CEDAR RAPIDS — After extensive renovations, a historic Cedar Rapids house is ready to open its doors to the public, and the nonprofit that renovated it also has had a face-lift of sorts.
The History Center will celebrate the grand opening of its new home at the Douglas Mansion, 800 Second Ave. SE, on Oct. 13, four years after closing and selling its former building on First Avenue.
“The goal of this project, as symbolized by the building, was to recreate The History Center,” Executive Director Jason Wright said. “That we could bring back this dilapidated building is a symbol of how we’re trying to do everything now, of how we could turn things 180 degrees around.”
The reopening marks more than a new space for the organization. It’s a celebration of a new start. In 2006, The History Center closed temporarily, facing $170,000 in debt and foreclosure. That was prevented after city and county government, local donors and banks donated $1.4 million to retire the museum’s mortgage.
Wright said The History Center’s board has since pivoted and now, with the help of the capitol campaign that raised funds for the renovation, has a $1 million endowment to support ongoing maintenance of the Douglas Mansion, which is debt free. In total, just over $4 million was raised for the renovation, exhibits and endowment.
“I think that’s a declaration from this community that we are relevant and they want us to succeed,” Wright said. “The notion we will be a museum with walls again is indescribably exciting.”
For the last four years, without a space like the mansion, “We had to deliver the exhibits to people,” Wright said.
That meant temporary displays at places like the Cedar Rapids Public Library and by ramping up emphasis on events like neighborhood history walking tours.
With the new space, they plan to increase the number of such events with the help of program manager Jenny Thielman, who has plans for summer camps and live story telling nights, like a planned “show and tell” night, where people can bring an item from their own family history and share the stories behind it. Another event will feature community members recording their oral histories with a moderator in front of a live audience.
That’s a double benefit, as it adds to the center’s historical collection while engaging the community in local history, Thielman said.
“We are also wanting to reach out to the other communities in Linn County so we’re not just focused on Cedar Rapids,” she said.
The History Center also has changed its approach to the nonprofit’s finances — it will charge admission to the new history center for non-members, whereas admission to the old building was free. it also is now charging a fee for services provided by historian Mark Stoffer Hunter, and will rent out space in the Douglas Mansion for events.
The mansion was completed in 1897 for businessman George Bruce Douglas and his wife, Irene, who would later move to Brucemore, doing a “house swap” of sorts with Caroline Sinclair and other members of the Sinclair family, who originally built the Brucemore mansion. They lived in the Douglas Mansion until it was sold to the Turner family and turned into a mortuary in 1924. In the early 1980s, the Linge family operated a funeral home there and renamed it the Grant Wood Chapel of Cedar Memorial. John and Dina Linge donated the house to the Greater Cedar Rapids Community Foundation, and The History Center purchased it in 2014.
During the renovation of the 10,000-square-foot building, staff had to balance historically accurate restoration with museum standards required to properly store historic artifacts. That meant details like adding UV protection to the original glass windows. One of the first things the organization did to the building was repair the leaking roof. It also upgraded wiring and other infrastructure.
The Grant Wood Studio, operated by the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, sits behind the mansion. The famed artist lived in the property’s former carriage house and designed many elements in the main home for the Turner family, including sunburst arches over the doors on a landing that perfectly match the mantle over the fireplace.
A more macabre example of Wood’s input are purple and green-tinted window panes in a first floor room, meant to make skin tones of bodies warmer during visitations.
Other elements of the building’s history as a funeral home can be found throughout the space. On the second story, “coffin corners” are cut into door frames that otherwise were too narrow. The wooden floor boards also have far more nails than typical floors would — the better to keep the boards from creaking and disturbing mourners gathered in the rooms below.
The main floor now includes a classroom and space that can be used for public programs, along with a library where the public can access the historical archives and do research, plus a small gift shop. A room that once housed the kitchen — a scorched section of floor remains where a stove once was — still has the mortuary’s working organ, as well as an elevator.
Upper floors will have both temporary and permanent galleries exploring aspects of Linn County history.
With the influences of the Turner family throughout the house, the restoration focused on bringing the building back to what it was in the 1920s, Wright said, when an addition to the house was added. A “forensic study” helped determine details like paint color for the walls.
“It’s unbelievable to me we were able to take such care to bring it back to what it was,” Wright said. “We used the study rather than making our own decisions.”
A clear panel in the room that will house a permanent gallery lets visitors see the original brick between the walls, and another displays tile under the floor in what was once an embalming room.
“There are all sorts of elements people can see that tell the story of the house,” he said.
He hopes that story will draw in members of the public, who will stay to learn more of Linn County’s history.
“We want to get out the word that this is not something you just drive by,” he said. “This is part of the community.”
If you go:
- What: The History Center Douglas Mansion grand opening
- Where: 800 Second Ave. SE, Cedar Rapids
- When: Oct. 13
- Details: Ribbon cutting 10 a.m., live music 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., family-friendly crafts 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., talk by historian Mark Stoffer Hunter 11 a.m. to noon, magician Jack Green 1:30 to 2:15 p.m., Prohibition cocktail demonstration and tasting 2:45 to 3:45 p.m., Linn County ghost stories with campfire and s’mores 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Food trucks and beer/wine on site.
- Information: (319) 362-1501, historycenter.org
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