Cedar Rapids: Another look
I’m chipping away at Cedar Rapids. I’ve visited the state’s second-largest city a dozen times or more, mostly for business, but often with a little time to kill. I’ve written about the Czech Village and National Czech & Slovak Museum. I’ve also blogged about the Grant Wood collection at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art and the Grant Wood Studio.
Sometimes when I’m in Cedar Rapids for work, I end up going to Iowa City or Mt. Vernon to eat or shop. I’m definitely not a Cedar Rapids connoisseur. But I’m working on it.
When I was in town earlier this week, I explored the New Bohemia district near the Czech Village. I think it’s got awesome potential. I drank coffee at Brewhemia (1101 3rd St. SE), a fun, urban coffee shop / bar next door to an art exhibition space. For lunch, I tried to visit the NewBo City Market (1100 3rd St. SE), but it was closed. It’s definitely on my list for next time – just so long as I’m there Thursday through Sunday. The market features anchor merchants selling food that ranges from cupcakes to eggs to pizza, plus a variety of guest merchants – indoors and (when the weather permits) outdoors.
Disappointed that I couldn’t eat lunch at the market, I opted for the Parlor City Pub & Eatery (1125 3rd St. SE), where I ordered a veggie pizza and a side salad and found it quite pleasant if rather unexceptional.
After lunch, I visited the African American Museum of Iowa (55 12th Ave. SE). I didn’t really know what to expect from this museum – if it would feature history, culture, art, music, or something else. The museum opened in 2003 with a permanent exhibit, “Doorways: A History of African Americans in Iowa.” A few years later, the building was badly damaged in the flood of 2008 and re-opened in 2009 – so it has the feeling of a very new museum. Today’s permanent exhibit is “Endless Possibilities,” a history of African Americans before, during, and after the Civil War and through the Civil Rights Movement – with some relationships to Iowa but on a fairly national scope. Photographs, artifacts, newspapers, and multimedia tell the story.
One highlight is a life-size photograph of President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and their two daughters after winning the Iowa Caucus in 2008. There’s also a mention of Iowa State’s Jack Trice and George Washington Carver. The last part of the exhibit is devoted to African American musicians and musical styles.
It’s a quick visit and well worth the $5 entry fee. Although I have to laugh when I think about the older woman who greeted us when we walked in. She told us how much we owed but could not make change when we offered her cash. (“I’m a volunteer,” she explained.) And then, later, after we’d toured the museum, I asked her what year the museum opened and she couldn’t answer that most basic of questions. “There’s a seven-minute video you can watch,” she offered.
I’m not sure why she was there.
Our last stop was Brucemore national historic site and cultural center – which sounds sort of bland and boring, but believe me, it’s one hell of a cool place. I still can’t figure out how I didn’t know about it. I’d seen the brown signs on the highway but all I really knew about it was that it was a mansion.
So, yeah, it’s a mansion. But it’s got a fascinating history, and the architecture and grounds are spectacular. The place is 26 acres filled with not just the huge house and its porches and swimming pool but also a carriage house, servants’ quarters, greenhouses, orchard, garden house, tennis court, gardens galore, a pond, and a pet cemetery (I’ll get to that later). It just knocks your socks off.
I should mention that I was there on the ONE day of the week that the house isn’t open for tours: Monday. This was sort of unfortunate timing on my part, but I have to admit that sometimes I’d just rather nose around the yard and look at the house from the outside instead of taking a guided tour. Sometimes those are long and, frankly, boring. (If you decide you want to do it anyway, the cost is $7 and the house is open March through December.)
Luckily, the visitor center is open every day of the week, and it’s just chock full of photographs and films and information about the people who lived in Brucemore. Besides the awesome grounds, the history was my favorite part.
In a nutshell: A widow, Caroline Soutter Sinclair, built the mansion in the 1880s for her six children. She must have been richie-rich because the house is enormous – 21 rooms. Her husband ran Sinclair & Company meatpacking facility (he died in 1881 after falling into an open elevator shaft…bummer). In 1906, after Caroline’s children were grown, she moved into a smaller house in town and traded the home to George and Irene Douglas.
The Douglases were a Quaker Oats family and also owned a firm that produced cornstarch. The name Brucemore came from George’s middle name, Bruce, with an “allusion to the moors of Scotland.” The Douglas family tripled the property size and added landscaping and buildings. In 1937, 14 years after George’s death, Irene bequeathed the Brucemore estate to her eldest daughter, Margaret Douglas Hall.
And that’s when things get really interesting. Margaret and her husband, Howard, apparently had a gazillion dogs – all German shepherds and mostly named King – because they are buried in the pet cemetery and enshrined in dog statues throughout the grounds. You can view photos and films of the dogs in the visitor center. But more entertaining than the dogs by far are the lions: three of them, all named Leo. The first, purchased in 1936, was a descendant of Jackie, the MGM lion. How amazing is this? He did not live long, but the second Leo lived for 13 years and is featured in home movies, wrestling and rolling around with the dogs and with Howard. Leo the 2nd is buried in the pet cemetery. I don’t know too much about Leo the third.
The film library is remarkable. From the late 1920s through the 1960s, the Halls documented scene of vacations, family and friends – and also behind-the-scenes images from the set of “Gone With the Wind.” I’m not sure how he managed it, but you could just sit and watch this stuff all day.
I probably haven’t done this amazing place justice – you really must visit it yourself (at 2160 Linden Dr. SE). They have lots of events – art shows, theatre performances, concerts, festivals, and special exhibits. There’s a scarecrow invasion in October you might want to check out.