Forum Journal & Forum Focus

Brucemore: A Cultural Center for Cedar Rapids 

12-09-2015 17:35

Brucemore tells the story of three wealthy families: industrialists, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, boosters, neighbors, and friends. The men created great fortunes: Thomas Sinclair in meatpacking; George Bruce Douglas in starch processing; and Howard Hall in manufacturing. However, the women of Brucemore are at the heart of the story: Caroline Sinclair built the mansion; Irene Douglas transformed it to a country estate; and Margaret Hall gave it to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Now honoring the fortunes, legacies, and influence of the families, Brucemore has also become the community’s home.

Set on a scenic 26-acre estate with 9 buildings, the 21-room Queen Anne–style mansion is the centerpiece of an active historic site and cultural center. Brucemore has positioned itself as one model for many house museums working to extend their missions to new and broader audiences. Capitalizing on the size of the estate, its central location in the city, and the prestige of being the only National Trust Historic Site in the state of Iowa, Brucemore is dedicated to offering an ambitious line-up of events and programs for the benefit of the community. Although the vitality of the site is a source of pride for the community, protecting and preserving the buildings and grounds for the education and enjoyment of generations to come is equally essential. Careful planning, constant vigilance, ongoing evaluation, and a sound preservation ethic are at the core of Brucemore’s dual mission to serve as a historic site and community cultural center.

These goals are spelled out in the site’s mission and vision statements:

Mission: To engage the public in the history, traditions, resources, and ongoing preservation of Brucemore for the enrichment of the community.

Vision: To be a premier National Trust Site through excellence in stewardship, education, preservation, and programming for the benefit of the community.


Cedar Rapids has always had a love affair with Brucemore. Throughout its history as a private residence, the families of Brucemore engaged the community in many ways. Brucemore has been a magnet for a variety of activities — including hosting the first Cedar Rapids Garden Show, fundraisers, cotillions, recitals, and receptions for United States presidents, as well as providing the gathering place for Howard Hall’s eclectic group of fellow entrepreneurs affectionately named “the Sunday School.” When Margaret Hall deeded Brucemore to the National Trust, she stipulated her desire to see her home used as a community cultural center. Clearly, Mrs. Hall’s wishes have guided the interpretation and function of Brucemore since becoming part of the National Trust collection in 1981.

Originally the National Trust determined that Mrs. Hall’s assessment of her home as a community cultural center was an appropriate use of the site and did not designate it as a museum. The community, however, thought otherwise. The allure of the Brucemore mansion generated tremendous interest from residents and visitors. More than 3,000 curious people attended the first open house in September 1981. Mrs. Hall’s home was coming to life in ways she could not have envisioned, and, without question, the community was eager to show its interest in and appreciation for her gift of the estate.

Within the first several years, holiday parties, corporate functions, interpretive tours, theater and concert performances, staff offices, and the museum store all contributed to non-stop activity in the mansion. Although all of the activity was welcomed and encouraged, articulating appropriate guidelines and policies for use of the historic buildings became a priority. Now that the public spaces on the main floor have been restored to the interpretive period of 1910– 1925, activities in the mansion benefit from the grand setting. Even so, the guidelines for use stipulate appropriate capacity and care for the mansion.


Brucemore hosts a variety of community activities which have grown as the estate has transformed. In 1982 the site became the home of the Cedar Rapids/Marion Arts Council’s annual Fathers Day event, Celebration of the Arts, a festival of art and performances on the grounds. By 1986 Brucemore hosted its own large-scale event with Dixieland on the Green and began an eight-year partnership with Theatre Cedar Rapids to produce live theater in the Great Hall of the mansion. Brucemore’s role as a community cultural center was increasingly vibrant.

The adaptive use of the carriage house as the visitor center in 1999 allowed access to a second historic building on the property and eased the level of activity in the mansion. The museum store, staff offices, and interpretive exhibits now had a new home. This expansion also invited the community to view Brucemore as a complete country estate. With the addition of the visitor center, the staff began to explore the possibilities inherent in multiple venues on the property. Today programs and events occur in seven venues in addition to the mansion: the visitor center for meetings, lectures, small events, book signings, and hands-on workshops; the courtyard of the visitor center for large parties and Cabaret in the Courtyard; the natural amphitheatre by the pond for Classics at Brucemore, Cedar Rapids Opera Theatre, and Outdoor Children’s Theatre; the formal gardens and surrounding green space for tours, presentations, luncheons, and the Brucemore Garden and Art Show; the swimming pool area for receptions and parties; the Garden House for meetings, lectures, art shows, and retreats; and the First Avenue lawn for Balloon Glow and Bluesmore. By deliberately moving programs and events around the estate there is less potential for wear and tear at any one location and visitors can experience more of the site.

