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At home in a piece of history

Beth Howard stumbled onto the Iowa farmhouse depicted in Grant Wood's 1930 painting 'American Gothic' on a road trip after her husband died three years ago. It's now her home and a place of peace — despite the gawkers who flock to it.

April 30, 2012|By Alana Semuels, Los Angeles Times
  • Beth Howard pays $250-a-month rent to live in the house in Eldon, Iowa, that was featured in the 1930 painting "American Gothic." A clause in her lease requires her to be nice to the thousands of people a year who come to pose for photos in her front yard.
Beth Howard pays $250-a-month rent to live in the house in Eldon, Iowa, that… (Alana Semuels, Los Angeles…)

ELDON, Iowa — Beth Howard sits at her kitchen table on a Sunday morning and pulls back the curtain to peer at a group of rosy-cheeked youths taking pictures on her front lawn. They pair off to stand side by side in the pose familiar to millions — the dour farmer with a pitchfork, the unsmiling woman beside him in front of the white house.

No one notices the woman in flannel pajamas sitting inside.

"People seldom know that people live here, much less that there's someone watching them from the other side of the curtain," says Howard, who rents the house made famous in Grant Wood's painting "American Gothic."

Living in a tourist destination means shrugging when some of the 13,000 annual visitors catch her moisturizing in the nude or sitting on the toilet. The interior of the house is off-limits to visitors, but Howard's lease with the owner, the state historical society, includes a clause stating that she has to be nice to interlopers.

Those who peek inside see hardwood floors decorated with throw rugs, brightly colored couches and a collage depicting the Gothic house above the kitchen sink.

The house, which has appeared in countless parodies, including those featuring Klingons and Miss Piggy, has captivated Howard. She misses it when she's away and said that when she went to see Wood's painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, she wanted to jump into the painting and go home (a security guard had to ask her to step away from the artwork).

"You can smell the history," she said of her adopted home. "It's very soothing — I feel connected to my ancestors."

Howard says the house and its place in art history moved her to sit down and write a book about her life, "Making Piece: A Memoir of Love, Loss and Pie." The dwelling had inspired Grant Wood, just returned from making art in France and Italy, to paint a tribute to his native state.

The 700-square-foot house was built in 1881 and sold to Charles and Catherine Dibble, who lost it after failing to pay taxes. It is now creaky and old. Square nails poke out of the wooden floorboards, the paint is peeling and the stairway is so small it's a better fit for a child than an adult.

It was the big gothic window on the second story that struck Wood in 1930, when he was driving through Eldon with a friend. The intricate window, ordered from a Sears catalog, looked out of place in the modest house on the prairie. Wood immediately wanted to paint the plain house and its fancy frill.

"He saw it as humorous," said R. Tripp Evans, author of "Grant Wood: A Life." "It embodied everything that was both comical and endearing about Midwestern culture."

Wood asked his sister to stand in as the aproned woman with the hair pulled tightly back, save for a loose curl. His dentist posed as the farmer in overalls and a blazer. Wood finished the painting in a few weeks and then submitted it to a contest at the Art Institute of Chicago. Lore holds that judges passed over the canvas but that Wood found it discarded in a heap and persuaded the judges to award him third place.

Although some Iowans suspected Wood was mocking them, the artist said it was just the opposite. "I had to go to France to appreciate Iowa," he famously said. He soon became a leader in Regionalism, a school of American art that spurned cities as subjects and embraced realistic rural scenes.

For Howard, 49, embracing the Midwest has been a bit more of a challenge. Living in a century-old house miles from the nearest city is a new experience for Howard, who spent her 20s and 30s in the faster-paced world of the West Coast.

Last summer, a 6-foot-long bull snake crawled into the bathroom and draped itself over the doorknob. Howard ran and got her neighbors, Don and Shirley, Bob and Iola. The men took it out of the house, bashed in its head with a rake and then threw it in a tree. Howard also ran over a snapping turtle in her Mini Cooper, another occasion to summon the neighbors.

"It's always 'Bob, get your boots on. I need you!' " Howard said.

Tourists sometimes tramp into the house, ignoring the sign that says "Private residence. Please do not disturb." At night, they'll train their headlights on the house and pose for pictures.

Then again, the rent is just $250 a month.

"We've always looked for the right renter because of the historic nature," says Jerome Thompson of the Historical Society. "Someone who can stand a little bit of being in the public spotlight."

*

Howard grew up in Ottumwa, Iowa, just 20 miles from the "American Gothic" house, and couldn't get away from the Midwest fast enough. She left home to attend Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. After that, she worked as a publicist for TV shows, including "Beverly Hills 90210;" lived in Hawaii while working at a resort, and had enough money for exotic travel and adventure sports.

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