Brucemore's Historic Landscape
Brucemore's bucolic landscape - with its rolling yards, soaring trees, timber-lined pond, and stunning gardens - is more than a beautiful setting. It also exhibits over 120 years of history.
Each of the families who lived on the estate left their mark. You can still experience the sweeping front lawn from Caroline Sinclair's era that showcases the Mansion atop a soaring hill; the naturalistic landscape designs of the Douglas era that create charming outdoor rooms; and the subtle, modern additions of the Halls.
The Brucemore landscape is a time capsule, preserving evidence of decades past.
Sinclair Era Landscape
When Caroline Sinclair began building her home in 1884, the property was in the countryside beyond the city limits of Cedar Rapids. Timber, prairie, and farmland surrounded the estate.
The Sinclairs were among thousands of wealthy and middle-class families throughout the nation who moved from towns and cities to the countryside.
During the nineteenth century, people idealized the fresh air, scenery, and inherent morality of rural settings in contrast to the increasingly industrialized and crowded cities. Well-tended country farmsteads represented an ideal of bygone days.
Widowed three years prior, Caroline wanted to raise her six children in a place with more room and tranquility. She built "Fairhome" on a parcel of land next to the home of her brother, Charles Soutter.
Locating the Mansion on a rise overlooking First and Third Avenues provided magnificent views and conveyed the high status she held in the community.
At ten acres, the estate was still relatively small. Visitors accessed the home via a long, arcing drive on both sides of the sprawling First Avenue lawn, which culminated under the porte cochere entrance to the Mansion.
An orchard and garden behind the home completed the country farm setting, while an outbuilding and a barn allowed for animals, carriages, and landscape work.
Douglas Era Landscape
In 1906, Caroline Sinclair traded homes with George and Irene Douglas. Local newspapers called it the largest real estate transaction in the city's history.
Caroline moved back into town at 800 Second Avenue, while the Douglases moved with their three daughters to what local newspapers referred to as the "most conspicuous and admired residence in the community." They renamed it "Brucemore" and made it their own.
The Douglases made a series of significant changes that transformed the property into a model country estate. They expanded the acreage from ten to 33 and added many of the physical features still visible today.
By hiring landscape architect O.C. Simonds, the Douglases also embraced a philosophy of prairie landscape design that celebrated plantings as they exist in nature through a series of "outdoor rooms" and vistas.
The entrance to the estate was moved to Linden Drive, allowing visitors views of the landscape while traveling along a curvilinear drive that snaked through the property.
As per the design, visitors still pass through the wild area of native timber prior to coming upon a man-made, kidney-shaped pond. The Formal Garden tames nature just before the showcase, the Mansion, is revealed.
Irene was an active and knowledgeable gardener. Under her direction, the Formal Garden design focused on perennial beds surrounded by a rustic trellis, a grape arbor, and a brick terrace.
Irene also added specialty gardens that were popular at the time. A Night Garden of white plantings and furniture was constructed south of the Formal Garden with an entrance marked by brick steps. She had wildflowers added to the wooded section near Linden Drive to make a "wild" garden. A Cutting Garden along Dows Lane provided fresh flowers for arrangements and gifts.
The Douglases purchased a Lord & Burnham Greenhouse in 1915 to sustain the increased gardening operations.
Athletics, leisure, and self-sustainability
In the early twentieth century, the ideal of country living, already celebrated in Caroline Sinclair's era, evolved to encompass a lifestyle of athletics, leisure, and self-sustainability.
At Brucemore, this philosophy led to:
- A tennis court
- A wading pool that was later expanded to a full-size swimming pool
- A squash court
- Facilities for small-scale farming operations
Irene raised prize chickens and show dogs and took up bookbinding as a hobby. An alfalfa field and vegetable garden provided produce for the estate while also generating some income from selling the surplus.
A dynamic landscape
During their 20-year residence in the Mansion, the Douglas family continued to make changes to the gardens and grounds. New buildings were added or the uses of existing structures modified. Irene would frequently order new plant materials or decorative elements based on examples she had seen during the family's travels.
These constant small changes created a dynamic landscape that reflected the lives of Brucemore's second family.
Landscape Architect O.C. Simonds
An enduring legacy
Ossian Cole (O.C.) Simonds was an influential member of the regional prairie landscape movement when the Douglases hired him. He was born near Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1855, and studied architecture and civil engineering at the University of Michigan.
Simonds's work on Graceland Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois, brought him recognition and business from parks, campuses, estates, and other facilities throughout the Midwest. As demand for his services grew, he started his own landscape architecture firm in 1903 and began to write articles on residential and park landscape gardening in professional and popular journals.
Simonds advocated developing a knowledge and general appreciation of nature's beauty and artistry as the first key to creating a successful landscape. He maintained that it was critical to provide changing visual experiences by creating a series of landscape pictures.
