American Gothic House - Later History and Current Status

Later History and Current Status

Decades after American Gothic was regarded as an American icon, the house continued to serve as a private residence, usually for rent, transferring ownership only once more from the Jones family to the Seldon Smith family at a "distress sale" in 1942. A grassroots movement to preserve the house was started as early as 1945 by Nan Wood, Grant Wood's sister and the female figure depicted in American Gothic. A visit in 1960 to the house (which was beginning to fall into disrepair) by Des Moines architect and historian William J. Wagner, A.I.A capped these early efforts. He was among the first to suggest preservation of the house as a historic site:

The visit to your American Gothic House was very interesting and enjoyable. I will probably seem a little too enthusiastic, but I do feel you have a 'First' in Eldon. It was the painting 'American Gothic' that made Grant Wood internationally known. Phil Strong wrote that Grant Wood was the first Iowa painter to bring fame to Iowa.

I feel it would be a mistake to move the home to another location. The greatest advantage for leaving the house as is, is the vacant piece of ground across the road. This offers you a place for parking autos and a picnic area, which is a good adjunct to a historic site.

Bill Wagner, letter to Robert Weidenbach, February 2, 1960.

In the early 1970s, a series of letters between Eldon businessmen and Carl E. Smith, the newly-inherited owner of the house, revealed differing opinions on continued use of the house: Smith wanted to renovate the house and protect it from vandalism only; the Eldon leaders were more in favor of making the house a historic site. The house was abandoned for much of the 1970s—a bullet was fired in an upstairs bedroom; weather and vandalism took their toll as well. Only in the late 1980s did the owner of the property consider turning the house over to the state. Indeed, many southern Iowans were conflicted on the issue—the owner wanted to keep the house only because he believed the current renters would have nowhere else to go if they were forced to leave.

After the home was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 (the result of an application by an Eldon farmer), the owner refurbished the house, installing an indoor bathroom and electricity and restoring the windows and wallpaper. Local politicians believed such work coupled with a new museum and education center could provide a major boost to local tourism—one state senator hoped for as many as 100,000 visitors per year. After the house's owner eventually turned over the property to the State Historical Society of Iowa in 1991, an effort was made to move the house to Living History Farms outside Des Moines, but Eldonians fought to keep it within their city limits. The house was renovated in 1992, with boosters hoping to see the house become a pop-culture tourism attraction, much like the Field of Dreams site in similarly rural Dyersville. However, tourism to the area remains much more modest; although no official tourism figures are maintained, around 18,000 guests signed the visitors center guestbook during the center's first two years of operation. A May 2012 estimate pegged the annual number of visitors at 13,000.

The State Historical Society of Iowa does not permit visitors inside the home, citing its small interior size and fragility. Visitors are encouraged to view the house from the outside and have their photo taken—in fact, the visitors center provides many sizes of similar aprons and jackets worn by the original painting's models. The adjacent American Gothic House Center, completed in 2007, contains exhibits about the painting, artist Grant Wood, and the community around the house. Each June, the city of Eldon holds its Gothic Days festival, a celebration of the painting and rural life in Eldon in the 1930s.

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