Nestled in the Des Moines area known locally as “south of Grand”, sits Iowa’s Castle. Shaded by mature trees and overlooking a magnificent English garden, Salisbury House welcomes thousands of visitors each year for events and tours.
Modeled After a Royal Manor in Salisbury, England
Carl Weeks was a pioneer in the women’s cosmetics industry. His company, Armand Cosmetics, was one of the most successful beauty firms in the United States. It was the fortunes of his company that allowed he and his wife to travel extensively. It was during a 1921 trip to Salisbury, England that they saw The King’s House, which would become the model for the Des Moines, Iowa estate that was their home for almost 30 years.
Many of the building materials for the home, from the exterior flint from the White Cliffs of Dover to original Tudor ceilings, fireplaces, paneling and railings recycled from buildings around England. While the house was designed to evoke Merry Old England, it contained all the modern conveniences of an “American Country House”; they were just integrated into the design or hidden in special alcoves.
The Treasures of Salisbury House
While many hidden alcoves were sitting areas with private telephones, the alcove on the west wall of the common room houses a rare Welte-Mignon organ whose magnificent pipes reach through three stories of the house.
The Weeks were avid collectors. Edith was trained as a artist and had an eye for the beautiful, rare and extraordinary. The house is filled with furnishings, some dating back to Tudor and Jacobean times.
It is difficult to know where to focus your attention when touring the house. Walls are filled with rare paintings, woodwork is intricately carved, statues and vases stand upon tables that date back hundreds of years. More than 10,000 objects are cataloged in the eclectic collection. Rare letters and signatures, real shrunken heads, religious pieces from around the world, paintings… and thousands of books.
The Library is my favorite room of the house. The walls are lined with 2500 books- all very rare and many first editions. One corner holds over 60 Bibles- including a leaf from the original printing of the Gutenberg Bible.
The garage, which used to house the visitor’s center, has recently been restored and now displays information about the Armand Cosmetics Company as well as a vintage car.
If you can draw your eyes away from the car, look upward- the ceiling of the garage is made from the wooden crates used to ship art and furniture from Europe; printing is still visible if you look closely.
Visiting Salisbury House
Salisbury House is closed through the months of January and February for cleaning and restoration. March through December you can tour the house Tuesday through Sunday. Though self guided tours are available ($5 adult/ $2 children) I highly recommend a guided tour ($7 adult/ $3 youth), you will learn so much about the family, the history of the architecture and incredible collections. I recently took the new “Nooks and Crannies” tour ($12 adults/ $6 children) which opens doors that are otherwise closed, takes you through rooms that the public doesn’t see and even included the attic where thousands of items are stored, restored and cataloged. You can combine any tour with “Nooks and Crannies” for just a few dollars more to give you more time to wander through the house.
Salisbury House also hosts events designed to entertain, educate and raise funds for the ongoing restoration of the house. These events include Tea at the Castle for Mother’s Day, the Concours d’Elegance – a public exhibition of classic vehicles, Shakespeare on the Lawn during the summer, mystery events near Halloween and Christmas events – to name just a few. Of course a wedding at Salisbury House would be like a fairy tale.
You could spend hours in Salisbury House and not know all of its secrets; every time I return see or learn something new. If your budget doesn’t allow for a castle visit “across the pond”, Salisbury House is truly the next best thing.
Photos by JLHalsted.Jody Halsted shares her family’s travel tips
at Family Rambling. Salisbury House is a long-time, family favorite.
Disclosure: I would like to thank Salisbury House for providing the Nooks and Crannies Tour. All other visits (tours, tea, Christmas, Shakespeare) have been paid for by me.