Grotto restoration continues on campus

Like a favorite room in your house, every campus has a special place. For Mount Mercy, that place is Our Lady of Sorrows Grotto, or simply, the grotto.

“An alum once told me that Mount Mercy’s grotto is the best kept secret in Cedar Rapids,” says Professor of Art Jane Gilmor, M.F.A., who has dedicated much of her career to documenting and restoring this unique site.

Since its dedication in 1941 when architect William Lightner completed his masterpiece — traveling all over the country to secure special tiles and stones — the grotto has been through several restorations, and along the way found its own special guardian angels.

What began as one man’s “obsessive odyssey” has since evolved into a collaborative endeavor to keep the grotto maintained and cherished. Over the years, Gilmor has worked with alumni, Sisters of Mercy, students and staff to help secure grants and curators willing to carefully and expertly document, restore, rebuild, clean and maintain the historic site.

Grants in 2001 and 2010 from the Smithsonian American Heritage Foundation and the Iowa Arts Council enabled Gilmor to secure experts such as the late conservationist Anton Rager, curator Lisa Stone from the School of Art Institute in Chicago and Don Howlett from Preservation Services. All came to campus as guest lecturers and restoration experts, cleaning the calcium deposits and the pond and assessing the site for future care and upkeep. Throughout the grotto’s history, the campus support has been amazing.

“I had to raise $10,000 to match a grant, and after appealing to alumni I ended up raising $50,000 in six weeks,” says Gilmor. “From nickels and dimes. That’s how much people love the grotto.”

Currently, Gilmore is working through 2012 on the recent Historic Preservation Grant from the Iowa Art Council, waiting to hear if Mount Mercy will receive a larger matching grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which would go for further work on the bridge and Ten Commandments column for 2012–13.

“People’s memories are associated with this place,” says Gilmor. “The grotto is an important historic and artistic site, and embodies the history of the institution in so many ways — for neighbors, the Sisters of Mercy, alumni and current students.

“We have a very important and beautiful visionary work of art on our campus — and in that way we are unique,” she says. “Many campus visitors mention it and remember it… we need to treasure and take care of it.”