IOWA CITY — Open the front gate at 1142 E. Court St. and you’re touching history. Follow the limestone path to the front door and you’re walking on history. Open the louvered outer front door and you’re opening the door to a most colorful history.
This is the house that pioneer Nicholas Oakes built in 1858 on 30 acres of prairie east of Iowa City, using the red clay bricks from his nearby factory. It’s also the house that Grant Wood rebuilt in 1935.
Since 1975, owner Jim Hayes has been restoring and preserving its legacy, not only for himself, but for untold generations of University of Iowa students, faculty and guests who will use it long after Hayes has either moved back into the property’s carriage house or otherwise finished his days there.
The stately two-story Italianate house was named to National Register of Historic Places in 1978 and deemed an Iowa City landmark in 1996. In 2002, Hayes stated his intention to bequeath the house to the university. With a gift of four additional houses directly behind it, his vision for a new Grant Wood Art Colony sprang to life in 2009. It’s a place where visiting artists can live and work, immersed in the history of the man whose “American Gothic” — created in another carriage house in Cedar Rapids in 1930 — is among the most recognized paintings in the world.
Grant would approve.
The house he loved so much is filled with art, people, parties, stimulating conversation and laughter, under the watchful eye of a dedicated steward. Just like in Wood’s day, when Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, Katharine Hepburn, Gertrude Stein and fellow Regionalist artists Thomas Hart Benton and John Steuart Curry would stop for a chat. A photo of Wood talking with poet Carl Sandburg relaxing over lunch hangs on one wall.
Many of those walls were covered with Masonite when Hayes acquired the property.
“(Wood) was the national spokesman for Masonite, and made the house a showpiece of Masonite,” Hayes said, noting the artist even made a routing tool to carve in grooves to make the pressed wood chip product look like wainscoting in several rooms, and tile in a bathroom, where still today, it stands up to the moisture of a shower.
It was a little too much Masonite for Hayes to handle, so after tearing off much wallpaper and repainting many walls from 1975 to 1982, in 1986, he tackled the Masonite, but kept remnants of it in the living room, dining room and a couple of the home’s 3 1/2 bathrooms.
While Hayes is not an artist, his artistic eye is apparent throughout the historic home’s 3,600 square feet, which he bought for “a modest fee” from Dr. Pauline Moore.
Today, paint colors in various neutral shades — as well as a pop of bright, bright blue in the first-floor billiards room — peek out from behind a stunning art collection: two Miros and a Pissarro in the dining room, Mauricio and Tomas Lasanskys upstairs, and a multitude of local and regional artists’ works throughout.
Everywhere you look, your gaze falls into beauty. And onto Grant Wood’s legacy.
“As I made it my house, I wanted to keep Grant Wood’s essence,” said Hayes, 77, a partner with the Hayes Lorenzen law firm in Iowa City. “He did so many things here — very, very important artistic things. In fact, he said through his sister, Nan, and she said to me, that Grant Wood always considered his restoration of 1142 one of his highest artistic achievements. He did that much here. ... But I wanted to get back to the original footprint.”
Wood had added walls to create an upstairs apartment for his mother. He also carved out a studio in the haymow above the carriage house, which Moore and her husband converted to the apartment Hayes eventually rented.
That’s where his story with the house begins. Fresh out of the UI law school, the Forest City native moved to Des Moines and worked for Gov. Harold Hughes, then made an unsuccessful bid for state attorney general. In 1972, he joined an Iowa City law firm and for three years, rented Wood’s former studio from Moore and her husband, Ed Miltner. The couple bought the house from Wood’s estate shortly after his death in 1942, and raised two children there.
After Miltner died in 1973, Moore wanted Hayes to buy the big house, but the young lawyer said no, that he had no money and too many bills. Two years later, Hayes won a high-profile personal injury case, which made the headlines. Moore marched into his office with a rolled up newspaper in hand, “whacked it” on his desk and told him now he could afford to buy the house. Two weeks later, she moved out and he moved in.
“I had about three sticks of furniture,” Hayes said with a laugh. “Little by little, I made it into my own place.”
He added a pool and whirlpool out back in 1979 and ’80, where Wood had intended to create a reflecting pool. Hayes uncovered a pencil sketch of the reflecting pool when removing the kitchen’s floor-to-ceiling Masonite wainscoting in 1993. To capture the backyard beauty year-round, Hayes added a conservatory off the kitchen in 1997. Flooded with sunlight and starlight, and painted with cheery yellow on the wood between the tall windows, it’s become his favorite room.
