Buol Grotto to be saved by Kohler

Preservation Wins: Dubuque Yard Grotto to be Preserved
By Sarah Oltrogge

An eleventh-hour rescue to save a rare Dubuque “yard grotto” will ensure its future as a link to a larger regional tradition.

With a strong history for preserving grotto environments such as this, the Kohler Foundation, Inc., in Kohler, Wis., has stepped in and acquired the yard grotto created by Madeline Buol. The grotto will be moved to KFI’s conservation studio and restored before moving to its final location, yet to be determined.

Madeline Buol (1902-1986), built her grotto, a conglomeration of embellished concrete typically with a religious theme, in her back yard on Garfield Street in Dubuque in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The home, which remained in the family until recently, was sold to new owners who were not interested in keeping the grotto.

Lisa Stone, curator with the Roger Brown Study Collection (The School of the Art Institute of Chicago) and author of Sacred Spaces and Other Places: A Guide to the Grottos and Sculptural Environments of the Upper Midwest (1993), came across the Buol grotto while conducting research. Upon learning of its impending fate, she began reaching out to colleagues in the hopes someone would take an interest in saving the work.

“(My co-author) Jim Zanzi and I felt the Buol grotto was historically and aesthetically significant in its own right and therefore very deserving of preservation,” Stone said. “The grotto is somewhat, but not completely, unusual having been made by a woman. She developed an original style of surface embellishment and there are lovely details. But the structures were deteriorating and the site needed attention.”

The first three major grottos in the region – Grotto of the Redemption (West Bend; blt. 1912-1954), Dickeyville Grotto (Dickeyville, Wis.; blt. 1925-1931) and Rudolph Grotto (Rudolph, Wis.; blt. 1919-1983) – were all built by priests with some help from mostly male parishioners. Women were involved in some of the “spin off” grottos, such as the Paul and Matilda Wegner Grotto (Cataract, Wis.; blt. 1929-1942), and Mollie Jenson’s Art Exhibit (River Falls, Wis.; blt. 1938). It was easy to see why it should be preserved.

“We were made aware this existed through Jim Zanzi and Lisa Stone,” said Terri Yoho, executive director of the Kohler Foundation. “We knew immediately the work should be preserved. Several museums have been contacted regarding a final home for the collection and we are confident that we will be able to place the work for long term care. For now, the sculptures are being moved to Wisconsin for conservation treatment and documentation over the next few months.”

The main part of the Buol grotto is clearly a reference to Father Mathias Wernerus’ famed Dickeyville Grotto, about 15 miles away. Buol flanked her Grotto (ostensibly to the Blessed Virgin) with beautifully embellished renditions of the American and Papal flags, and shells arching over flanking side shrines with the words “Religion” and “Patriotism.” One of the striking aspects of the Dickeyville Grotto was the pairing of the American and Papal flags, which stated Catholics’ loyalty to the country as well as to the Vatican, which was especially important in the post-war years, and Buol picked up on this bold expression while flanking her grotto with wonderfully precarious, tall concrete rosaries.

“The Buol yard grotto is an example of highly original work,” Stone said. “Madeline Buol made a marvelous contribution to the genre, and her joy in translating her religious devotion into works of art is expressed clearly and with exuberance.”

The Kohler Foundation, Inc. supports education, arts and preservation initiatives in Wisconsin. Since the late 1970s, the preservation of folk architecture, art environments and collections by self-taught artists has been the major focus of the Foundation.

Top photo: Dated 1952, Madeline Buol appears next to her grotto for this photo which appeared in the Dubuque Telegraph-Herald. 

Bottom photo: Close of up Madeline Buol and her grotto shrine “Religion.”