Community

The History Center's new home in Cedar Rapids once home to Douglases, Sinclairs and Turner Mortuary

With Grant Wood in the carriage house

This 1899 photo shows the Douglas mansion at 800 Second Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids, shortly after the Douglas family moved in. Note the brick wall had not been added yet. (The History Center)
This 1899 photo shows the Douglas mansion at 800 Second Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids, shortly after the Douglas family moved in. Note the brick wall had not been added yet. (The History Center)
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The opening of The History Center — the Linn County Historical Society — on Oct. 13 marks the next chapter in the preservation of the historic 120-year-old Douglas mansion at 800 Second Ave. SE in Cedar Rapids.

It was in 1898 that George B. Douglas Jr. and his wife, Irene, moved into their new Colonial Revival home in the hilltop neighborhood known then as “Mansion Hill.” With them was their firstborn, a baby named Margaret.

Douglas’ father, George Sr., was one of the founders of North Star Mills in Cedar Rapids in 1873, the company that evolved into the Quaker Oats factory. George Jr. continued the family interests of the massive cereal plant and also assisted his brother, Walter, in starting the Douglas & Co. cornstarch factory in Cedar Rapids in 1903.

In 1905, the Douglas family witnessed the massive fire that destroyed the Cedar Rapids Quaker Oats plant and the subsequent rebuilding of the factory just blocks from their home. In addition, 1905 saw the arrival of George and Irene’s second daughter, Ellen.

The following year, the Douglases made the decision to basically “swap” real estate properties with the Sinclair family of Cedar Rapids.

Since the mid-1880s, Caroline Sinclair, a widow, and her children had been living in their large residence at 1965 First Avenue SE. By 1906, with her children grown, Caroline Sinclair agreed to move to the Douglas mansion to be closer to the center of town and manage a smaller home. Likewise, the Douglases were looking forward to living on the Sinclair’s large estate farther from the city center.

George Douglas Jr. eventually renamed the Sinclair mansion “Brucemore.” Their daughter Margaret, who had spent the first 10 years of her life at the Second Avenue Douglas mansion, would grow up to marry Howard Hall, a famed industrialist.

THE SINCLAIRS

And so began the Sinclair chapter of the Douglas mansion.

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Coming to live with Caroline Sinclair in the mansion were her son, Robert Soutter Sinclair, his wife, Elizabeth, and their three young children. Shortly after moving into the mansion, Elizabeth died after giving birth to the couple’s fourth child. Robert Sinclair then asked his unmarried sisters, Agnes and Amy, to move in and help raise the children and care for their aging mother.

With three generations of Sinclairs living in the home going into 1907, the property was expanded. A lot next door at 810 Second Ave. SE was acquired, and the brick carriage house in back of the mansion was picked up and moved to the back of the newly acquired lot.

The Sinclairs also replaced a two-story rear porch with a small elevator that opened into at least four levels of the house, where it was likely used by the servants and possibly by Caroline Sinclair,

Otherwise, the mansion was used much as it had been by the Douglas family, with key rooms such as the library, the music room and the signature second-floor “round room” over the front entrance retaining their original use.

The Sinclair family lived in the home for more than 16 years — longer than the Douglas family. While there, Robert oversaw operations for the Sinclair meatpacking factory in southeast Cedar Rapids started by his father, T.M. Sinclair, in 1871. His mother, Caroline, died in the house in 1917. A few years later, in 1921, his sister Amy died following an illness and just before she was to be married.

Robert Soutter Sinclair’s three daughters and son spent a memorable childhood growing up in the former Douglas mansion.

THE TURNERS

In late 1923, a third significant chapter in the history of the Douglas mansion began.

Robert Sinclair, his mother gone and children grown, decided to remarry and accepted an opportunity in Indiana. By this time, the neighborhood around the mansion had changed. Many of the neighboring mansions had been replaced by commercial structures, especially ones that were automobile-related, given the routing of the Lincoln Highway (later Highway 30) through the Mansion Hill neighborhood starting just before 1920.

The Douglas/Sinclair mansion had become more valuable as a potential commercial property.

At the same time, many local undertakers were establishing their businesses in large homes, creating the then new concept of the “funeral home.” By 1923, John B. Turner and his son David had already established the Turner Mortuary and Funeral Home in the old Mansfield mansion at 700 Third Ave. SE. The Turners were looking for a larger old home and bought 800 Second Ave. SE from Robert Sinclair in early 1924.

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The Turners greatly expanded the former Douglas/Sinclair home that year, building a large two-story addition to the east of the original 1898 structure.

GRANT WOOD

They engaged the services of local artist Grant Wood to design much of the interior of the addition as well as components of the original home’s interior.

The Turners then allowed Wood to convert the upper level of the carriage house into a studio and a residence for him and his sister and mother. Wood and the Turners had a friendship going back to 1901, when they knew each other as neighbors in the old Central Park (Mound View) neighborhood in North Cedar Rapids.

The grand opening of the new Turner Mortuary at 800 Second Ave. SE came in December 1924. And for the next 80 years, the Linn County community appreciated the ongoing preservation of this mansion through its use as a funeral home.

The Turners completed another expansion of the property in the 1950s, adding a parking lot next door at 820 Second Ave. SE.

In the 1970s, operations of the funeral home were shifted to the Linge family, still the longtime operators of Cedar Memorial.

Funeral services ended at the Douglas mansion in 2004.

THE HISTORY CENTER

For a brief period, the house was used as an event center and then, after the 2008 flood, served an important function by housing cultural organizations, such as Theatre Cedar Rapids, that had been displaced by the flood.

The property was put up for sale in 2013. At the end of the following year, in 2014, The History Center, having sold its First Avenue SE downtown location, bought the Douglas/Sinclair/Turner historic property.

A new chapter for the Douglas mansion had begun.

After nearly a year of carefully considered restoration and renovations, the 1898 Douglas mansion is now the new home of The History Center, complete with exhibits, research library and archives, program events and education spaces.

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The majority of The History Center’s large collection of important Linn County artifacts and resources will continue to be maintained at a separate location, with room to grow.

The History Center serves the Linn County community in the early 21st century within a tremendously significant historic landmark, allowing the legacy to continue.

l Mark Stoffer Hunter is a research historian for The History Center in Cedar Rapids. Comments: mark@historycenter.org

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