Obsession can rear its head in unexpected places. Thus it was in 1929 for William Lightner, a Cedar Rapids, Iowa, contractor known for building staid banks, churches, and Warde Hall on the campus of Mount Mercy College. It was there that the former boxer, who converted to Catholicism when he married, asked the college’s nuns how best to give thanks for his newfound religion. They suggested a monument to the Virgin Mary, and, inspired by the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa, Lightner began work on his own version, the Grotto of the Lady of Our Sorrows. Twelve years later, the Mount Mercy sisters had to sue him to cease work on the ever-expanding structure. Lightner, who used more than 300 varieties of stones in the construction and spent more than $40,000 of his own money, had become so captivated with building the structure that he simply couldn’t stop.
When Jane Gilmor, an emeritus art professor, joined the Mount Mercy College faculty in 1974, she only learned about Lightner’s grotto from reading the college history. The structure was so neglected she had to hack through weedy vegetation to even find it. Though it had for years been a revered site of worship and contemplation, by the 1960s it was viewed as kitschy and the neighbors complained that its lagoon was a breeding ground for mosquitos. By the 1970s, unable to afford its upkeep, the college drained the lagoon and demolished a portion of the grotto to build student housing and a parking lot.
Grottos — sites associated with nature, religion, and reflection — have been around for centuries; famous grottos are found in Lourdes, France, and the Boboli Gardens in Florence, Italy. In the late 1800s, German transplant Father Paul Dobberstein kicked off a grotto building mania in the Midwest after promising the Virgin Mary that, if she would restore his health, he would build a grotto in her honor. In 1898, he began stockpiling rocks and precious stones for the structure. More than a decade later, the Grotto of the Redemption in West Bend, Iowa, started taking shape — it ultimately covered a city block and took 42 years to complete. From 1920 to 1930, Father Mathias Wernerus constructed a series of grottos in Dickeyville, Wisconsin, that honor religion and patriotism. Improved concrete construction techniques, honed during the building of massive grain elevators, made it possible for untrained enthusiasts to more easily construct these sturdy arches, columns, and bridges encrusted with semi-precious stones, shells, and marble.
These massive grottos and the visitors they drew didn’t go unnoticed, and small towns and religious orders wanted similar structures — Dobberstein alone designed and built six more grottos throughout Iowa. The structures also inspired backyard artists to try their hand at concrete work, and flowerpots, pergolas, fountains, and birdbaths soon sported rocks and shells: a few of these structures, usually in disrepair, can still be found in Midwestern parks and backyards.
At Mount Mercy College, Gilmor made it her mission to remind the college and community that the Grotto was not just a work of art, but a touchstone in its academic history. There was a time when nuns prayed at the grotto, students used the site for interpretive dancing á la Isadora Duncan and for amorous rendezvous, and 700 sightseers would stop by on a Sunday afternoon to marvel at the Grotto and buy ice cream cones from the sisters. In 2001, with the help of an NEA grant and countless volunteers, portions of the structure were renovated, vegetation similar to the original landscaping was replanted, and a small pond restored.
Though Gilmore retired this year, she’s staying on to help with a preservation plan and further renovation. Her quest to preserve Lightner’s grotto has been aided by an increased appreciation for outsider art in the mainstream art world. She notes that these Midwestern grotto makers were clearly obsessed with projects that might have seemed odd to many — Dobberstein brought in 100 train-carloads of geologic specimens from myriad locales to cover his structure, while Lightner personally traveled more than 40,000 miles throughout the U.S. and Mexico searching for construction materials to adorn the Grotto of the Lady of Our Sorrows and shipped in hand-cut glass tiles and a Carrera marble Virgin Mary from Italy — a significant purchase during the Depression years.
“At that time, in order to do something like this, you had to tie yourself to religion,” Gilmore says. “In some places you might have been able to get away with something like it [she cites Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles as one example], but in Iowa and Wisconsin you would have been seen as too odd if what you were doing didn’t glorify God.” Though their outward motivations were religious, Gilmore thinks these visionaries had less in common with priests and congregants than with artists.
“These people were so genuine,” she says. “They were not trained, but like artists, they weren’t afraid to go against the grain. They were inspired not by money, but by a vision.”