Throughout the '40s and '50s, businessmen from across the country drove for miles to meet with Iowa Manufacturing in Cedar Rapids, an industrial concern that very likely helped pave the roads they arrived on. Founded by businessmen Howard Hall and John Jay in 1923, the company produced rock crushers and road pavers used across the country and the world; their machines helped the Allies create routes through war-torn Europe and laid the basis of Eisenhower's interstate highway system. Important clients would often be invited to Hall's palatial mansion, known as Brucemore, for drinks and discussion; once it was time for drinks, even the most laid-back businessman might have been surprised by what they found in Hall's basement. Built in 1937, as soon as Hall moved in, the Grizzly Bar and Tahitian Room were Hall's playgrounds; he told his wife, Margaret, that she could decorate the rest of the house any way she wanted, as long as he could do what he pleased downstairs. The setting was, in a word, fantastical; tropical dioramas, a bear-skin rug, a linoleum map on the floor with maps of Pacific islands, even a roofing system that, with the flip of a switch, simulated rain. The pretend precipitation drained to the sides of the bar through troughs, but just the sound of a downpour added to the room's ability to transport you far away from Iowa. One of the earliest, private Polynesian-themed bars in the country, it reflected Hall's playful personality and made quite an impression. "They may not remember a lot about Cedar Rapids, but they'd remember about his basement," says Jessica Peel-Austin, the Manager of Interpretation and Collections at Brucemore.
And that, of course, was before you met Hall's pet lion.
The origins of Brucemore's basement bars began in 1937. In 1924, Hall married Margaret Douglas, whose family lived at Brucemore, a ten-acre estate built in the late 19th century boasting a 21-room Queen Anne-style mansion once called "the grandest house west of Chicago." The couple began married life on the grounds of the estate inside the Garden House, but moved in to the mansion after Margaret's mother passed away in 1937. Howard had actually started his bar building hobby at their first home; the Garden House contained a speakeasy-themed bar with paintings of flapper girls on the wall and a peephole on the door.
Those that knew Howard probably wouldn't be shocked that he'd spend a lot of time and effort building bars in his basement; he was outgoing and gregarious, rubbed elbows with the rich and famous, and had a work hard, play hard view of life. He also cultivated an array of colorful hobbies; the couple owned a film camera, and recorded hundreds of hours of footage (Howard even shot rare, behind-the-scenes film on the set of Gone With The Wind during a visit to Hollywood). Howard and Margaret were also animal lovers, so much so that they decided to purchase a lion from an animal handler in Los Angeles who worked for MGM Studios. While they had three lions throughout their lives, all named Leo, supposedly the first one was a descendant of the original roaring lion found in the studio's logo.
"On some of the video footage, you can see Howard playing with the lions like dogs," says Peel-Austin. "There's one where he's pulling its tail, roughhousing with the lion. When we talk to old neighbors about the Halls, the memory they bring up the most are of the lions."
Howard started with the Grizzly Bar, decorated like a classic backwoods lodge. He sourced the bar from one that had closed in downtown Cedar Rapids, and covered the walls in birch bark. The rustic space even boasted a roulette wheel.
Despite the creation of a proto-man cave, Howard's grand creation was the Tahitian Room. Built in 1938, it recreated an island escape (though at that time, according to Peel-Austin, the most tropical place he'd ever been to at that point was Florida). As the rain system suggests, he spared little expense; a mural of different tropical islands was painted on the floor by a local artist, dioramas were incorporated into the room decor with hula girls and "three-dimensional aspects," Magaret's seashell collection was on display, and a hibachi grill was even built into one wall (though there was no indication of any type of venting system). There aren't records indicating what kind of drinks were served in the Tahitian room, but the look suggest Hall may have been on the forefront of the Tiki trend, which started just a few years earlier on the West Coast at places such as Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles. These rooms were scenes of constant entertaining by the Halls for decades.
Ever since Brucemore was handed over to the National Historic trust in 1981, after Margaret's death (Howard has passed away in 1971), the bars have remained as they were during the Hall's lifetimes. The organization managing the home takes visitors through them on tours, showing off the fake rain and fantastic decor, but the closest anyone's gotten to drinking at the bars over the last few decades has been during annual fundraisers, which take place aboveground on the mansion lawn near the pool.
While the bars could be dismissed as the vanity projects of a rich industrialist, Hall realized the value of these rooms went beyond a place to have cocktails. On Sundays, he'd organize a gathering of local businessmen and civic leaders called "Sunday School," where members would socialize, discuss current events, and talk about projects and plans for the city. In fact, Hall truly utilized the bars for business. Perhaps his legacy of philanthropy, including funding medical centers and the Hall-Perrine Foundation, owes a small debt to discussion held over cocktails at the bar.
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