The land around where the Raccoon River flows into the Des Moines River has lured human settlement to its banks for some 7,000 years. There is archeological evidence of at least three American Indian villages having existed where downtown Des Moines stands today. it was the removal of those Indians by the United States government that spurred the development of the town in the 1840s. After the Sauk and Meskwaki Indians had been displaced to this area from their ancestral lands in eastern Iowa the U.S. Army was dispatched to the confluence of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers to construct a fort from which it could control the Indian tribes.
The fort was completed in 1843 and named after the Des Moines River which translates from the French to “from the monks,” for the Trappist monks who once spent time here. Or maybe not. Whatever the derivation of the name, Fort Des Moines was short-lived. By 1846 the Indians had officially been removed and the area was thrown open to American settlement. The town was chosen as the seat of Polk County, the word “Fort” was dropped after the city charter was drawn up in the 1850s and Des Moines assumed its role as state capital in 1858. So within about a decade of its founding the course for Des Moines was pretty well set for the next 150 years and on.
Unlike towns that boomed with mineral wealth or the coming of the railroads, Des Moines expanded at a fairly normal rate with a little bit of this and a little bit of that to move the economy forward. There was the rivers for distribution of goods, there was the government, there was mining in ancient bituminous coal beds outside of town, there was processing of crops from the surrounding farmland, there was industry in the manufacture of fur and leather goods and clay and cement and there were professional jobs in insurance and publishing. A balance that befits its location near the center of the country.
Similarly the streetscape of Des Moines has evolved with no earthshaking upheavals. Buildings have been lost but there have been no mass demolitions through a swath of downtown like an Omaha initiated, for instance. We will still encounter souvenirs from the 19th century as we explore the town, as well as historic skyscrapers from the early age of high-rises. The city adopted the Des Moines Plan in 1907 as part of a countrywide push to beautify American cities and re-invented the waterfront with parks, ornamental fountains, a river wall topped with a balustrade and classically flavored government buildings. And that is where we will start our walking tour, on the oldest bridge in the city spanning the Des Moines River...
BEGIN THE TOUR ON THE LOCUST STREET BRIDGE FROM WHICH YOU CAN LOOK UP THE HILL TO THE EAST AND SEE THE...
Iowa State Capitol
East 12th Street between Grand Avenue and Walnut Street
The General Assembly made due for about 30 years in a temporary Capitol building while this multi-domed, Renaissance Revival extravaganza was being planned and constructed. With plans in hand from Chicago architects John C. Cochrane and Alfred H. Piquenard, the cornerstone was laid on November 23, 1871 - and re-laid two years later after it deteriorated. When completed in 1886 the Capitol came in with a final price tag of of $2,873,294.59, about twice what was budgeted. The finial surmounting the central dome, constructed of iron and brick and layered in 23-karat gold leaf, reaches 275 feet into the sky and would be Iowa’s tallest building for 40 years.
LOOKING AT THE EAST BANK OF THE DES MOINES RIVER, THE SIDE WITH THE CAPITOL, THE BUILDING ON THE NORTH SIDE OF THE BRIDGE (YOUR LEFT) IS...
northwest corner of East 1st and Locust streets
In the first decades of the 20th century American governments were gripped by the City Beautiful Movement that emphasized monumental civic buildings wrapped in classical Greek and Roman influences. Des Moines got its government temple on New Year’s Day 1912, from the pens of Willis Thomas Proudfoot and George Washington Bird, the town’s most influential architects of the early 1900s. In preparation for the arrival of the new City Hall a new bridge was opened across the Des Moines River at Locust Street in 1909 and the streets were raised four feet to minimize flooding. The bricks on the symmetrical, well-proportioned structure are sheathed in granite down low and with Bedford limestone quarried in Indiana above.
TURN AND WALK ACROSS LOCUST STREET BRIDGE, THE OLDEST OF THE SIX CURRENT BRIDGES ACROSS THE DES MOINES RIVER, TO THE WEST BANK. AT 2ND STREET, TURN LEFT.