The public treats the estate with tremendous respect and pride. Each summer 10,000 people attend Balloon Glow, and within 24 hours the grounds are cleaned up with rarely more than a few tire marks on the grass as evidence of the activity. Occasionally there are reports of people cutting flowers from the gardens, taking fruit from the orchard, swimming in the pool, and trespassing when the estate is closed. Even so, Brucemore is blessed with tens of thousands of courteous and respectful visitors each year. The accessibility and welcoming image of the site has made Brucemore a treasured landmark in the community.


In July 2007 Brucemore hosted the Joffrey Ballet for one of the most ambitious collaborative undertakings in the history of the area. Commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Joffrey and the 35th anniversary of Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City, the free performance on the Brucemore lawn attracted more than 7,500 ballet enthusiasts and curiosity-seekers from the region. The full-scale production involved eleven semi-trailers, two cranes, two motor coaches, nearly one dozen support vehicles, more than 100 technicians, the full Joffrey company of dancers and artistic personnel, and the entire Brucemore staff. The glorious evening offered the finest artistry under the stars in a historic setting, and was a consummate testament to Brucemore’s ability to host monumental and memorable events.

Education and entertainment are not mutually exclusive at Brucemore. In fact, many of the well-received educational programs have been presented in unconventional, entertainment formats. DearSweetheart: the Letters of Howard and Margaret Hall became a readers’ theater dramatization of the relationship between the Halls, presented through their letters and diary entries when they were apart. Humorous, poignant, sorrowful, and trivial, Dear Sweetheart included more than 200images from the archives projected on a large screen behind the performers. This educational program became a perfect Valentines Day event, with champagne, roses, and chocolates included in the ticket price.

Perhaps the best example of sharing Brucemore’s history in unconventional ways was the 25th anniversary Uncommon Kings project. Local creative director, musician, and recording artist Gerard Estella had been contracted for a weekend of Cabaret in the Courtyard performances. The first half of Estella’s show featured original music, lyrics, and images that celebrated the inspiration of place—this place, Brucemore. According to Estella, “The production was not a historical retrospective or a tour of the Brucemore story. It utilized the uniqueness of Brucemore as a living, breathing testament to generations of human spirit and endeavor as the foundation for an artistic interpretation of Brucemore’s environment and the emotional impact it can have if given the opportunity to be witnessed. This is the story of a special place actively preserved and actively participating in the continuing story of its community.”

In addition to the Cabaret performance, Estella produced a commemorative “coffee table” book filled with images and words inspired by Brucemore and created by professional photographers and writers. The book came with a CD of 14 original songs first performed in the Cabaret production, with lyrics drawn from archival material. Brucemore provided access to the site, collections, and archives to six professional photographers, two composers, four writers, and more than one dozen performers to develop Uncommon Kings.

The ongoing preservation, restoration, and conservation activities at the site serve an educational function for the community. Teaching about tuck-pointing, book conservation, architectural restoration, and many ongoing maintenance projects provides an opportunity for Brucemore to serve as a laboratory for local artisans and trades people to improve craftsmanship with historic materials. Whenever there is an enrichment experience for citizens to learn valuable preservation skills through Brucemore projects, everyone wins, and the Brucemore mission is fulfilled in unique ways. Strengthening the community’s investment in the preservation and utilization of the site is critical to Brucemore’s sustainability.


In the last 30 years there has been an explosion of house museums across the country. Even with the expansion of cultural tourism and the desire for authentic experiences, many house museums and historic sites have experienced a drop in visitation. Brucemore has bucked the trend and stands today as a shining example of a model historic site. By thinking beyond the traditional models, by opening the doors for unconventional experiences, and by welcoming the entire community, Brucemore has positioned itself to continue its relevance into the foreseeable future.

Publication Date: Spring 2008


Author(s):James F. Kern