“The contractors call me ‘Lady Brucemore,’” said Sarah Aly, historic structures manager at Brucemore.
Aly is the first-ever full-time staff member focused on preserving the seven historic structures at Brucemore mansion in Cedar Rapids. She’s currently overseeing a big project — the Mansion Envelope Restoration Project, which includes the repair and restoration of the mansion’s wood windows.
The process, which involves steaming off old glazing, repainting and re-bedding the original glass, is more tedious than simply replacing the windows. Aly is trying to keep as many of the original materials as possible.
“If you have George Washington’s chair, but you repaint it, then replace a broken leg, then the arms start falling off, at what point is it no longer the same chair?” she asked, explaining why Brucemore works hard to use original materials. “Once you lose something historical, you never get it back.”
The scaffolding and construction areas are highly visible, and part of that is intentional.
“We used to hide the restoration efforts behind closed doors,” said Tara Richards, Brucemore’s director of community engagement. In the last few years, the staff has decided to share more about ongoing restoration work with visitors. “We’re proud of the work we’re doing,” Richards said. A preservation-themed tour has been added, which gives guests a glimpse at the work involved in keeping historic structures in good shape.
Recently, a boy visiting with a school tour was surprised to see Aly walk into the construction area.
“He said, ‘Girls can go in there?’” Aly said, laughing. Although she said she “doesn’t wear a cute dress to work,” Aly enjoys the challenges and variety in her job. “I love that I get to work with tile, wood, glass and metal. There’s a creativity to it, and you have to think outside the box,” she said. Through her efforts, Brucemore’s windows will be more historically accurate than they were in recent years. “Most of them were caulked shut, and we’re going to make them operational again,” she said.
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Aly is sometimes faced with preservation conundrums, like whether to go to the extra work and expense to keep unseen parts of the building — like the flat part of the roof — historically accurate.
No matter how accurate they want to be when working on any part of Brucemore, the staff and contractors can only use materials that are available today. Techniques have also changed significantly, which Aly saw up close while working to restore the small hexagonal tiles in the Swan bathroom.
“There was no such thing as installing one-foot sections of flooring,” she said. Aly repaired the tiny tiles one by one. “You learn how people used to do things.”
Aly said maintaining the paint on all seven buildings could practically be a full-time job in itself, and it would do more than make the buildings look nice.
“Paint helps protects buildings from the elements,” she said. The work being done on the mansion is the most visible, but all of the buildings require constant maintenance and restoration. “The mansion is the splashy part, but the other buildings tell important stories, too,” she said.
Aly is proud that she’s helping keep these stories alive for future generations. “It can be dirty work, but it’s a labor of love.”