Des Moines Public Library
2nd Street between Locust and Walnut streets
The first books were lent in town in 1866 from the basement of the Methodist church through the good works of the Des Moines Library Association. The city assumed responsibility for the collection in 1882 and constructed this library building in 1903 which served the community for the rest of the century. Des Moines architects Oliver O.Smith and Frank A. Gutterson, who churned out several public buildings of this sort in a brief partnership that ended with Gutterson’s death at the age of 29 in 1901, provided the exuberant Beaux Arts design that was fashioned in salmon pink Minnesota limestone. The collection moved in 2006 and the building was purchased to house the Norman E. Borlaug World Food Prize Hall of Laureates for the award that recognizes contributions to the advancement of world food supply. Norman Borlaug was a Cresco, Iowa native and agronomist whose research into high-yield wheat crops is credited with saving over a billion people from starvation. Borlaug, who died in 2009 at the age of 95, is one of only six people to have won the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
United States Post Office
southeast corner of 2nd and Walnut streets
The federal government chipped into the City Beautiful Movement in Des Moines with half-a-million dollars for this post office in 1910 which is a stylistic twin of City Hall across the Des Moines River. The Neoclassical design, executed with limestone on a granite base, came from the office of James Knox, Supervising Architect of the United States Treasury Department. The post office moved into more modern digs in 1971 and the space was renovated for Polk County offices.
TURN RIGHT ON WALNUT STREET. TURN RIGHT ON 3RD STREET.
303 Locust Street at northwest corner of 3rd Street
This Romanesque-flavored commercial building from 1893, enhance with decorative brickwork, was one of the town’s early success stories in its efforts at preservation in the late 20th century.
TURN LEFT ON LOCUST STREET.
401 Locust Street at northwest corner of 4th Street
This is the third Savery Hotel, a Georgian Revival tour-de-force that introduced the high-rise hotel to Des Moines when it was raised in 1919. James Savery arrived in Des Moines in 1854 from Massachusetts with a new bride and an eye for real estate. He bought a log hotel which his wife Annie, who would become an early advocate of women’s rights and the second woman admitted to the Iowa Bar, managed while the Savery land holdings grew. In 1865 the first Savery Hotel was built but financial reversals sent the family back to New York. Flush again by 1888, the Saverys returned to Des Moines and opened a grander six-story Victorian brick hotel on this corner. It was torn down to make way for this 12-story, 300-room hotel where each guest could enjoy a private bathroom - the height of luxury in its day.
Des Moines Building
405 Sixth Avenue at northeast corner of Locust Street
This Art Deco tower is another product of the Willis Proudfoot architectural tree when his firm was operating as Proudfoot, Rawson, Souers and Thomas. Rising to 190 feet and topped off in 1931, the tower steps back on its upper stories. For over a half-century this was the location of the Executive Forum barber shop where presidential hopefuls on the campaign trail would come for a hair-cut and straight-razor shave with a cameraman at the ready. The Des Moines Building has fallen on hard times of late and is vacant with an uncertain future.
604 Locust Street at southwest corner of 6th Avenue
The team of Proudfoot, Bird, and Rawson completed this building as the tallest in Iowa in 1924 and the 318-foot office tower remained the state Sky King for almost 50 years. Crafted in an ornate Neo-Gothic style, the Equitable Building was the last of a breed; skyscrapers began to adopt a modern look like the Des Moines Building across the intersection, designed by the same firm, in just a few years. Equitable of Iowa, incorporated in 1867 as the first insurance company west of the Mississippi River, remained here until 1997.
TURN RIGHT ON 6TH AVENUE.
418 6th Avenue at southwest corner of Grand Avenue
The 12-story Liberty Building was raised in 1923. It is best known as the place where WHO-AM, 1040 radio began transmitting from the top floor on April 11, 1924. It became a 50,000-watt clear channel radio station that could be heard in most corners of the United States at night and throughout Iowa and parts of surrounding states during the day. In 1932 a young announcer named Ronald Reagan was hired at WHO as a sportscaster. One of his jobs was to re-create Chicago Cubs baseball games from wire reports. He worked in Des Moinse for four years, convincing management to allow him to go to California for Cubs’ spring training one year and the rest, as they say, is history.
