A ceremonial wall breaking kicked off renovation and restoration work at the historic Cedar Rapids Douglas Mansion, which will be the new home of the History Center and, if all goes to plan, should open in the fall next year.
The building has deep ties to the Cedar Rapids community. Finished in 1896, the mansion was first home to George Bruce Douglas and his family. Douglas’ father started the Stuart and Douglas Mill, which would become the Quaker Oats factory, and Douglas and his brother began the Douglas Starch Works, which would become Penford and now Ingredion, Inc.
By 1906, the Douglas family was in search of a larger home and became a part of a legendary house swap with the Sinclair family, who owned the mansion that the Douglas family renamed the Brucemore.
“The Sinclairs moved to the house in town and the Douglas family moved to the country,” History Center historian Mark Stoffer Hunter said.
The Sinclairs lived in the Douglas Mansion until 1923, when it was sold to the Turner family, becoming the Turner Mortuary. The Turner family added on a large addition to the east side of the house, and also, significantly, provided a local artist with a studio above the former carriage house and employed him in remodeling efforts. That artist: Grant Wood.
“When Grant Wood worked in here, he had not yet made it on the national scene. He was really just known as a local artist,” Stoffer Hunter said. “It was when he was here and he was able to just focus on his art and not worry about living expenses, just cigarettes and paint, that he was able to flourish as an artist. We’re not touching anything that is known to be his work. Although we are looking for any possibility of whether there’s a signature or wadded up pieces of paper in the walls, which he was known to do.”
During his time with the Turners, Wood is credited with reworking the arched windows above the main staircase looking in to the music room, and had a hand in the stain glass of the east-facing bay window. The Turner family also bought many pieces of his artwork to hang in the front halls.
“The Turners kept him financially prosperous because they continually bought pieces of his work,” Stoffer Hunter said. “Around 20-30 pieces of his artwork were hanging on the walls. It was kind of a selling point: There are other funeral parlors but only the Turner Mortuary comes with a Grant Wood gallery.”
The house changed hands again in the ’80s, when it was purchased by the Linge family and renamed the Grant Wood Chapel of Cedar Memorial. After the 2008 flood, it became a temporary home for displaced cultural organizations such as Theatre Cedar Rapids. In 2014, the Linn County Historical Society purchased the home to become the new History Center.
Tuesday’s ceremony marked a celebration of the center’s successful fundraising efforts. The center has raised $3.9 million for the renovation and restoration. The efforts were part of its Landmark and Legacy campaign, which was dedicated to raising money for the total cost of the renovations beforehand, and which received over 200 individual donations. The center also plans to continue raising money for an endowment to continue its work as a community resource in the future.
“The History Center board members, they are activists. And you need activists on the board for a project like this,” said Cedar Rapids Mayor Ron Corbett during a press conference leading up to the wall breaking ceremony.
The renovation project will take the house back to what it might have looked like in the ’20s and ’30s, when it was a private home — the center has even conducted an analysis of paint layers to gauge what the original colors might have been.
History Center Board President Adam Ebert said that the group has relied on advice from Rinderknecht Associates, Inc., which has been hired on as general contractor, to estimate the cost and planning for renovations. The center has also consulted Aspect Architecture Design, which has worked on previous remodeling and historic renovation projects
“One thing that is hard about working with an organization like us is that we are not expert builders, but we have high, material expectations. It creates a lot of work for the contractor,” he said.
Ebert said one of his favorite rooms in the house is John Turner’s former office, also known as the “round room.” The room, which above the main entrance, is oval-shaped.
“Even the doors and windows are curved,” Ebert pointed out. “It’s an investment in detail, and reflects an era where owners made that a priority.”
The room also currently has a bit of visible damage to the ceiling left over from a leaky roof that has since been repaired.
“To me, seeing that [damage] was the ‘Oh, no, we have to do something’ moment,” he said.
Although the house did suffer a bit of water damage, Ebert said it is still in pretty good condition.
“Inside, it’s mostly a matter of stripping things down, and updating the electrical and plumbing,” he said. “This is a good building. We don’t have to tear it down to the studs and replace it, and to be honest, we wouldn’t want to.”
Ebert said he hopes the central location and historical significance of the building helps the History Center and its resources become a part of the lives of members of the community. That, ultimately, is one of the main goals of the center.
“The group of people involved in this project are really just trying to do some greater good,” Ebert said.