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Mount Mercy grotto makes National Register

'It's one of the remaining examples, and one of the best'

The Grotto Bridge (left) and the Ten Commandments monument (right) are part of the Mother of Sorrows Grotto by William Lightner at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Apr. 30, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
The Grotto Bridge (left) and the Ten Commandments monument (right) are part of the Mother of Sorrows Grotto by William Lightner at Mount Mercy University in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, Apr. 30, 2015. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — What began as a tribute to his faith and his wife, and over the years took on additional meaning as an Iowa landmark and a Mount Mercy student hangout, has earned official recognition for its historic value.

William Lightner’s “Our Mother of Sorrows Grotto” on the Mount Mercy University campus in Cedar Rapids has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

It joins more than 2,250 other Iowa landmarks on the register, which serves as an official list of districts, sites, buildings, structures and objects significant in American history, architecture, archaeology, engineering, and culture.

Selected places, according to the National Register, “have significance to the history of their community, state, or the nation.”

Mount Mercy professor emerita Jane Gilmor, known as “the grotto lady” for her work on its restoration and recognition since the 1980s, said Lightner’s grotto is an unusual example of a somewhat Midwestern phenomenon in the 20th century.

“It’s one of the remaining examples, and one of the best,” said Gilmor, who will speak at a Saturday event recognizing the grotto and its honor.

Grottoes are any type of natural or artificial cave associated with human use, and they historically were popular in southern Europe as places of spiritual reflection. Some were large and spectacular and included gardens and lagoons, while others were much simpler and built in residential yards.

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In the United States, according to Gilmor, they are “uniquely Midwestern” and often created by self-trained artists and builders. Three “important Midwestern grottoes” remain, she said. including Lightner’s at Mount Mercy.

From 1929 to 1941, Lightner worked on the grotto, which includes two arched entryways, a bridge surrounded by a pond, a 10-column structure representing the Ten Commandments, and a canopy enclosing an Italian marble statue of the Virgin Mary.

Lightner traveled more than 40,000 miles, used about 12 tons of stone and worked with about 300 varieties of Italian mosaic glass to create the structure, according to Mount Mercy officials.

Restoration of the grotto was supported by a 2001 grant from the Smithsonian Institution’s American Heritage Millennium Project. Further restoration was backed by a 2011 Iowa Arts Council grant and a 2012-2014 National Endowment for the Arts grant.

The grotto still sees heavy use — for events and by students looking for a place to study.

Earning a spot on the National Register does not protect a structure, per se, according to Gilmor. But it does come with perks, like eligibility for certain tax provisions and a shot at federal restoration grants.

“It’s an honor,” Gilmor said. “And it does come with a certain sense of responsibility to take care of it.”

Other National Register landmarks on Iowa colleges and universities include the Pentacrest at the University of Iowa, the Marston Water Tower at Iowa State University and the Cornell College historic district in Mount Vernon.

IF YOU GO

What: Presentation of the “Our Mother of Sorrows Grotto” listing in the National Register of Historic Places

When: 2 to 2:30 p.m. Saturday

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Where: Betty Cherry Heritage Hall on the Mount Mercy University campus

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