St. Ambrose Cathedral
607 High Street at northwest corner of 6th Avenue
The first Catholic services in town were held in 1851 as a part of the Diocese of Dubuque. Five years later the first St. Ambrose church, a 24 foot by 40 foot meetinghouse, was raised. This Romanesque-styled church constructed on high-quality Bedford limestone came along in 1891. Irish-born James J. Egan, a Chicago architect kept busy by the Catholic church, was the designer. When Pope St. Pius X established the Diocese of Des Moines in 1911, St. Ambrose was designated as the cathedral.
TURN LEFT ON HIGH STREET. LOOK TO YOUR LEFT AS YOU HEAD TOWARDS 7TH STREET TO SEE THE BROWN BOX SKYSCRAPER THAT IS...
666 Grand Avenue at southeast corner of 7th Avenue
Built by Ruan Transportation in 1975, this 40-foot tower spent 16 years as Iowa’s tallest building before being knocked to its current runner-up slot among the state’s titans. It is dressed in distinctive COR-TEN steel that eliminates the need for painting by developing a protective coating of rust as it ages.
Bankers Life Home Office/Principal Financial Group Complex
711 High Street at northwest corner of 7th Street
When this Art Deco office building was unveiled in 1940 Architectural Record magazine gushed that it was the “Building of the Decade” and “the 8th wonder of the world” and devoted an entire issue to the handiwork of Des Moines architects Leland McBroom, Vernon Tinsley and Burdette Higgins. The eight-story building rests on a base of swirling Morton Gneiss, considered the oldest rock on the planet. Quarried in Minnesota, many refer to the “rainbow granite” as our most beautiful building stone.
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
815 High Street at northeast corner of 9th Street
The St. Paul’s congregation formed with ten communicants inside on October 15, 1854. A brick-and-frame meetinghouse was raised in 1857 and work began on this Gothic Revival church in 1870 on plans drawn by William Foster and Henry F. Liebbe. The building was completed in 1885 and boasted a wooden steeple that was destroyed in a storm in the 1930s. It has since been replaced with a steel core steeple.
925 High Street at northwest corner of 9th Street
The first telephone systems in Iowa were organized only in towns. Around 1900 farmers began stringing lines among themselves and operated their own telephone systems, powered by small generators. In 1921 Northwestern Bell was organized to bring together the many telephone services operating in Iowa, Nebraska, Minnesota and the Dakotas. About that time America’s telephone companies were beginning to build brawny operation centers to handle the explosion of new phone service. Often they favored the dynamic, clean lines of the Art Deco style, such as this 10-story headquarters from 1928.
TURN LEFT ON 9TH STREET.
Principal Building/801 Grand
801 Grand Avenue between 8th and 9th streets
Iowa’s tallest building, created for the Principal Financial Group, began its rule of the Des Moines skyline in 1991. It contains 45 floors and reaches 630 feet from the curb to the top of its pyramidal copper roof.
TURN RIGHT ON LOCUST STREET.
Masonic Temple/TheTemple for Performing Arts
1011 Locust Street at northwest corner of 10th Street
In more than 40 years that spanned the Victorian Age to the Art Deco era, the architectural firm of Willis Thomas Proudfoot, George Washington Bird and Harry Dustan Rawson did more than any other to shape the streetscape of Iowa. Their output included over 100 commercial structures, some 200 residences, at least 30 apartment buildings, scores of schools and collegiate buildings and many civic projects, including five courthouses. Proudfoot, Bird & Rawson tapped the Georgian Revival style for this elaborate Grand Lodge in 1911 for the world’s oldest fraternal organization, the Masons. Lodge activities took place upstairs, including two ballrooms, and there was office space on the first floor. A Maxwell automobile dealership was an early tenant and the Des Moines Water Works were headquartered here from 1917 until 1987. The regal building nimbly dodged the wrecking ball and has survived to celebrate its centennial as a performance center.
