Halloween is barely in the rearview mirror and Thanksgiving is on the horizon, but as the song goes, we need a little Christmas right this very minute.
So Brucemore is hauling out the holly and putting up the brightest string of lights you’ve ever seen, along with ornaments, table settings and artifacts from holidays past. The doors will be flinging open Friday for the first self-guided holiday mansion tours, and staying open select dates through Dec. 20 for other holiday happenings.
Tickets are on sale online and by phone. A couple of events already have sold out, including the first session of a glass tree-making workshop Dec. 6, and the first date for A Children’s Christmas, on Dec. 5, with limited availability for the Dec. 12 children’s day.
“The mansion really hasn’t been open to the public since the last holiday season,” said Tara Richards, director of community engagement. “We opened for about one week back in March before we had to close because of the pandemic.”
So the focus shifted to outdoor events, some of which went on despite the severe derecho damage to the landscape and some buildings. But inching closer to the holiday season, the staff felt that if they could safely open the mansion, “there would be a need and a want for some holiday joy,” Richards said. “It felt like we had a unique opportunity to share decorations and the holiday spirit with people.”
Still, some things would have to change.
“We knew we couldn’t do the holidays like we have in the past — last year we had about 3,000 in one month during the holiday season,” she noted. “We know we can’t do that. A lot of museums are seeing closer to 25- to 35 percent audience return, so we thought if we could do something, it would be better than nothing.”
Among the changes are offering timed entries for self-guided tours for up to six people, thus reducing the number of people inside the house at any given moment. Daytime tours are limited to the first floor, but evening tours allow visitors to explore all three floors of the 19th-century Queen Anne-style structure, home to three families that helped shape Cedar Rapids and its industries: the Sinclairs from 1884 to 1906, the Douglases from 1906 to 1937 and the Halls from 1937 to 1981.
Booklets will guide guests through the estate’s history, and staff will be nearby to answer questions, but with COVID safety protocols in place, they won’t be leading any tours. Masks are required at all events.
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For the children’s activity days, recognizing that Santa needs to stay physically distanced before his big night, little visitors can write him letters and leave them at Brucemore for a special North Pole delivery.
Giving a nod to years past, when families were allowed to take photos in front of the Christmas tree at children’s events, non-flash photography is being allowed at all of the events inside the mansion. But leave tripods at home, as well as other equipment that might disrupt anyone else’s tour experience, Richards said.
For those fancying some hands-on artistry, a glass tree workshop will be led by folks from the Iowa Ceramics Center on Dec. 6. The initial 1 p.m. session is sold out, so another has been added from 3:15 to 4:45 p.m. that day, all held in the estate’s Carriage House.
Visitors are encouraged to enter through the Linden Drive gates, but the Dows Lane entry will be open, as well. Parking will be available near the mansion, as well as along the sweeping drive toward First Avenue, and at the Carriage House.
Mansion decorations don’t change much from year to year, but new items are added and artifacts are changed out, to add variety and depth of the experience at Iowa’s only National Trust for Historic Preservation site.
While hearkening to the early 20th century, the greenery, especially, is rooted in more contemporary traditions, Richards said.
“We do that, because the way that the Douglases would have celebrated Christmas might be a little disappointing from a standpoint of someone today,” she said. “They only put their tree up on Christmas Eve or very close to Christmas, and took it down almost right after. You didn’t get all of the lights and all of the glitter and all of the festivities in the same way.
“But we supplement sharing the Christmas experience from the Douglas time period with the artifacts and other (items) we put out.” In the nursery, visitors can look for one of the Douglas daughters’ roller skates under the tree. Or see a handmade puzzle of “A Christmas Carol,” which the family would have worked on together. Crafted by one of Mrs. Douglas’ friends, Richards said the puzzle “has uniquely shaped pieces that would have been quite challenging to put together.”
Unlike some historic homes in which entire rooms are roped off from visitors, Brucemore’s rooms are open, but some historic items, like chairs, are roped off.
The grounds reopened Nov. 4 for hiking and biking, so holiday visitors also are invited to stroll along the paths, avoiding the damaged landscape and building sites. Even though strides have been made, dealing with the derecho debris will stretch “well into next year,” Richards said, followed by implementing a restoration plan.
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“I think it’s so important to remember that each day we see signs of progress and things starting to look better,” she said. “Just being open again is a huge, huge milestone for us.”
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Brucemore holiday events
• Where: Brucemore estate, 2160 Linden Dr. SE., Cedar Rapids
• Parking: Visitors encouraged to enter through Linden Drive gates, but Dows Lane entrance will be open, as well; parking near the mansion, on the drive leading to First Avenue and at the Carriage House
• A Brucemore Christmas: Self-guided mansion tours: Friday to Dec. 20; offered Thursday to Sunday afternoons; tour the mansion’s first floor with your own group of up to six people; $10 per person; $5 member discount per order; tickets at Brucemore.org/events/calendar/2020/11/13/a-brucemore-christmas-a-self-guided-tour/
• A Children’s Christmas: Self-guided mansion tours, afternoons, Dec. 5 (sold out) Dec. 12 (limited availability); tour the first floor, make a craft and write a letter to Santa; activities designed for ages 2 to 10, but all ages are welcome; $10 per person, $5 member discount per order; tickets at Brucemore.org/events/calendar/2020/12/05/a-childrens-christmas-a-self-guided-tour/
• Art at Brucemore: Glass Tree Workshop: First session sold-out, second session added from 3:15 to 4:45 p.m. Dec. 6 in the Carriage House Visitors Center; Iowa Ceramics Center will help participants create a glass holiday tree; pick up your creation after it has been fired; masks required and tickets purchased together will be seated together; materials and supplies provided; $30; tickets at Brucemore.org/events/calendar/2020/12/06/art-at-brucemore-glass-trees-workshop/
• Holiday Nights: Extended self-guided mansion tour: evenings Dec. 2, 3, 9, 10, 16, 17; tour the mansion’s first, second and third floors while listening to holiday music; $15 per person, $5 member discount per order; tickets at Brucemore.org/events/calendar/2020/12/02/holiday-nights-an-extended-self-guided-tour/
• Extras: Face masks and physical distancing required; non-flash photography allowed inside the mansion
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• Phone: (319) 362-7375 for assistance or to purchase tickets by phone