The Brucemore Trust Historic Site features a museum, a twenty-one room mansion, and a community cultural center set on twenty-six acres. The mansion visit is also a story of the development of Cedar Rapids and many of the important people that changed the city over the years.
The story begins with the Sinclair Family. Thomas (T.M.) and Caroline Sinclair moved to Cedar Rapids in 1871 for Thomas to expand the successful family meatpacking business. The company started in 1832, when father and uncle, organized a plant in Belfast, Ireland. The plant processed pork for bacon and ham to be sent to England and later opened a branch in Liverpool, England. In 1862 they opened a branch in New York then established production closer to the source in Cedar Rapids in 1871.
In time Sinclair & Co. processed an average of 3,000 hogs per day during the winter and 1,000 per day during the summer. Within a few years, T. M. Sinclair & Co. became the largest meatpacking plant in Iowa and the fourth largest in the world.
Our guide Terry said that Thomas Sinclair was only 39 when during an inspection of the plant on March 24, 1881; he fell into an open elevator shaft and died shortly after. His brother-in-law, Charles Soutter, assumed control of the company until 1889. The Sinclair family kept their hand in the operations until 1930 when it was sold. The company changed hands over the years until it closed March 8, 1990. After the Flood of 2008, the building was demolished.
After her husband’s accident, Caroline Sinclair, was a widow at with six children at the age of 33. Wanting a place to raise her children and with plenty of money to do so, she began construction of a three story, 21-room Mansion on ten acres of land. Only a couple miles from town, she offered them city and country living at its best.
Architect Maximillian Allardt, began design on the home, however, during construction, he returned to Indianapolis to be with his daughter who had fallen ill. Local architects Henry Josselyn and Eugene Taylor finished the Queen Anne style mansion.
Wishing for an East Coast education for her children, Caroline purchased a second home in 1887 in Philadelphia. The family spent the school year in Philadelphia then returned to Cedar Rapids for the summer months.
In 1905, the Sinclair children were grown and Caroline decided to move closer to town. When her plan to sell the Mansion for use as an orphanage fell through in 1906, she traded homes with George and Irene Douglas.
She then moved into their home on Second and lived there until her death in 1917. The carriage house of her second home later became artist Grand Wood’s studio.
Irene and George Douglas met while Irene was while visiting relatives in Cedar Rapids. George was working at his father’s cereal business, Douglas and Stuart, when he met Irene. The company later became the famous Quaker Oats Company.
I was fascinated by the tie in to agricultural companies in this house! George and Irene married in 1892, and then in 1894 George and his brother Walter became business partners and started Douglas & Company which produced linseed oil. In 1899, they sold out and in 1903; they began Douglas Starch Works, which produced cooking starch and oil, laundry starch, animal feed, soap stock, and industrial starches.
George and Iren had three daughters, Margaret, Ellen and, in 1908, Barbara the youngest child and only person born at Brucemore.
In 1906 the house swap that local newspapers called the largest real estate transaction in the city’s history took place. George and Caroline traded the Douglas’s home on Second Avenue for Brucemore at a cost of $125,000.
When they moved in, they renamed the estate Brucemore, combining George’s middle name with an allusion to the moors of Scotland. With the Queen Anne style losing favor at the time of purchase, the Douglas family altered the Mansion to reflect the simpler Craftsman style. They placed decorative beams and braces, porches supported by tapered square columns, and low pitched roofs. They changed the entry way, added an amazing Skinner organ which is one of only 6 in the world and added a pool.
A patron of the arts, Irene hired local artist Grant Wood in 1925 to decorate her daughter’s sleeping porch. She paid Wood $182 for his decorated plaster relief which depicts curving vines, flowers, birds, and animals. This was an interesting side note after just visiting the studio and art museum the day before. Our guide Terry said that the porch is now worth 2 million!
The Douglas family also added butternut paneling which lightened the interior. They created the gardens and continued modifying throughout their 30-year residency.
Part of the money for these renovations came from the Douglas Starch Works the largest starch works company in the world by 1914. They employed 400 people and ground 10,000 bushels of corn per day. They thrived as demand for corn oil and cornstarch became essential cooking items.
While this was the good days, the company also had its bad when the company suffered an explosion on May 22, 1919, just as the 109 night workers replaced the 327-member day shift. Brucemore.org states, “… a devastating explosion leveled the starch works. A pillar of dust and flame shot one mile into the sky. Hundreds of windows shattered across Cedar Rapids and water mains ruptured. Parts of Douglas & Company buildings landed two miles from the site. Forty-three employees lost their lives. Investigators concluded a fire caused grain dust to ignite and explode; however, they never identified the source of the fire. Douglas & Company purchased a grave and marker in Linwood Cemetery for any unidentified remains. Graves of the workers were decorated by the Douglas family each Memorial Day.”
This prompted the family to sell in 1920 to Penick and Ford, a Louisiana company. Today they are known as Penford Products and continue to produce industrial starch.
The Douglas family during their tenure at Brucemore tripled the property size and added many of the landscape features and buildings found on the property today. The three little girls were educated onsite and the mansion was truly lived in. The girls developed artistically. Margaret pursued sculpting, Ellen was a writer, and Barbara entertained crowds at the harp, piano, and organ. Irene created an amazing library and had a book bindery where she bound the complete works of Shakespeare.
In 1937, 14 years after George’s death she passed and bequeathed the Brucemore estate to her eldest daughter, Margaret Douglas Hall. Margaret and her husband Howard had been living in the Garden House on the estate since their marriage in 1924. After moving into the mansion, Howard always called it, “Your Mother’s Home”.
Margaret and Howard Hall lived at Brucemore from 1937 to 1981. They added some unusual items to the stately mansion, a pet lion, pet money, the Tahitian Room, and the Grizzly Bar. It is amazing to walk through the halls seeing pictures of lions and view the wild decor of the Tahitian Room so out of character with the rest of Brucemore. Without any children, the Halls used the grounds less than previous families and sold off a couple of acres reducing the size of the estate to the current 26 acres.
Besides Margaret’s substantial fortune, Howard established the Carmody Foundry later renamed the company Iowa Steel and Iron Works. They later incorporated other companies and in time with his partner John Jay became known worldwide for their paving equipment.
In 1981, Margaret Hall left Brucemore to the National Trust for Historic Preservation for the benefit of her community. Visitors can now come to see the lovely mansion and many local events take place on the grounds.
Located at 2160 Linden Drive in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, guided tours of the Mansion are available March through December. For more information, log onto https://www.brucemore.org/visit.