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On their road to Mandalay: Historic mansion holds keys to couple's dream

Anelia K. Dimitrova - Sue and Alan Brase say they are ready to transform the famed mansion into a bed and breakfast and an events center. They are looking for investors who can embrace their vision.

Few people get a chance to breathe new life into history, but a Cedar Falls couple is determined to surmount all obstacles to accomplish just that.

For years, Sue and Alan Brase been restoring the one-time architectural landmark known as the Mandalay mansion, with the hopes of turning it into a bed and breakfast that would attract local and national travelers with its unique blend of character and history.

The entrepreneurial duo says Sue’s recent retirement is a welcome opportunity for them to devote their energies and talents to transforming the 22-room, three-story structure, which was ravaged by fire in 1977.

“It’s got a lot of character and an awe factor,” says Sue, formerly a production supervisor at John Deere who now subs as a rural mail carrier for the Cedar Falls Post Office. “It’s a wonderful place to live.”

Built in 1920 by Edgar Claude Litchfield, vice president of the family-owned, Waterloo-based manure spreader manufacturing company, the mansion elegantly showcased the wealth, taste and vision of the Litchfields.

Newspaper accounts from the 1960s say that Edgar intended the house as a gift to his wife, Gertrude Carney, a New Hampton beauty and his secretary whom he married on June 10, 1913. But the couple’s son, Lyman, later told the Brases that his mother was heavily involved in the planning of the family domicile on the 11-acre lot.

Perched on a bluff about 80 feet above the Cedar River and spread over 4,950 square feet on the main floor, the house commands a panoramic view of George Wyth Park and the northern edges of Black Hawk, Bremer and Butler counties.

Originally nestled in a forest, about 1,000 feet away from the Waterloo, Cedar Falls and North streetcar, which ran along Grand Boulevard, the home and the adjacent carriage house now sit on 2.2 acres at 1603 Park Drive next to Lookout Park in the midst of a vibrant neighborhood.

The Spanish Revival manor featured four fireplaces, and such advanced labor-saving devices as an intercom system, a dishwasher and a built-in vacuum system.

A player pipe organ added distinction to the home.

Its pipes were concealed in the basement, which also sported a full-length shooting gallery, a bowling alley, a walk-in safe and a gymnasium.

The master bedroom, son Lyman’s room and the two guest suites, all with sleeping porches, shared the second floor with the servants’ quarters.

The well-appointed guest rooms and a brightly decorated children’s room eloquently spoke of the family’s love for guests and kids.

But the idyllic times of tranquility came to an abrupt halt when Litchfield Manufacturing went out of business in 1928.

An early victim of the Great Depression, Edgar moved his family to Rock Island, Ill., where he worked as an assistant chief engineer for Rock Island Rock and Plow.

In 1932 the Litchfield Mansion took on a new identity. Its new owner, Arthur Ferguson, decided to take advantage of the home’s mystique and open the famed private home as a nightclub and inn.

He called it the Mandalay Inn, taking the name from the Burmese town immortalized by Rudyard Kipling’s, On the Road to Mandalay.

Inspired by the Bombay-born British poet, Ferguson even penned a nine-stanza pedestrian poem, lauding the “firm Bedford stone” buildings in the midst of “nature’s storehouse.”

“Fortunate are they who dwell there,

Passes swift the time away;

Future years they’ll oft’ remember

Days they spent at Mandalay.”

“Other places may be home-like,” the author boasted in the final stanza, “but they’re not like Mandalay.”

During the nightclub’s heyday, Waterloo's acclaimed entertainer Cliff Smith, who had made a name for himself playing theater organs during the silent movie era, fired up the crowd with his spirited performances. Cliff’s wife, Lee, was in charge of the wait staff.

When the nightclub closed in 1936, The Mandalay Inn was partitioned into 12 apartments, robbing the house of its open space.

On Dec. 7, 1977, a fire, which started in the basement, tore through the building. No one was hurt, but at least one of the occupants had to be rescued off the roof.

When the Brases bought the property in 1987, most of the roof and the attic had collapsed onto the second floor. Had it not been for the then-recent aerial pictures and Al’s imaginatively practical hands, the outcome might have been different.

Using highly enlarged copies of the photo, the original nine blueprints, whose edges had been licked by the flames but whose designs are still legible, a Stanley square, and a 1973 Modern Carpentry textbook written by one-time UNI industrial arts professor Willis Wagner, Alan was able to determine how the roof was framed and glean an insight into what lay ahead in terms of restoring the house.

The Brases used the original Des Moines Spanish tile they had salvaged from the debris to cover the front of the building.