TURN LEFT ON 10TH STREET.
Hotel Fort Des Moines
1000 Walnut Street at southwest corner of 10th Street
In the early decades of the 20th century mid-sized towns all clamored for a first-rate hotel that would confer “big-city” status from the new class of traveling businessmen. Often the town’s business community would pool its resources to shepherd the project to completion. Such was the case with the Hotel Fort Des Moines. The leading moneymen were E.T. Meredith of the Meredith Corporation and soon to be United States Secretary of Agriculture, Frederick C. Hubbell of the Equitable of Iowa Companies and Norman M. Wilchinski, head of Younker Brothers Department Store. The go-to architectural firm of Proudfoot, Bird & Rawson designed the Neoclassical, U-shaped hotel that immediately became the place where powerbrokers, captains of industry and celebrities signed the guest register. Actress Mae West and aviator Charles Lindbergh stayed here and so did Presidents Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, John Kennedy and more.
Clemens Automobile Company Building
200 10th Street at northwest corner of Mulberry Street
Philadelphia-born Ashton Clemens came to Omaha when he was 22 in 1859 where he became a prominent cattle man. His sons Ross and Ashton wound up in Iowa running the Des Moines Cabinet Company. In 1917 the brothers got involved in Iowa’s booming automobile industry (the state was said to have more horseless carriages per capita than any other state at the time) when they constructed this six-story brick building to make wooden auto bodies for Duesenberg and Mason Car Company. When the go-go early days of the car craze ended Standard Glass and Paint moved in and stayed until 1979.
Herring Motor Car Company Building
110 West 10th Street
Clyde LaVerne Herring was born and raised in Michigan and moved to Detroit to become a jewelry clerk when he 18 in 1897. The story goes that Herring met Henry Ford when he fixed the automaker’s watch hand in 1910 Herring found himself in Des Moines as the Ford agent for Iowa. With a $50,000 budget he commissioned this four-story building (two more were tacked on within two years) in 1912. Busy Des Moines architects Willis Thomas Proudfoot, George Washington Bird and Harry Dustan Rawson delivered a Neoclassical design executed in dark brick. The Iowa assembling plant of the Ford Company was soon Henry Ford’s busiest producer, cranking out 32 cars a day. After World War I Herring traded in the car business for Democratic politics and served two terms as Iowa governor and one as United States Senator.
National Biscuit Company Building
1001 Cherry Street at northwest corner of 10th Street
The coming of the railroads and refrigerated box cars in the late 19th century led to the nationalization of consumer food products. In 1898 the National Biscuit Company came into being from the merger of three regional bakers and soon had control of 114 small bakeries across the country. Nabisco, as the company would be familiarly known, constructed this manufacturing facility of brick and heavy timbers in 1906. A century later, in 1995 the building was converted into 54 apartments that are now known as National Biscuit Company Flats.
TURN LEFT ON CHERRY STREET. TURN LEFT ON 9TH STREET. WALK UP PAST THE RAMP ACROSS MULBERRY STREET TO WALNUT STREET.
904 Walnut Street at southwest corner of 9th Street
Frederick Marion Hubbell was 16 years old when he arrived in Des Moines in 1855. The next year he purchased his first real estate and was practicing law by the age of 19. At 28, he founded the state’s first life insurance company, Equitable Life of Iowa. Hubbell was also in on starting the town’s water company and first streetcar line. This ten-story steel-framed tower faced in brick came along in 1913 and hardly seems big enough to contain all of Hubbell’s holdings; he died in 1930 at the age of 91. The Hubbell Building, another creation of Des Moines architects Proudfoot, Bird & Rawson, took a star turn in the television program Dirty Jobs, with host Mike Rowe tackling renovations of a glass block wall inside.
TURN RIGHT ON WALNUT STREET.
