116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — The derecho was impervious to history, but history wasn’t impervious to the inland hurricane’s wrath.
Brucemore staff members saw destruction everywhere they looked after 140 mph winds tore through the historic estate’s 26 acres Aug. 10, 2020.
“We lost about 450 major trees, representing about 75 percent of our canopy,” said David Janssen, Brucemore’s executive director.
“The day of the event was almost indescribable. It took the staff six hours of chain-sawing to get the office staff home. We couldn't get to the gates. We couldn't drive a golf cart from the Visitor Center to the mansion for about a week. It was just physically impossible.”
“All of the vehicular drives were blocked by a minimum of four or five major trees, 5- to 6-feet in diameter.
“And then the interior of the property was just an absolute mess. We had, at the end of the day, about $3 million in damage to buildings, which we're still working on. And we still have trees that were broken or essentially killed, even though a few of them are still standing.”
What: Brucemore landscape restoration
Where: 2160 Linden Dr. SE, Cedar Rapids
Planning partners: Seelman Landscape Architecture team in Cedar Rapids, led by Brett Seelman
Landscape update: “Restoring a Vision: Recovering Brucemore’s Landscape,“ 5:30 to 7 p.m. May 4 online at brucemore.org/event/restoring-a-vision-recovering-brucemores-landscape.
Estate details: brucemore.org
It's important to note, Janssen added, “that by most accounts, Brucemore lost a greater percentage of historic plant material in one day than any cultural landscape in the history of the United States.”
Like most of the city’s southeast quadrant, Brucemore was without power for about two weeks, and staff members were dealing with outages and damage to their own homes. But they still sprang into action.
“We were still very much in crisis reaction,” Janssen said. “We needed to get emergency vehicles access to the mansion as soon as we could, in case there was a fire or something, so our initial triage was very much a disaster response.”
Now, almost a year and a half later, Janssen shares what’s in store for the mansion and its grounds, a National Trust for Historic Preservation site.
Q: When did you begin looking toward the future?
A: By the end of August 2020. The leadership team very quickly started trying to wrap our heads around a new future. We also tried to be very conscious about letting our staff mourn the loss — especially the people working on the buildings and ground staff — but everybody. Our staff is dedicated to preserving the history of this estate, and that includes the landscape, and to lose that landscape in one day was a gut punch, and we’re still traumatized by it. …
We had just repositioned the organization heading into 2020. We were on the cusp of our first-ever capital campaign. We were doing more preservation work in the mansion than had been done in the previous 30 years.
And so we really felt like we were positioned for the future of our own making. And then the pandemic hit, and we had to course-correct again. And the derecho was just another version of that, where I think the leadership team and I were working to let go of the visions we’d had before, and craft new visions to work toward.
That included knowing that we had an opportunity to re-imagine this landscape and try to look at the pivot from it being a crisis and a challenge and a loss, to it becoming an opportunity. If this is the greatest loss in the history of cultural landscapes in the United States, then it's an opportunity for the greatest comeback.
Q: Did you have a tree map of the grounds?
A: Credit to (first director) Peggy Whitworth: Brucemore has always seen the landscape as an artifact as part of our preservation responsibility. We had a historic landscape plan in 1997 by Cecilia Rusnak, so that gave us a baseline that was invaluable. We had just updated it in 2013, so we had really good documentation of the history of the landscape and the relatively current conditions.
The other advantage we had is that (Iowa State University professor Heidi Hohmann), who did the landscape update in 2013, came back after the storm, under contract with us, and did a third version of that.
So we have we an early history, we have a pre-derecho history from 2013, and then we have a post-derecho document which will be critical for our restoration master plan.
Q: Because Brucemore is a National Trust entity, what kind of guidelines do you need to follow?
A: We hold ourselves to some standards for restoration and replanting and rehabilitation. It makes us different than a park and private landscape or a venue.
This landscape is, and has it has been since 1981, a historic artifact. And our recovery plan will treat it as such.
So that means we're going back to Mrs. Douglas' original design from the 1920s and 1930s in concert with O.C. Simonds, who was one of the leading landscape architects in the country in the 19th and 20th century.
In restoring Brucemore’s landscape, we need to consider the historic integrity of the design; the ways the family and servants used the grounds; the ways we use the site today for history programs and arts performances; the impact of climate change on native species as well as the increasing threat of severe weather events; and the fact that we have a fraction of the staff and resources that the Douglases and Halls had to maintain the estate.
Q: What phase are you currently in with the landscape restoration?
A: We committed to a very thoughtful and patient process, led by scholarly research and planning, and we’re really excited that this fiscal year will be the first phase of major replanting.
We've spent the last year and a half recovering and trying to clear and prep and make the estate at least functional for visitors and for our programs. And now we’re ready to really lean into the replanting and restoration developments.
Q: What will visitors see now if we walk around the grounds or drive through the grounds en route to an event?
A: You’ll see a lot more houses in the neighborhood than you saw before. I couldn't see the next-door neighbor from the gardens before, and now I can see the far side of the Cedar River.
People who were familiar with the landscape will see a much different view. But people from out of town who have never visited will still find things that are quite beautiful and intriguing.
You can still see some scars in some of the trees. You can still see some things that we haven't gotten to yet. But, for the most part, it looks like a less populous version of the previous landscape.
What you should expect to see in May and June will be some heavy work in our timber, along Linden Drive and Crescent Street. That's the first phase, from Linden Gates to behind the pond and then down to Crescent.
Q: Will we see some seedlings planted, or are you not at that phase yet?
A: We had some donated seedlings and some other lower-cost seedlings that we put in the ground just to get something started.
We did put some trees and some spaces, but for the most part, we wanted to wait until we had a holistic plan for the entire 26 acres. And you'll see 3- to 5-foot deciduous trees going into the woodland area this spring.
Currently, the plan is to put about 400 deciduous trees in that wooded area and add another 200 in the fall, including bitternut hickory, shellbark hickory, hackberry, swamp white oak, shingle oak, chinkapin oak, pin oak and American elm.
Q: How long do you think it'll take before we see an appreciable difference?
A: I think you’ll see a major difference in the wooded area and the pond this year. Beginning this spring, I suspect it'll be a three-year plan based on funding. We’ll need some (financial) help to get it done.
Q: Do you have an estimated price tag for this yet?
A: The first draft of the plan was pushing $2 million, but we can value that down a bit. I suspect when all is said and done, it's going to be about a $1 million to $1.5 million restoration of all 26 acres. Just the grounds, not the buildings.
Q: What kind of funding streams can you tap?
A: Not many. Our insurance didn't cover the damage. Insurance covered a good chunk of the damage to buildings — we're still having some back and forth with the insurance company about the mansion — but the grounds weren’t.
There aren't as many funding resources available. There are additional grants here and there, and we're currently working to try to identify donors who may be able to help us.
The Cedar Rapids Garden Club gave us a very generous grant ($10,000 grant from the Garden Club of America for landscape work) … The Grills Grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation gave us a grant to facilitate the planning. So we have gotten some very early and generous support. And in the last week, we allocated some of the money from our Pride and Preservation Campaign to this effort.
I should point out David Maier and Matthew McGrane were very early contributors to this process. (As estate neighbors, they issued a challenge to match donations received by Sept. 30, 2020; that raised $45,000 and $90,000 with their match.)
People have responded as we’ve been trying to lay out our plans, and we’re grateful for that.
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