Grant Wood Comes to Book Club

It began at book club.

The Salisbury House Young Professionals routinely hosts this event  every couple of months. Literature collected by Carl and Edith Weeks, still housed in the magnificent library today, provide inspiration for the books chosen for discussion.  Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (1920) was the pick for January 2014.  The selection was particularly apt, as the Weekses purchased several Lewis works over the years, including the 1937 Limited Editions Club publication of Main Street illustrated by Grant Wood.

Following a rousing discussion of both Lewis’ and Wood’s work in Main Street, your correspondent wondered: how else did Wood’s life and work intersect with the story of the Weeks family?

What we found is pretty cool.

First, the Limited Editions Club (LEC) version of Main Street is itself a treasure.  Even if one picked up the book without noticing the Wood references on the cover and frontispiece, his familiar style is immediately apparent in the illustrations.  Wood’s signature appears in the book as well.

Wood Collage.3

This edition of Main Street, published in 1937, appeared at a time when Wood was increasingly well-known in the national art scene.  His first one-man exhibitions took place two years earlier, in Chicago during February and March of 1935, followed by his Feragil Gallery show in New York.

Prior to the opening of the Chicago exhibit, however, Wood attended a January 1935 lecture in Iowa City by fellow regional artist Thomas Hart Benton (R. Tripp Evans’ Grant Wood: A Life details both the visit and the interaction between the two artists).  The two men then traveled to Des Moines where they jointly addressed the Des Moines Women’s Club.

Wood spoke first, followed by Benton.   A Des Moines Register reporter covering the lecture remarked upon both men’s appearance.  “The soft speech of Wood clashes obviously with the vigorous and rough, though exact, words of Benton,” wrote Register journalist Gordon Gammack.  “The latter, as he did Saturday, is the kind of person who can turn abruptly to a lady who has interrupted him and say ‘damn it…’ without being impolite.”

It must have been an entertaining evening.

The Register also included a photograph of Benton, Wood, and the man whose hospitality they had both enjoyed earlier that afternoon: Carl Weeks.  A photograph (grainy and unfocused, sadly) of the three men accompanied the article.  Benton was seated, with Wood and Weeks flanking his right and left.

Wood THB Carl article_cropped

It’s not clear whether or not Woods and Weeks had met before January 1935. Thomas Hart Benton and Carl Weeks, though, knew each other.  One of Carl’s grandsons, Cooper Weeks – who himself lived in the same neighborhood as the Bentons in Kansas City and knew them well – remembered hearing his grandfather talk about Benton, and vice versa.  Cooper recalled that  Benton credited Carl with one of the first big sales of his career, a $500 purchase of an early Benton work that remains in Cooper’s family today.

As for Grant Wood and Carl Weeks, we do know that they kept in touch for a time.  Not long after this Des Moines rendezvous, Wood traveled to Chicago for the opening of his first significant one-man exhibition at Lakeside Press Galleries.  Our records indicate that Carl visited him in the Windy City.   Indeed, their meeting occurred in the midst of a critical moment in Wood’s life: his courtship of and marriage to Sara Sherman Maxon.

An onionskin copy of correspondence from Weeks to Woods, pictured below, was dated March 11, 1935.  Nine days earlier, as Evans’ biography recounts, “Wood’s neighbors read with astonishment that he was to be married that night in a small ceremony in Minneapolis.  The fact that Cedar Rapids’ “bachelor artist” had a secret fiancee was nearly as dumbfounding as the circumstances of the wedding itself – a ceremony conducted with little warning, far from home, and with no friends or family in attendance.”

Weeks’ letter also reflects the surprise commonly elicited by news of the marriage (though he includes none of the misgivings typical among many of Woods’ close friends upon hearing of the nuptials).

Marriage letter

To have been a fly on the wall when Carl Weeks “butt[ed] in on something” between Grant Wood and Sara Sherman Maxon!

Wood and Weeks remained friendly in the months following his marriage to Sara.  Another letter from Carl to Grant in May of 1935 suggests that the two planned, at some point, to meet again.

Carl to Grant

“Taliesin” almost certainly referred to Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous property in Wisconsin. Did Weeks and Wood ever visit Wright’s estate together?  Unfortunately, the answer to that question continues to elude us.  Still, the confluence in the lives of Carl Weeks and Grant Wood, occurring as it did in the spring and summer of 1935, provides a  window into a deeply consequential time in Wood’s life.

The union between Grant Wood and Sara Sherman Maxon was not destined for “great happiness,” as Carl wished for them.  Their fraught marriage ended in 1939.  Indeed, Wood famously enlisted his housekeeper as proxy to deliver his desire for a divorce to Sara.

Salisbury House’s Grant Wood-related objects have stories to tell, like so many of our museum’s treasures.  Our collections provide avenues for explorations of  Picasso, The Book of Mormon, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and many, many more.

