Thursday, April 18, 2019

Salisbury House and Gardens

The Salisbury House and Gardens (4025 Tonawanda Drive Des Moines, Iowa 50312) depends on volunteers for it's survival. A volunteer sat patiently at the entrance waiting to guide the next guests around the historic property as I sketched the Great Hall.

Only a few rooms on each floor are available to tour. The first floor rooms included the Great Hall, the Common Room and the Library. 

Unfortunately the museum’s historian and curator was let go in order to save money which means the preservation and care of the collection is in danger. She was let go shortly after questioning the management by the executive director to the board.  The historic home is not on a sustainable financial path. Nine people have been let go for lack of revenue or have quit because of an increasingly toxic environment. Today, the nonprofit has no curator, no volunteer coordinator, no full-time accountant and no marketing director, the former employees said. The historic home has had a long history of financial difficulties.

Carl Weeks, founded a multi million dollar cosmetics empire in Iowa. On a trip to Salisbury England Carl and his wife Edith found the Kings house which became the model for the new home they wanted to build in America.  Construction began in 1923 and took five years to complete. The cost was estimated at three million dollars. Art from around the world was collected by the couple. Most impressive was the library which contains 35,000 rare books.

The family moved into their new home just before the market crash of 1929. The house became too expensive to maintain. To survive they leased the home to Drake University with the stipulation that they could stay as tenants in the home until their youngest son graduated college. Eventually the home was purchased by the Iowa State Education Association for $200,000. The Weeks family moved into a much smaller home.

The Salisbury House Foundation was founded in 1993, to preserve and share the property for the cultural and educational benefit of the public. They began operating it as a historic house museum. Hopefully they are up to the task of preserving the home. But it seems there are bigger problems on the horizon due to mismanagement. Historic house museums have been closing and selling off collections around the country. The executive director admitted that the Salisbury is suffering financially. Revenue has dropped more than 40 percent in recent years, according to IRS records. It's serious enough that leaders are considering selling part of the home's vast collection. The increasingly skeletal staff seems unable to keep the place afloat. The home is struggling and depends on the generosity of supporters to sustain its existence. The future is very uncertain.

Prints are available for each sketch for $250 and many originals can be purchased for $400. White museum grade shadow box frames are $100 more. You can e-mail Thor at

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