Younker Brothers Department store
713 Walnut Street at northwest corner of 7th Street
Lipman, Samuel and Marcus Younker, three of six brothers, sailed from Poland to America in the 1850s. Lipman, the eldest, set out for the Midwest while teenagers Samuel and Marcus attempted to make their way in New York City. In 1854 the Younkers reunited in Keokuk, Iowa and opened a general store in the river town at the same time the railroad was building from Keokuk to Des Moines. The Younkers sent a half-brother, Herman, to follow the trains out to the state capital in 1874 to start a branch store. In 1879 Samuel died, Lipman headed to New York City, the Keokuk store was closed and Marcus came to town to convert the Des Moines shop into the company’s main store. Younkers moved here in 1889 and stayed for 116 years, evolving into the town’s beloved downtown emporium with a chain of 28 stores across Iowa and five surrounding states.
604 Walnut Street at southwest corner of 6th Avenue
Chicago architect Daniel Burnham was one of the fathers of the modern skyscraper and he came to Des Moines in 1907 to raise the town’s first office tower. It adheres to the Chicago Style that Burnham pioneered to create high-rises in the image of a classical three-part column with a defined base (the polished stone lower floors), a shaft (the orderly, unadorned center stories) and a capital (the ornate cornice). The 11-story Fleming Building is one of only two projects Burnham completed in Iowa.
Des Moines National Bank Building
520 Walnut Street at southeast corner of 6th Avenue
Proudfoot Rawson Souers & Thomas created one of the most sophisticated expressions of Art Deco architecture in the Midwest with this vault for the Des Moines National Bank in 1932. The composition is executed in polished Wisconsin black granite with large glass window openings. The fifth floor steps back, anticipating a 16-story tower that was planned but scuttled when money ran out in the Great Depression.
TURN RIGHT ON 6TH AVENUE.
206 6th Avenue at northwest corner of Mulberry Street
George B. Hippee was a native son of Des Moines, born in the fledgling town on New Year’s Day 1860. After a college education in Ohio at Wooster University he returned to Des Moines and went to work in his father’s Valley National Bank. He went on to helm the City Street Railway Company and take a major interest in the Iowa Loan & Trust Company. Hippee put up this 12-story, classically infused tower in 1912, selling it after a dozen years to the Southern Surety Company.
TURN LEFT ON MULBERRY STREET. TURN RIGHT ON 5TH AVENUE.
Polk County Courthouse
5th Avenue between Mulberry and Cherry streets
This is courthouse number three for Polk County, each progressively more grand. The first was a brick structure erected in 1847 that would fit comfortably into a football end zone. It was replaced in 1858 with a two-story domed building which was muscled off this square in 1906 by the current courthouse designed by the town’s foremost practitioners of the classical Beaux Arts style, Willis Thomas Proudfoot and George Washington Bird. Proudfoot and Bird outfitted their creation, executed in gray limestone with marble accents, with a 116-foot central clock tower that commandeered the entire city at the time. No building in Des Moines packs as much architectural detail into its facade - look up to see urns, birds of prey, sculpted masks, richly decorated columns and more.
TURN LEFT ON COURT AVENUE.
Earle & Le Bosquet Block
407-409 Court Avenue
Look up above a worn and ho-hum ground level to see six bays of arched windows in the Romanesque style. This building of light-colored brick was crafted in 1896 for the grocery business of Earle & Le Bosquet. Henry Lamb Le Bosquet was born 1817 in Pennsylvania and worked his way west before spending his final years in Des Moines.
200 4th Street at northwest corner of Court Street
When this eight-story brick tower went up in 1912 this was the heart of town and functioned as a residential hotel. As downtown shifted west and north the Randolph continued to operate as a residential hotel. The builder, hotel specialist H.L. Stevens of Chicago, used reinforced concrete and touted the Randolph as the only “absolutely fireproof hotel” in Des Moines.
TURN LEFT ON 4TH STREET.
