An interest in developing the riverfront for public parks and buildings surfaced as early as 1897 with the purchase of land on the river's west bank. Though the building was designed and built before Warren H. Manning and Charles Mulford Robinson had drawn up their City Beautiful schemes, the Des Moines architects Oliver O. Smith and Frank Gutterson sited the building so that its long axis ran parallel to the river. At the building's principal entrance (which faces west) a double flight of exterior stairs leads up to a two-bay-wide entrance porch whose flat roof is supported by widely spaced Ionic columns. Above the entrance is a large semi-circular window that provides light for the interior central stairway. The interior exhibits the architect's well-informed use of Beaux-Arts sequential spaces and of detailing. Most impressive is the multilevel reading room, with its wonderful circular metal stairs, and the murals, Boys and Girls and A Social History of Iowa, produced by Harry Donald Jones and others (1937–1941). The exterior of this two-story classical composition on a raised basement is sheathed and detailed in a Minnesota limestone which is now weathered to a warm, slightly salmon pink color. The design was supposedly patterned after the art museum in Nancy, France. In 1985 the building was remodeled and restored by Wagner, Marquardt, Ericsson; and Sven Paulsen.
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