Nestled into the wooded neighborhood south of Grand Avenue is a place that many in Des Moines have only barely heard of, yet it is hugely significant to the international cultural, arts and academic world.
The Salisbury House, built between 1923 and 1928, is located at 4025 Tonawanda Drive. In addition to its magnificence as a historic home, it contains an impressive collection of early 20th Century and European art from the 18th and 19th centuries. The Salisbury House library includes a rare collection of books and documents, some of which are hand edited and date back to the 1200s.
“It’s an important resource of the humanities with an amazing library and resource collection,” says J. Eric Smith, executive director of the Salisbury House and Gardens. “It’s a very important piece of our history. … I think it’s an underappreciated resource in the arts collection.”
Carl Weeks was a native Iowan and pioneer in the cosmetics industry — he founded Armand Cosmetics in 1915. He and his wife, Edith, had the Tudor-style manor built. It has 42 rooms — originally 17 bedrooms and 16 bathrooms. It was modeled after the “King’s House” in Salisbury, England, which the couple saw during a visit in 1921. The “King’s House” was a 15th Century manor, where British royalty visited and stayed. Some of the home’s materials were imported including sections of the roof tile from Lord Nelson’s Trafalgar estate in England.
It took five years for the construction to be completed at a cost of $1.5 million. Another $1.5 million was spent on furnishings. The couple and their four sons moved into the house in December 1926. At the time the house was built, it was located on about 9.5 acres, and the property included a caretaker’s cottage and gardens surrounded by woods.
Smith says many homes of this era that have been restored do not contain the original artifacts, possessions or collections of the home owner at the time. That is where the Salisbury House is different. Almost all of the furnishings and all of the artwork and the library collection belonged to the Weeks family. The furnishings include antique furniture, tapestries, fine art, rare books and many other items, totaling about 10,000 pieces.
“To actually find a really high collection of books and documents and art in the original home where they were collected is pretty rare, and I think we’re pretty special in that regard,” Smith says.
New property tax laws and the Great Depression forced Weeks to deed the house to Drake University in 1934. The family was still allowed to live in the house, but they had to open it up to students who were studying fine arts. Weeks’ business saw a decline after World War II with competition from other cosmetics companies. He merged the company with another in 1950 and retired.
Drake University sold the property to the Iowa State Education Association in 1954 when the demands of maintenance became too difficult for the family.
Edith Weeks died in 1955; Carl Weeks followed in 1962. The education association sold the house and its collections to the Salisbury House Foundation in 1998 for $4 million. The foundation was newly formed to preserve and share the significance of the historic house and its collections.
There are about 20,000 visits to the Salisbury House and Gardens each year. Most of those visits come from special events such as the Gatsby Gala and the Salisbury Concours d’Elegance.
This Gatsby Gala is the annual fundraiser. Attendees dress in 1920s-era attire. This year’s event will be themed “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” in honor of Anita Loos’ best-selling book which was published in 1925, the same year F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote “The Great Gatsby.” It takes place from 6 to 10 p.m. on Sept. 7. Smith says the library’s collection includes Loos’ book, so organizers thought the theme would be a fun twist on the event.
The Concours d’Elegance is a display and competition of classic vehicles based on their elegance and beauty. Automobiles are placed into different categories, with the “Salisbury Era” representing vehicles from the time the Weeks family lived in the home. About 120 automobiles are usually on display on the property. This year’s event will be held from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 8.
The money raised at both the Gala and the Concours d’Elegance goes toward the educational programs and restoration work of the Salisbury House Foundation.
The third most popular event that draws visitors is the annual Holly & Ivy Holiday Home Tour when the Salisbury House is decorated for the Christmas holiday. This year’s tour will be from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 6, 7 and 8.
Shakespeare on the Lawn will return this summer to the Salisbury House after a one-year break. The Repertory Theater of Iowa will perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” from June 20-23.
Smith says the Salisbury House board members are working to increase the number of visits. They hope a plan to restore the house’s basement and convert it into an education and exhibition center with rotating exhibits will draw more visitors and repeat visitors to the house. The project is currently in the conceptual stages and there is no cost estimate for the work at this time, but Smith says the goal is to have the project completed by 2014.
“We’ve really done in the past couple of years a lot of restoration and reinterpretation of the house and the family history,” he says.
The first and second floors of the house are available for public viewing. The majority of those spaces have been restored to the house’s days as a residence of the Weeks family. Restoration began in earnest in 2005 when the tile roof was replaced. Other initial improvements included new electrical, plumbing, heating and cooling systems, fire suppression and security systems. Then work moved to refinishing floors, repainting and fixing the plaster, as well as creating new displays for the Weeks’ collections. The walls have been repainted to their original colors that were present when the Weeks family lived in the house.
“You can have the experience of seeing the house in the way the family had it when they lived here,” Smith says.
One of the house’s most impressive features is its library and rare documents collection, which Smith describes as “mind blowing.” He says the Salisbury House board is trying to reach out to academics and start new tours to share the information with others.
“There’s things in there that have tremendous research value,” he says, adding that there are a number of hand-edited manuscripts and rare books and documents, including one signed by King Ferdinand in 1492 as Christopher Columbus was en route to America. The collection also has documents signed by Abraham Lincoln, Ernest Hemingway, Charles Dickens, Queen Elizabeth I, James Joyce, Joseph Smith and D.H. Lawrence, as well as a leaf from the original printing of the Gutenberg Bible.
Many of the items are delicate in nature and cannot be touched. However, once a month between 12 and 14 rare artifacts are displayed to a small group of visitors through the “Treasures Tour.” This gives visitors a chance to get a more up close and personal look at the items, Smith says.
The house also features an extensive art collection. The Weeks commissioned several pieces of work from then-contemporary artists such as Joseph Stella and Lillian Genth, which helped boost their careers in the 1920s. Stella’s “Apotheosis of the Rose” and “The Birth of Venus” are internationally acclaimed works that still remain in the Salisbury House collection. Three of Genth’s paintings still hang in the house, including a portrait of Edith Weeks.