; bring seating and light snacks.
“Bright Star”: musical by Steve Martin and Edie Brickell, presented by Theatre Cedar Rapids and Brucemore, 7:30 p.m. Friday to Sunday, June 18 to July 3 in Brucemore’s Peggy Boyle Whitworth Amphitheater; tickets on sale May 21 through Theatre Cedar Rapids Box Office, theatrecr.org
Live from the Artisan Studio: Erika Bailey, July 13; tickets on sale June 1
Music in the Courtyard: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays to Sundays, July 29 to Aug. 22; tickets on sale June 1.
“An anniversary like this gives us a chance to pause and reflect on how far we've come as an organization,” said David Janssen, 53, of Cedar Rapids, Brucemore’s third executive director. “But I know that the current staff and the board of trustees is equally excited about where we're going.”
They’re building on a legacy of directors and workers who have come before them. Tasked with turning a family home into a piece of living history, they not only have preserved and maintained the mansion and grounds, but filled the landscape and various nooks and crannies with performances and parties for all ages, from Easter egg hunts and NASA-inspired STEM events to concerts, plays and garden and art workshops and sales, as well as tours.
“It's always very difficult to describe what Brucemore is, because we do so many things and fill so many gaps in terms of what it takes to go from a private home to becoming a living landmark,” Janssen said.
“I think first and foremost of Peggy Whitworth. We have always punched above our weight and we have always aspired to be more than most people understood us to be — and I think that carried through from 1981 until the current staff.
“I worked with Peggy in the ’90s as the assistant director, and she was tenacious about making people understand that Brucemore is not a mansion. Brucemore is a 26-acre field of opportunities.”
“All of the programming we've experimented with is based on her understanding that there was more than one way to use this place to inspire people.”
That wasn’t the original vision, but it’s the one Whitworth championed, the public embraced, and Jim Kern, who succeeded Whitworth in the fall of 2007, expanded.
Kern had a long history with Whitworth before he joined the Brucemore staff as assistant director in 2002. She and her then-husband had dined at his restaurant, The Velvet Feedbag, and he had dined in her home.
“I knew her when she got the job in 1981, and one of her first phone calls was to me, asking me to be the caterer of the inaugural event,” said Kern, now 71 and co-proprietor of a bed-and-breakfast in Michigan.
As he catered Brucemore events in those early years, Kern saw how Whitworth and the early boards associated with the newly christened historic site were “trying to figure out what the place was supposed to be.”
“Margaret Hall said in her gift to the National Trust that she didn’t want it be a place for private functions, she didn’t want it be a country club, and she didn’t want it to be a shrine to her family. And the National Trust basically told Peggy they did not see that place as a museum. …
“Peggy used to say, `We made it up as we went along,’ ” Kern noted.
According to Gazette archives, between 3,000 and 4,000 people lined up to visit Brucemore on Aug. 2, 1981. Some waited up to three hours in the rain for the first glimpses inside the historic structure. Events soon followed.
Among the early attractions was a “Christmas at Brucemore” program by the Cedar Rapids Community Theatre (now known as Theatre Cedar Rapids) on Dec. 18, 1981. The following summer — on June 24, 1982 — the Joffrey II Ballet performed outdoors for 1,000 audience members, and 150 people attended a reception hosted by Hancher.
Many events followed, from Celebration of the Arts to Jazz on the Green, which evolved into Bluesmore, and in 1996, the summer plays now produced as the Classics at Brucemore. After the 2008 flood roared through the Paramount Theatre, Orchestra Iowa began staging its season opener, Brucemorchestra, on the front lawn. The popular event, which debuted Sept. 20, 2008, is expected to return this year, after being put on pandemic pause in 2020.
“When I was hired, it was time to really give the site a shot in the arm for public engagement,” Kern said. “That was my charge — to figure out what we could do to bring more and more people to the site for arts and cultural programming.
“When I came on in 2002, we really started a full-blown expansion of the programming. My first year there, I was really listening very carefully to our constituents, to other arts organizations — realizing what was missing and where the opportunities were for Brucemore to step up and take the lead.”
Janssen took the lead in 2012, after Kern retired. Janssen, who also served as Whitworth’s assistant director from 1993 to 2001, brought a wealth of knowledge about museums and museum management, Kern said.
“Initially, both the National Trust and the board didn't see this as a place that would do a lot of historic tours,” Janssen said. “It was going to be a general asset to the community for rental space. It was really the public's demand to see the mansion that led to our historic tours and what became really a quarter of our visitation. Since 1981, we've had over a million people visit.”
They all see something different as they tour the mansion, the Visitors Center and the grounds.
“That's really the most exciting part of that legacy that (former directors Whitworth and Kern) left to us,” Janssen said. “Depending on how you would have experienced the estate, it could mean something completely different. …
“If you’re a theater aficionado, then you know the Classics at Brucemore and 25 or 30 years of outdoor plays. If you are a history buff, you know us for the tours and exhibits and that programming. If you’re somebody who went through Johnson Elementary, you remember this is the place where you had your field day at the end of the school year.
“It means so many things to different people,” he said. “That is part of our strength of our impact.”
Speaking of Brucemore, as well as other organizations, Kern added: “The leaders don’t necessarily choose the times, the times choose the leaders. Peggy was absolutely the right person to get the place up and running; I think I was absolutely the right person to energize it with public engagement; and David is absolutely the right person to lead the preservation and the recovery of the site.”
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