Loft apartment offered amenities like none other
By: Diane Fannon-Langton, The Gazette
The historic Grant Wood Studio, now part of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, is commonly known as 5 Turner Alley.
Wood lived there from 1924 to 1934, and it’s where he created many of his most famous paintings, including “American Gothic” in 1930.
The loft apartment was on the top floor of the barn — later called a carriage house — behind the Turner mortuary. A 1931 Gazette story described how Wood created a home like none other:
“At the top of the steps leading to the barn’s loft is a door where a clock is painted on the glass proclaiming Grant Wood (is) at home, out, eating, painting or taking a bath.
“The walls are rough creamy plaster with crannies here and there that snuggle Madonnas, the floor great planks riveted together with extending nail heads.
“There are radiators covered with hand-wrought iron — no, tin-cut, carved and burnished. There are doors lifted from some medieval cathedral — no, overalls pasted on wood and antiqued.
“There are no beds — yes, they shove in under the eaves. As do the clothes closets above them.
“And the accumulated canvases of the resident artist find a like hiding place on the other side of the room. The way the tables and cupboards and closets and beds slide out of sight in this studio is uncanny.
“It’s a room that’s unusual without being unique, artistic without being gaudy, lovely without being impractical, livable without being ordinary.
“Its stone fireplace — its ash room curtain that cuts off the west end … lends itself to amateur theatricals. Oh, one could bubble on endlessly about this studio without running dry.”
Wood lived there with his mother before moving to 1142 E. Court St. in Iowa City with his wife.
Plan to return
The history of 5 Turner Alley might have been different had Grant Wood lived longer.
His sister, Nan Wood Graham, said, “One of Grant’s last plans was to come home and paint. He said to me: ‘Things worked out best for me in the studio (in Cedar Rapids) where I lived, ate, slept and worked, all under one roof, and Mom did the cooking. Have my room ready and my easel set up. I’m coming home to paint.’”
Instead, Wood died Feb. 12, 1942, in Iowa City at age 50.
The future occupants of 5 Turner Alley were many and varied, but most seemed to have a connection to the Turners.
The first couple to occupy the space after Wood were Virginia Turner and Renald Evans, who were married in September 1935.
Before moving into 5 Turner Alley, which belonged to the bride’s parents, Mr. and Mrs. David Turner, they took turns living with both sets of parents and then spent six months in St. Louis.
In 1936, David Turner petitioned the Cedar Rapids City Council to make the address “No. 5 Turner Alley” official. He wanted to rent out the former Wood studio and needed a street address so he could insure the building.
The March 3 Gazette reported the city council “viewed with favor a proposal to have the alley from Eighth Street to 10th Street between First and Second avenues SE, on which the barn is located, officially named ‘Turner Alley.’ The proposal was referred to City Engineer F.E. Young.”
The Evanses lived at 5 Turner Alley for five years.
In 1941, 5 Turner Alley turned into a “bachelor’s heaven” for Robert Vernon, Robert Keehn and Phillip Renick. The trio composed a poem about their efforts to cook in the apartment:
When the sparks fly in the kitchen,
And the walls are black as coke;
When flames are leaping skyward
And the rooms are full of smoke …
Don’t call out the firemen,
No need for them to run;
Just a bachelor in the kitchen
Having himself some fun.
Toddler moves in
Mr. and Mrs. Carl Kirwin and their toddler son, Dick, moved into 5 Turner Alley in 1947.
Kirwin, home from serving 34 months as a lieutenant commander with the Navy in Corpus Christi, Texas, during World War II, was treasurer of the Turner Co., David Turner’s public address system company.
By 1952, Dorothy Hedberg was living there and climbing the stairs to the Wood-designed loft. Hedberg was an assistant at John B. Turner & Son for 18 years before she retired in 1963. She also was the mother-in-law of Marvin Selden, a Linn County supervisor and later state comptroller.
Twenty-nine Wood admirers from Chicago, members of the Prairie Club, toured the loft in June 1957. John Turner, son of David Turner (who died in 1954), acted as their guide.
Virginia and Renald Evans’ son, Timothy Turner Evans, and his wife, Lorna DeMott, lived at 5 Turner Alley after they married in April 1966. Evans graduated from the Cincinnati College of Mortuary Science and joined the John B. Turner & Son Co.
Mr. and Mrs. Gerbin D. Van Gelder moved out of No. 5 in October 1968. Van Gelder also worked for the funeral home.
A number of other people lived at 5 Turner Alley, including Theatre Cedar Rapids Associate Director David Carey from 1990 to 2002, before the 1,400-square-foot studio was restored and the three-car garage beneath it converted into a visitors center.
The studio opened for public tours Dec. 9, 2004.