The American Gothic House: A Visit to the Second Most Famous House in America

Nestled amidst the sprawling farmlands of Iowa, you’ll find one of the nation’s – and many argue, the world’s – most celebrated abodes. Dubbed the American Gothic House, its fame arises from its role in an iconic painting that emerged during the Great Depression.

If your travels take you to Iowa, this destination deserves your attention, and the best part is, it won’t demand a significant chunk of your time – except, of course, for the potential hours you might spend driving to reach it.

In this article, I’ll provide you with all the essential information you need before setting foot in this historic locale.

What is the American Gothic House?

The American Gothic House, located in Eldon, Iowa, stands as one of the world’s most renowned residences. It is known for its appearance in the iconic painting “American Gothic” by Grant Wood, often hailed as the most famous American painting.

The artwork’s parodies have reached a scale that rivals even the famed Mona Lisa, showcasing the breadth of its cultural impact across many generations.

Today, there’s a visitor center and museum located just next to the house where you can learn more about the history of the painting, the artist Grant Wood, and the cultural significance of the American Gothic House.

Additionally, you’ll have the opportunity to view original Grant Wood artwork and other exhibits that will offer you a deeper understanding of the entire story behind “American Gothic.”

The original portion of the house that contains the two gothic windows was built in 1881 to 1882 by Catherine and Charles Dibble. No one is exactly sure why this oversized, Gothic window was added to the house but some speculated it may have been just to add some beauty to their every day life.

It’s said that while taking a drive in the area, Grant Wood spotted the house and was fascinated by its appearance with its large seemingly out of place Gothic window.

At that point, he decided to study it closer and after sketching it out he decided to paint a portrait of who he imagined would live in a house like that. But he still needed subjects.

So Wood chose his dentist, Dr. Byron McKeeby, and sister, Nan Wood Graham, as his subjects. He attempted to tweak their features slightly to reduce their recognizability, though the dentist is pretty recognizable.

Interestingly, the subjects were never actually positioned before the house together, nor did they pose together. Wood ingeniously melded their individual images with the house, alongside a series of other creative decisions.

The renowned painting ended up garnering the prestigious bronze medal from the Art Institute of Chicago’s annual exhibition in 1930, along with a $300 prize. This recognition propelled its acquisition by the Institute and secured its place as an enduring masterpiece in their collection.

Many people from the Midwest initially didn’t receive the artwork very well and saw the painting as a negative portrayal of rural life that was too grim and unflattering.

Over time, however, attitudes toward “American Gothic” evolved. As the painting gained recognition and became an iconic piece of American art, its themes of hard work, resilience, and the enduring spirit of everyday people resonated with a wider audience.

The painting’s value as a cultural representation and its artistic significance also helped change perceptions. Today, “American Gothic” is celebrated as a quintessential American artwork and a symbol of American rural life.

As for the house, it also rose in popularity, eventually becoming listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974 and acquired by the State Historical Society of lowa in 1991.

There’s a lot more interesting history to uncover but I’ll leave the rest up to you to discover, hopefully with a visit to the American Gothic House.

American Gothic House

Where is the American Gothic House?

The American Gothic House is located in Eldon, Iowa, and it can be found at: 300 American Gothic Street, Eldon, IA 52554.

Right next to the house is the the American Gothic House Center which was built in 2007 and is home to the museum. I would highly recommend that when you visit you allocate some time to check out the visitor center and gift shop.

Note that there is an admission fee of $5 per person aged 13 and over and this includes the gallery, media room, use of costumes, and restroom facilities. The house and the gift shop are free to visit.

American Gothic House

American Gothic House experience

We were fortunate enough to visit when they were having the open house and offering tours of the interior. So we started off our time at the American Gothic House by going inside!

If an interior tour is what you’re aiming for, keep in mind that the American Gothic House opens its doors to the general public solely on the second Saturday of each month from April to October, running from 11 am to 2 pm.

This schedule is contingent upon volunteer availability but admission is completely free, and you won’t need any tickets or reservations.

American Gothic House

It was a genuine privilege to explore the hallowed halls of this historic residence, and I was surprised to find how well-preserved it was on the inside.

American Gothic House

Upon entering, we encountered volunteers whose knowledge about the house was truly impressive.

Come with all of the questions you can think of and you’ll have them answered along with some other interesting information. Ranging from the historical background of the house to the intricacies associated with the painting, your time inside promises to be a highly informative experience.

American Gothic House

You will be able to stroll around a little bit and check out the various rooms. One of the highlights definitely lies in the bathroom, where you’ll find one of the most intriguing features – a bathtub that ranks among the smallest I’ve ever encountered!

American Gothic House

Usually, access to the upstairs is restricted due to the challenging staircase and limited space. However, thanks to some special permission, we managed to get a glimpse of the second floor. Here’s a sneak peek into what it holds.

American Gothic House

Following an exploration of both the painting and the house, we proceeded to the museum.

American Gothic House

Inside, you’ll find a lot of exhibits that will shed even more light on all things related to the American Gothic House and Grant Wood.

These exhibits will help you in deconstructing the renowned painting into distinct elements that you might have overlooked with a cursory glance.

Through them, you’ll gain an understanding of the various components and repeating shapes and patterns embedded in the artwork. Additionally, you’ll delve into insights about Wood’s intentions behind the painting, a topic that has sparked debates for decades.

American Gothic House

Among the highlights of the museum is original artwork by Grant Wood, a captivating addition from the Michael Zahs collection. While the American Gothic painting might be the sole piece by Grant Wood you’re acquainted with, this is your opportunity to encounter a multitude of his works.

Additionally, the museum features exhibits that delve into the extensive array of parodies that have sprung from this artwork. Learn how this painting has inspired parodies ranging from classic films to political and social movements, showcasing its enduring impact on popular culture.

After exploring the museum, it was time for us to capture some iconic photos in front of the house. Fortunately, there are numerous opportunities to strike great poses and create memorable photo moments.

If you’re aiming to elevate your photos to the next level, consider renting a costume from the museum. To do so, present your driver’s license at the front desk for verification and inquire about available options.

With the rented attire, you’ll have the opportunity to don a costume reminiscent of the original subjects in the painting, whether you want to resemble the father or daughter.

American Gothic House costumes

If the idea of adding extra layers in the heat doesn’t sound appealing, you can follow our lead and simply go for the pitchfork option.

Once you are in the area in front of the house there’s an engraved Gothic window on the ground that will show you where to step for the best shot. Stand right on the tip of the window and that will put you where you need to be.

American Gothic House
American Gothic House

If you’re visiting while volunteers are out and about they can help take your photo for you. Otherwise there is a nifty little “selfie stand” that you can use to put your camera on a timer and then snap a photo yourself.

American Gothic House

Final word

Most likely, this attraction will be a few hours out of the way which may make you wonder whether or not it’s worth the additional driving time. In our case, it added a couple of hours to our original plans on our way to Wisconsin.

But in my opinion, it was well worth the extra time. It’s just such an iconic painting and being able to see the original source of inspiration and getting the privilege of going inside was an extremely memorable experience. If you can time your visit with one of the Saturdays that they do the open house, I’d highly recommend doing so!