While Wood is best known for his paintings, he also was a master craftsman with wood and metal — and even created some door hinges out of Masonite. Every room retains his touch, but his artistic flair begins outdoors with the front gate and fence. He designed the latch for easy opening when his hands were full, and created the hand-cast acorn finials atop the fence in honor of the Oakes family. Limestone from his beloved Stone City, where he co-founded an art colony in 1932 and ’33, was used in pavers and low walls on the property.
One of the most gorgeous pieces indoors is the massive dining room table, where glass sits atop elegant scrollwork legs, retaining an open feeling to the room dripping in crystal elegance. Wood’s original 12-foot wooden tabletop, covered in Masonite, is stored in the basement.
Space did not go to waste. Built-in storage units abound, from a bookcase framing a living room wall to cabinets and shelving in almost every room, including a nook hidden behind a sliding piece of art upstairs.
Fireplaces had given way to iron stoves when Wood acquired the house. When he decided to reinstall a fireplace in the living room, he created a hammered copper hood that instantly adds warmth to the decor.
Wood created a bedroom on the first floor, which Hayes has turned into a billiards room, but the adjoining bathroom remains, complete with Wood’s Masonite faux tiles.
“His brain was going all the time,” Hayes said.
In addition to lithographs and other pieces created there during Wood’s final years, the most famous is “Parson Weems’ Fable,” dated 1939. The house even makes an appearance in this work showing George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, immortalized in author Mason Locke Weems’ tale.
Where was it painted?
“In my bedroom,” Hayes replied with pride.
A couple other stories have spun off that painting, now housed by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth, Texas.
Hayes, a wellspring of knowledge on Wood and his years at 1142 E. Court St., noted that Wood spoke back and forth with an Oakes granddaughter through their open windows during the months in which he painted the “Parson Weems” piece.
Even more enchanting is the tale of an 8-year-old Oakes boy who lived two doors down and played with Wood’s stepdaughter while the piece was in progress. Before heading downstairs for lunch, Wood admonished the children not to touch the paint, because it was still wet. The temptation was too much for little John Oakes, who is said to have swished his finger across the painting. Naturally, Wood was upset and kicked the kids out of the studio.
Hayes asked Oakes about that incident when he came back for a party celebrating the home’s 150th birthday. Then about 85, Oakes, who had been a state prosecutor in San Francisco, remembered it well.
“(Oakes) got up from his seat and came up to the microphone, and said, ‘That’s exactly how it happened, and I just want to add one thing. When Grant Wood took me by the ear and hauled me down the front steps, he kicked me in the (expletive) on the way out the door.’”
That’s just part of the charm of living in the house Wood fell in love with at first sight.
“It’s a place that’s easy to love,” Hayes said.
• House built at 1142 E. Court St., Iowa City, by brick and tile manufacturer Nicholas Oakes, who lived there until his death in 1905. His wife, Mary, died in 1907.
• Style: Italianate.
• Sold to son George Oakes’ wife, Fannie, shortly after Mary Oakes’ death; George was in failing health.
• Changes: Fannie Oakes had the front porch removed and rebuilt; removed all the shutters to make chicken coops; removed the railing from the front interior stairway and stored it in the carriage house loft; during the Depression, she created apartments and offered rooms for rent in the house.
• Sold to artist Grant Wood, shortly after he married Sara Sherman Maxon.
• Renovations: Removed front porch that Wood believed interfered with the classic lines of the house; returned walnut banister to front stairway; added walls to create apartment for his mother; reinstalled fireplace in first-floor living room; added many decorative touches out of wood, stone, metal and Masonite; removed back stairway; created studio in above carriage house.
• Sold to Dr. Pauline Moore and her husband, Ed Miltner, following Wood’s death.
• Renovations: In kitchen, replaced two arched windows with square-off windows and added drop ceiling; created apartment above carriage house.
• Sold to I.C. lawyer John Hayes
• Renovations: Removed added walls to restore home’s original footprint; added backyard pool, whirlpool; added conservatory overlooking backyard; removed kitchen’s drop ceiling and updated appliances; updated heating and cooling with three furnaces and air conditioners; ripped off drapes, wallpaper, much interior Masonite
• Designations: Named to National Register of Historic Places in 1978; named an Iowa City landmark in 1996
Sources: Jim Hayes and “1142” by Richard A. King