To this end, curvilinear drives and pathways, undulating planting patterns, and topography were important characteristics of Simonds's designs.
By carefully manipulating such elements, one picturesque view could be enjoyed, while another waited as a surprise around the next corner.
He advised transplanting native trees, shrubs, and flowers to create safe retreats for the area's flora. This regard for plant ecology has been considered one of Simonds's pioneering contributions to American landscaping. Many of the Midwestern plantings that Simonds recommended, such as sumac and goldenrod, were unappreciated at the time and regarded as weeds.
Simonds had a preference for water features in his landscapes, and either introduced water features or enhanced existing ones.
He acknowledged that the upkeep for such an amenity could prove troublesome but was worth the bother for the many attractions that lakes, ponds, and streams offered. Simonds had opinions on the proper treatments for shorelines and, for example, generally opposed the use of masonry or concrete walls.
The front yard, according to Simonds, should be the most artistic part of the landscape, and "From every viewpoint, it should appear beautiful enough to photograph or paint. A front yard should have open space to show sky, clouds, and sunshine."
Careful planting allowed such goals to be achieved. The open space was defined by boundaries of foliage - trees and shrubbery - that gave the sense of outdoor living rooms. The rooms were not characterized by regulated edges, but rather by sculptural banks of plantings that had recesses, projections, and occasional openings.
Simonds objected to locating driveways and other prominent "artificial" features in the front yard, suggesting that such false elements would distract from the serenity and beauty expressed in a "well-kept, gently rolling lawn." A pedestrian walkway was acceptable, but should hug a planting edge.
Simonds's enduring legacy at Brucemore
In 1907, Simonds was hired to design the Brucemore estate. A driveway revision was needed to complement the Mansion's remodeling in which the main entrance to the house was shifted from the First Avenue facade to the opposite side of the house.
In planning for Brucemore's expansion and development, the Douglases likely sought Simonds's advice for siting anticipated buildings as well as plantings and other amenities.
Irene remained in close contact with Simonds and other employees of his firm through the 1920s and frequently sought their assistance and advice in the development of the landscape. Simonds's influence can still be seen throughout the estate.
Hall Era Landscape
When Irene Douglas died in 1937, her eldest daughter, Margaret Douglas Hall, inherited Brucemore.
The Halls used Brucemore and its grounds in different ways than their predecessors. The landscape served more as a background for their lives and reflected the fact that they were a childless couple who engaged in fewer activities on the grounds of the estate.
They sold off several acres to the north adjacent to the First Avenue driveway and several acres bordering Forest Drive. This reduced the 33-acre estate to its present size of 26 acres.
A modernist influence impacted the look of the Formal Garden. A reduction in the variety of flowering species led to a concentration of bold colors. Rows of roses and peonies, although considered "old fashioned," were important in Margaret's simplified scheme.
Specialty gardens were no longer popular, and at some point, the Douglas Night Garden was removed. Sections of the grape arbor were torn down, opening the view of the garden from the house.
Overall, the diversity of the landscape functions diminished while the Halls lived on the property. They eliminated the Tennis Court around 1937.
Agricultural-related activities, so important to the early twentieth-century country estate, were reduced in number and scope. The vegetable garden remained but at a reduced scale. The orchard was retained, although it was relocated after the Douglas trees were decimated by cold weather in 1942.
Margaret and Howard continued to raise chickens and ducks, also importing a population of black Australian swans to make their home on the pond. The Halls enjoyed spending time by the pond. In addition to having an island constructed for their swans, they had a stone patio and stone picnic table built at the west end.
The most dramatic change during the Hall era was not intentional. The Sinclair and Douglas visions of gracious, elm-lined drives were fully realized during this time in the allees off First Avenue and the driveway off Linden.
The mature trees that dotted the estate gave portions of the property a park-like appearance. An estimated 80 trees succumbed to a severe windstorm that swept through Cedar Rapids in 1962 and dozens of elms fell to Dutch elm disease in the 1960s.
Careful cultivation and planning since 1981 fostered the resurgence in these important trees that you see today.
The pet cemetery
The Halls designed a memorial site for their animals by creating the Pet Cemetery on the grounds, south of the Formal Garden. In addition to the Halls' dogs and lions, staff pets are also buried there.
A sculpture of a German Shepherd, one of three identical statues commissioned by Howard Hall, stands guard at the west end of the cemetery.
A second sculpture was given to Howard's veterinarian, but it was returned to the property in 1994 and is located near the lion's den behind the Carriage House.
The third sculpture was located at the Halls' weekend cabin retreat near Palisades-Kepler State Park.
Information taken from the 1997 Historic Landscape Report for Brucemore, Cedar Rapids, Iowa by Cecilia Rusnak, ASLA.