They made many trips in their VW microbus, bringing home used Ludowici tile of the same vintage from a college in Oskaloosa.

The Brases consider themselves responsible custodians of the house’s legacy not just because of their respect for and interest in historic preservation, but also because, as luck would have it, Sue’s grandfather, Guy Edwards, was Litchfield's personal accountant.

Sue remembers many picnics in Lookout Park and her mother, Helen, often reminisced about how she herself played there as a child while “daddy went to see Mr. Litchfield.” Coincidentally, in 1934, Helen had her graduation breakfast at the Mandalay Inn.

The Brases say they bought the house because they were “na•ve to think” they could borrow money to fix it and because “you never get another chance like this.”

Unfortunately, they soon found out that the local economy was on the decline, affected mainly by the John Deere layoffs and the Rath Packing Co. closing.

As money and time have allowed, the Brases have tackled restoring the landmark home bit by bit.

They spent a lot of time demolishing the apartments before the architect’s original vision could be revealed.

The Brases say the house is not haunted and the oft-repeated story that Edward killed all family members before taking his own life when his business collapsed is untrue. Al says that what might have sparked the collective imagination to fabricate this story is the fact that Edward’s brother, Henry, committed suicide when the factory his father, Henry and grandfather, Lyman, founded in Webster City in 1879 went bankrupt.

In the first 10 years of their ownership, the house became the playground for adventure-seeking kids. Inspired by the movie Ghostbusters, neighborhood knights swallowed their fear and braved their way into the historic home, roaming up and down the fire-seared floors. On one occasion, a group of teens armed with knives and flashlights were so preoccupied by their valiant mission of ghost-chasing in the “haunted house” that they were totally oblivious to the arrival of the police, which Alan had called after seeing their car in the drive way. Not all sought the thrill of exploration inside. Some sneaked in to plunder, removing all the original crystal doorknobs and other valuable items from the premises.

On a recent visit to the Litchfield mansion, I hobble on my crutches nursing an injured knee, but I follow my hosts to every corner of the building we can get to. They are generous with their time and honest when they say that over the years they have not progressed as fast as they would have liked on the project, but in retirement, they can dedicate more time and make it happen.

After an hour and a half of peeking into rooms whose original purpose is buried under the dust of time and crowded by vintage furniture and walking up and down the creaking stairway which once glimmered with glory, I am convinced that it is challenging to heal the damage done to the original structure.

Wrapped in Iowa’s native Virginia creeper, whose leafy vines still serve as a natural cooler during the hot summers, the house is a mix of the debris of the past and the dream of the future.

It will take more than two determined history-lovers to transform the house into a high-end inn and events center where newly-weds yearn spend a honeymoon or business people seek relaxation.

The Brases have already started to deliver on their vision.

In the sunroom, where a bronze nymph with playful dimples holds a bouquet as quietly and as mysteriously as she first did when she was enthroned in the fountain, once filled with goldfish, the Brases have renovated the interior.

In the summer verandah next to it, Sue has displayed wine-red velvet curtains and valances made from old stage curtains from the Cedar Falls Woman’s Club. The room’s medieval look matches the stone walls, the fire place and the tile floors.

Patiently, the couple sandblasted the several layers of paint on the walls to reveal the dignified limestone underneath.

The two have already furnished Edgar Litchfield’s office.

"It was the only room in the house with a roof after the fire,” says Sue, “so we lived in that room during the summers when we worked on the roof.”

Upstairs, the couple’s apartment, decorated in Victorian style, gives the outsider a feel of what the bed and breakfast might look like.

It is perhaps appropriate for Sue and Al, who first met in fourth grade at Malcolm Price Lab School in 1960, to take on such a challenge. They have not shied away from hardship and have taken their share of risks. They honed their restoration skills while working on their first house, an 1881 antique, which had been condemned and needed complete revitalization.

When they couldn't find repo hardware, they scrounged through old hardware stores and antique shops for replacement parts. They even learned how to do the wooden shingle roof from an old roofer at Cedar Lumber in downtown Cedar Falls. They joined the National Trust for Historic Preservation, a national private organization chartered by Congress, and used their publications as well as specialty journals to beef up on restoration techniques.

They say they are wiser albeit not richer from restoring the 1900 Queen Anne at 418 Walnut St. in Waterloo and running it as The Daisy Wilson Inn Bed and Breakfast.

The city recognized their efforts with a historic preservation award.

"Mandalay is our ultimate project, and we are armed with years of experience and lots of blood, sweat and tears," Al says.

“We are looking for investors,” Sue adds, “the kind of investors that will embrace our vision.”