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AMERICAN GOTHIC
Story and photos by Susan Cohn

High on Adventure, May 2017

 

American Gothic house
Visitors pose in front of the American Gothic house in Eldon, Iowa. The nearby
American Gothic House Center lends aprons, overalls and pitchforks to the
thousands who come each year to pose as the figures in Grant Wood’s iconic painting.

A dour farmer, wearing overalls and a jacket and clutching a pitchfork, poses rigidly next to a pinch-faced, apron-clad woman who gazes sideways into the distance. Behind them is seen a modest white farmhouse whose second floor window has a pointed arch. Unlikely subjects for what is now one of the most recognized paintings in the world, but this tourist attraction is what Grant Wood’s American Gothic has become since he painted it in 1930 for a competition at the Art Institute of Chicago. The painting is now in the Institute’s permanent collection. The little farmhouse still stands in Eldon, Iowa, where Wood saw it (only once) during a brief stay. With its listing on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and its donation in 1991 to the State Historical Society of Iowa by its last private owner, the house is secure in its original location. Now, visitors come from all over the world travel to spend a little time in Eldon, to see the place that inspired Wood’s masterpiece, and to make themselves a little part of its story.

  American Gothic house clothes   American Gothic house pitchforks  
 
The American Gothic House Center maintains a rack of clothes for use by visitors who wish to get in character and put themselves "into the picture."

Pitchforks at the ready

 

 

GET IN THE SPIRIT AND PUT YOURSELF INTO THE PICTURE. Steps from the farmhouse is the American Gothic House Center, which contains displays about Grant Wood and the creation of the painting as well as a collection of the painting’s parodies. The Center generously provides various sizes of the apron, overalls, suit jackets, antique glasses and hayforks to encourage visitors to pose in front of the house and create their own American Gothic portrait. To help personalize the portrait, visitors can substitute an implement of their trade (in place of the hay fork held by the man) or a piece of their own jewelry (in place of the broach worn by the woman). American Gothic House Center Administrator Holly Berg said, “Most visitors are very excited at the opportunity to put themselves in the picture. Sometimes it takes a little coaxing to get a reluctant spouse or teenager involved, but once they don the costume they get in the spirit. It does amaze me the number of visitors that come prepared for their photos. One group of sisters came dressed in their father's iconic overalls as a tribute to him. Another couple as Batman and Robin and wrote in the guest book that they were from Gothic City (instead of Gotham). The stories, both touching and goofy, are endless! And though the parody photos are a fun experience, it is always interesting to see how many people notice something about the painting they didn't realize until they put themselves in it—such as the daughter's shoulder slightly behind the fathers, or her off to the side glance. It always ends up being a fun, but educational experience at the same time.”

  American Gothic house photos   American Gothic house plaques   American Gothic house t-shirt  
  Photos on a wall inside the American Gothic House Center show some of the thousands of visitors who have posed in front of the farmhouse.   Plaque memorializing the listing of the "American Gothic" House on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

T-shirt in gift shop.

 

 

AMERICAN GOTHIC HOUSE PARTICULARS. The American Gothic House is located at 300 American Gothic St. in Eldon, Iowa. Tours of the downstairs portion of the house are given the second Saturday of the month, April-October from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Due to the historic features of the house and grounds, accessibility for visitors with limited mobility can be challenging.The adjacent American Gothic House Center, “photo-op” area, and parking lot are all accessible. For more information, call 641-652-3352 or email TheAmericanGothicHouse@gmail.com. Admission to the Center is free. “American Gothic” by Thomas Hoving is an entertaining biography of the painting.

GRANT WOOD AROUND IOWA. Grant Wood (February 13, 1891 – February 12, 1942) is Iowa’s most famous artist. He was born on a farm near Anamosa but moved to Cedar Rapids when he was ten years old after the death of his father. From then on, Wood lived most of his life in Cedar Rapids or Iowa City, and died of cancer the day before his 51st birthday. In addition to the American Gothic House in Eldon, Iowa, sites connected with his life and works include the Grant Wood Gallery and Visitor Center in Anamosa; the Grant Wood Studio and Home in Cedar Rapids; Grant Wood’s House in Iowa City; and Riverside Cemetery in Anamosa. “Grant Wood’s Iowa” by Wende Elliott and William Balthazar Rose is a useful guide for those planning a tour.

American Gothic House
The "American Gothic" House in Eldon, Iowa. This modest building
inspired one of the most recognized paintings in the world.

AND REMEMBER: “I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa.” Grant Wood.

Susan Cohn is a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association, Bay Area Travel Writers, and the International Food, Wine & Travel Writers Association. She may be reached at susan@smdailyjournal.com. More of her stories may be found at http://ifwtwa.org/author/susan-cohn.

     

 
 
 
 
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