Hawkeye Insurance Building
209 4th Street
Strolling through American downtowns in the years after the Civil War a visitor would see block after block of two-and three-story Italianate commercial buildings, many with elaborate cornices at the roofline and decorative window hoods below. Des Moines was no different but the Hawkeye Insurance Building, erected in 1868, is the oldest survivor from those days in the city. Hawkeye Insurance, with Indian moneyman Benjamin Franklin Allen at its head, organized in 1865. William Foster, one of the town’s busiest Victorian architects, provided the design. With a recent renovation it probably looks better now than it did in the 1870s.
206-208 4th Street
Conrad Youngerman was born in Wichdorf, Germany in 1833 and emigrated to United States in 1854 at a time when large groups of his countryman were finding new homes in the American midwest. Youngerman was a stonemason who found his skills in great demand. He soon founded a brickyard and by the end of the century was more involved in owning buildings than constructing them. This three-story commercial building was raised in 1876. Look up to see the exuberant fenestration and brackets of the original Italianate design; the ground floor picked up an Art Deco makeover in the 1930s.
400 Walnut Street at southwest corner of 4th Street
H.L. Stevens & Company, one of America’s leading designers of statement hotels in mid-size American cities in the early 1900s, created this Art Deco landmark in 1930. The 12-story brick tower demonstrates such hallmarks of the style as an emphasis on verticality, clean lines and geometric ornamentation. It has assumed a residential life in the 21st century.
TURN RIGHT ON WALNUT STREET. TURN RIGHT ON 3RD STREET.
Des Moines Saddlery Company Building
307-311 Court Avenue at northwest corner of 3rd Street
J. Rubelman and Company was the oldest saddler concern in Iowa, established in Muscatine in 1854. Rubelman came to Des Moines in 1881 and manufactured saddles and harnesses behind this exuberant Italianate facade until the dawn of the 20th century. In the last 100 years the five-story brick building has served many masters and landed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Seth Richards Commercial Block
300 Court Avenue at southwest corner of 3rd Street
The award-winning rehabilitation here breathed new life into a brick factory that churned hats for Iowa women in the early 1900s. Constructed in two bursts, in 1890 and 1897, the business was owned by Moses Strauss and Alexander Lederer. The building’s master, Seth Richards, was the first postmaster of Bentonsport, Iowa and a regional entrepreneur.
TURN LEFT ON COURT AVENUE.
Boyt Company Building/Taft-West Warehouse
210 Court Avenue
The Walter Boyt Saddlery Company was opened in 1901 and operates today, albeit from different quarters. The premier manufacturer of leather saddles and harnesses supplied leather goods for the military during both of America’s World Wars.
Warfield, Pratt and Howell Company Warehouse
100 Court Avenue at southwest corner of 1st Street
This six-story brick warehouse dates to 1909. It demonstrates the orderly Chicago Style for substantial commercial buildings with horizontal-influenced ornamentation that reflects the emerging Prairie style based on the work of master architect Louis Sullivan. Look around the west side of the building, facing towards 2nd Street, to see a “ghost sign” advertising the grocery wholesale firm.
Court Avenue Bridge
Court Avenue at Des Moines River
The first permanent bridge in the city took Court Avenue across the Des Moines River in 1858; it was shepherded to completion by architect U.B. White. This is the third bridge on this site, completed in 1918 - a recent facelift has restored the street lamps to its appearance from that era.
CONTINUE ACROSS THE BRIDGE.
Municipal Court Building
southeast corner of East First Street and Court Avenue
Completed in 1920, this was the fifth of six large projects raised in the city’s Civic Center that transformed the area around the riverfront from its former life as a sketchy district of taverns, brothels and gambling houses. Designed by a consortium of local architects, the Neoclassical-styled Municipal Court and Public Safety Building occupies a narrow footprint and presents it main facade to the Des Moines River with a parade of ten massive Tuscan columns. The L-shaped building is faced with a veneer of high-quality Bedford limestone from Indiana.
CONTINUE ACROSS THE BRIDGE. TURN LEFT AND PICK UP THE PAVED TRAIL TO WALK BACK OVER TO THE TOUR STARTING POINT AT THE LOCUST STREET BRIDGE.