Our next book club, which will be held in March, focuses on D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  Is there a connection, one may well wonder, between Salisbury House’s holdings and this master of twentieth-century letters?

Yes. D.H. Lawrence is coming to book club.

Willie Nelson and Sons at Salisbury House

Yes, you read that correctly. A couple of months ago, Salisbury House hosted a photo shoot with American music icon Willie Nelson and his family as they modeled the new fall line of fashion maven John Varvatos. Famed music photographer Danny Clinch directed the shoot, while the Salisbury House staff peeked respectfully around corners, enjoying the experience. Here’s a video from the full campaign, with thanks to everyone involved in the shoot. You’re helping us share Salisbury House with a whole new audience. We appreciate it.

Knocking Down History

The Salisbury House Foundation was founded in 1993 to preserve, interpret and share Salisbury House for the educational and cultural benefit of the public. Implicit in this mission is a role we have embraced since our inception as caretakers of the Weeks Family history: not just for Carl and Edith (who built the house in the 1920s), but for their forebears, their four sons and their later descendants. (Social media has proven an incredible asset in this latter regard, as we have connected with many Weeks grandchildren via our Facebook page). In 2012, we received a Historical Resource Development Grant from the State Historical Society of Iowa specifically to research and interpret Weeks family history, so we have spent much of the past year delving deep into local and remote archives to better tell the story of this remarkable family.

Of Carl and Edith’s four sons, only their third — Evert Deyet “Hud” Weeks — spent the majority of his life in Des Moines. Hud was born in 1912 and attended Hubbell Elementary and Roosevelt High School, where he was a state record breaking swimmer. He graduated from Wharton College at the University of Pennsylvania in 1934 and returned to Des Moines to help manage Carl’s business empire through the difficult days of the Depression. Hud served as a Naval Aviator in the South Pacific during World War II, then again returned to Des Moines and the family business, eventually becoming President of Weeks & Leo by 1954. Hud held this position until his retirement in 1986, at which point the business passed out the Weeks Family’s management and ownership.

nellieandhud

Nellie and Hud Weeks, 1938. (Photo courtesy Cooper Weeks).

Hud was an avid outdoorsman, pilot and speedboat racer. He married Ellen “Nellie” Cooper — the daughter of legendary speedboater Jack “Pop” Cooper and a record setting racer in her own right — in 1938, and the young couple moved into the gardener’s cottage at Salisbury House (now our Visitors Center and Gift Shop) by 1940. Around 1950, Carl and Edith Weeks subdivided their original Salisbury House property to produce a 2.5 acre lot at the western end, separated from the main house by a deep ravine, for Hud and his family (now including son Cooper and daughter Barbara) to build their own home, a task to which Hud applied his usual exuberance and creative elan.

The Hud Weeks home at 4111 Tonawanda Drive was a custom design that incorporated elements of two prefabricated Lustron Homes around a central atrium, with a large indoor swimming pool at its south end. Lustron Homes were viewed as an affordable and innovative solution to the post World War II housing crisis, and production of the distinctive porcelain enamel clad structures began in 1948 — then ended in 1950 when production problems and corruption scandals led to the dissolution of the company after about 2,700 homes had been manufactured and shipped. Only about 1,500 of them were still known to be standing by 2008.

Hud and Nellie lived in their double-wide Lustron Home on the knoll next to Salisbury House (visible from Hud’s boyhood bedroom) until 1988, when they sold 4111 Tonawanda Drive to the Muelhaupt family and retired to the Barbican Condominiums on Grand Avenue. The couple later relocated to Kansas City, Missouri, to be near their son, Cooper. Nellie passed away in 1995, and Hud followed her seven years later, the last of Carl and Edith’s surviving sons.

Fast forward to the present. Just before I became the Executive Director of the Salisbury House Foundation in April 2012, Chuck Muelhaupt — who had lived in Hud’s former home for 24 years at that point — passed away. Several months later, his widow put the house on the market.

Front view of 4111 Tonawanda Drive, showing the two Lustron Home elements (left and right) integrated into the custom home.

Front view of 4111 Tonawanda Drive, showing the two Lustron Home elements (left and right) integrated into the custom home.

In a perfect world of unlimited resources, Salisbury House Foundation would have snapped up 4111 Tonawanda Drive right away at that point, restoring Hud’s home and the land to our holdings, thereby improving our ability to preserve and tell the Weeks Family story. Of course, the reality is that we live in an imperfect world, and our financial position was (and remains) precarious to the point where we must strive mightily just to maintain the property we already own.

Despite a sympathetic donor making a very generous and gracious offer on our behalf, we simply did not have the financial wherewithal to acquire, refurbish, maintain and operate an additional house, garage, pool and 2.5 acres of land when time the opportunity presented itself to us. As Chief Executive of our corporation, I could not in good conscience recommend to our Board that we encumber ourselves with additional debt to acquire Hud’s home, as such a path could have quickly put Salisbury House itself at grave risk.

And, thus, the property was sold to a private developer in late 2012.

While we knew the developer planned to divide the 2.5 acre lot into two parcels, we were heartened when the plans he presented to the City’s Planning and Zoning Commission on January 3, 2013 noted that the existing single family dwelling would be retained, with only the pool house structure being demolished. The City approved the plans, and this gave us hope that we might, at some point in the future, still have the opportunity to acquire (most of) Hud’s home, and at least a part of his land.

Pool house at the south end of Hud and Nellie Weeks' former home.

Pool at the south end of Hud and Nellie Weeks’ home.

We watched over the ensuing weeks as a variety of contractors (including asbestos remediation crews) worked on Hud’s home, presumably preparing for the grading of the new lot and the demolition of the pool house. We saw nothing that caused us any alarm regarding our new neighbor and his intentions.

Yesterday morning, I had a doctor’s appointment, so I arrived at Salisbury House around 9:40, two and half hours later than my normal early bird tendencies get me here. Literally, as I opened my car door, I heard a tremendous smashing sound, and looked west . . . just in time to see a huge backhoe drive straight into Hud’s house with its arm swinging. The garage had already been knocked down at this point, and the Lustron and atrium portions of the house were flattened in less than 30 minutes, the prefabricated materials easily scattered by the power of the backhoe’s arm. Only the pool house remained.

Quick calls to the Des Moines Historical Society and to City offices revealed that the developer had filed a demolition permit that morning, and that the backhoe began its unfortunate work within minutes of the approval being received. Des Moines Historical Society volunteers arrived quickly, and were firmly asked to leave the property. We allowed them to document the demolition from our side of the ravine. At about 8:00 this morning, the backhoe went into action again, and we watched the pool house being flattened, leaving the top of the hill bare. By 8:20 AM, February 15, 2013, nothing remained standing from the home that Hud and Nellie Weeks had built next to Salisbury House.

Needless to say, we’re shocked and saddened by this turn of events. While the house had no formal standing as a historic property, and many Lustron buffs (often purists, like classic car collectors) would have dismissed it as a “modification,” rather than a true, collectible Lustron Home, it was an important part of the Salisbury House and Weeks Family stories, and it deserved a more noble end than it received. While we fully understand and accept that the developer fairly acquired an unprotected 60-year old residence on the open market after we were unable to do so, we were surprised at the rapidity with which his stated plans evolved, and the easy acquiescence he encountered from the City of Des Moines in the face of such changes.

While the end result may have been the same regardless of what Salisbury House Foundation, Des Moines Historical Society, Salisbury Oaks Neighborhood Association or any other aggrieved parties said or did — in private or in front of television cameras or reporters’ clipboards — our own historic mission would have been greatly served had we been at least given one last chance to photograph the property thoroughly before it was demolished. One hour of time, literally, would have made a difference in our ability to tell the full stories of Hud and Nellie Weeks and the Salisbury House property, and it’s tragic that we were not accorded that opportunity on behalf of our community, as an important piece of Des Moines’ history is now being hauled away in dumpsters, having not been property recorded for history’s sake.

In a nutshell, this is why historic preservation work is so important, and so deserving of your financial support. The Salisbury House Foundation was founded, explicitly, to counter present or future threats to the sanctity of the property and its collections, and to this day we work diligently to ensure that no other Weeks Family property ever leaves these grounds, or suffers from abuse, neglect, or lack of maintenance. Sadly, our mission did not include the acquisition and preservation of the land that Carl gifted to his third son, and the house that Hud built there, so when the limited time window opened for us to acquire it, we did not have the means to do so. Such are the challenges in the imperfect world of nonprofit public service.

But, still, even as we mourn the destruction of Hud and Nellie’s home, we feel that it is important to celebrate the lives that were lived there, happily, with great humor and warmth. We know from numerous sources that 4111 Tonawanda Drive was the site of many amazing parties, and many great family gatherings, and that Hud and Nellie and their children were important, beloved members of our community. And so we would love to hear from you if you have memories, photos or stories about Hud and Nellie’s time in their uniquely futurist home on the hill, so that we can record them for posterity’s sake, and share them with others who may also be mourning the destruction of this property.

You can either post your thoughts and memories in the comments below, or you can contact our Curator and Director of Education Leo Landis via e-mail here to share photos, stories, documents or anything else related to 4111 Tonawanda Drive or Salisbury House. Thank you for your ongoing support through this difficult development, and please take a look around your own neighborhood soon to assess whether there are historic preservation needs there requiring your attention and support!