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Des Moines

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The first settlement at the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers was the establishment of Fort Des Moines (see CE128) in 1843. 13The fort consisted of two rows of log cabins, one group for the officers and another for the enlisted men. Other buildings and structures were added: a dock on the river, a commissary, and a hospital. With the opening of this section for settlement, a town was platted in 1846. The first frame building was erected in July 1846; the first brick building in 1848. The site for the future capital of the state was described in 1875 by Andreas as “picturesque, occupying chiefly the valley and slopes of the hills on both the east and west sides of the river, the hills swelling into a grand circle of bluffs, which sweep the horizon on nearly all sides.” 14The city's initial grid consisted of square blocks, oriented slightly off from the points of the compass.

In 1846, Des Moines won out as the designated seat for Polk County, and the first courthouse was built in 1848. The next, even more advantageous move for the community was the removal of the state capital from Iowa City to Des Moines. Agitation for such a move started in 1851, and the change of location took place in 1855. Construction of a new capitol building, located on a high hill looking out over the Des Moines River valley, began in 1871.

During its early years the new community relied on the Des Moines River for transportation, but the low water level during parts of the year made this mode of transport unreliable. The Des Moines Valley Railroad from Keokuk finally reached the city in the summer of 1866. Some ten years later, the city had emerged as a hub for six different railroads. As with other cities throughout the country, Des Moines inaugurated a narrow gauge horsedrawn street railroad in 1868; this was replaced by electric street railways which started service in 1888. At the end of the following decade, in 1898, an interurban electric railroad was initiated, reaching first to Colfax to the east. Later additions to the interurban rail line eventually connected with Perry and Rockwell City to the northwest.

As Des Moines expanded in the 1860s and later, the original grid was simply extended; eventually a sense of order returned, and the newer additions reverted to a traditional north-south, east-west grid system. By the mid-1870s Des Moines had acquired in South Park its first picturesque, curvilinear suburban street pattern. Within its grid system Des Moines provided for a number of open spaces. These included the four-block site for the state capitol building, a site for the county courthouse, and a two-block location for a public market. These were augmented by smaller park sites such as the Joseph B. Stewart Square (corner of Fourteenth Street and Grand Avenue) and by open spaces provided by several cemeteries. By 1898 the city possessed eight parks (in addition to its public squares and the park site for the state capitol). The largest of these was Waveland Park (190 acres), followed by Grandview Park (98.5 acres), and Greenwood Park (81 acres). Another extensive and partially wooded open space was the Iowa State Fair and Exposition Grounds. The 263-acre fairground site, located some distance east of the state capitol building, was acquired and became the state fairgrounds in 1886.

Iowa in general, and above all Des Moines, actively participated in the turn-of-the-century “City Beautiful” movement. The initial group behind such planning was the Civic Improvement Committee of the Des Moines Commercial Club. The activities of this group were expanded by an enlarged Town Planning Committee (incorporated in 1916). The eventual goal of the Town Planning Committee was to provide for riverfront improvement (including the creation of a civic center), for the expansion of the public grounds around the capitol, for open space and for sites for future state public buildings, for the development of a system of boulevards, and finally for the expansion of the city's park system (especially along side the city's two rivers). In 1900 the landscape architect Warren H. Manning proposed the creation of a set of riverside parks, to which would be connected a system of parklike boulevards. Charles Mulford Robinson prepared a study in 1901 that expanded on the concepts put forth by Manning.

In conjunction with these city studies and projects, the state commenced an expansion and improvement of the grounds surrounding the capitol building. The key participant in this planning activity was Emmanuel L. Masqueray, trained at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and nationally known for his designs for churches and public buildings. His recommendations (1913) were to develop a strong cross-axial scheme (centered on the state capitol), the principal axis of which would reach west to the Des Moines River.

Several elements of these City Beautiful ideas were assuming reality by 1919. “Des Moines has a famous river front,” wrote one of its Park Commissioners, Harry B. Frase, “… the banks of the river have now been thoroughly cleaned up and improved … and a number of public buildings have been erected fronting the river.” 15The design concept of the city's civic center was to utilize the river as the principal axis, and then let the streets and their elegant concrete bridges over the river become the secondary cross axes. Not only was this a highly innovative Beaux-Arts scheme, it was even more remarkable that by the mid-1920s it had in fact been pretty well carried out.

Within the 1920s philosophy that “the business of America is business,” planning in that decade tended to have an aura of down-to-earth practicality. This was a period for Des Moines during which the recreational aspects of the city's parks were improved, a large-scale natatorium was built near the river, and civic leaders dealt with broader questions of zoning and streets. From 1926 through 1940, much of the planning for these activities came from the Saint Louis office of Bartholomew, Harland and Associates. During the depression of the 1930s, considerable improvements were made within the city's park system, and a number of new public buildings were constructed through the federal PWA program.

In August 1939, the editors of Architectural Recordinitiated a survey of responses to contemporary architecture. Taking Des Moines as first point of call, the Recordcommenced for its readers a survey of what the “lay” citizen considered to be noteworthy examples of recent architectural work in the cities of the United States. The range of imagery cited was remarkably broad, ranging from Proudfoot, Rawson and Souers's First Church of Christ Scientist, a modernized Gothic edifice; to the Moderne Bankers' Life Building by Tinsley, McBroom and Higgins; to the recently completed Streamline Moderne Central Fire Headquarters by Proudfoot, Rawson, Brooks, and Borg. As the Record's later visits to other American cities indicated, the taste and response of the citizens of Des Moines perfectly mirrored the responses from other parts of the country.

Although much smaller in scale than any of America's major urban environments, Des Moines essentially reflected what was going on elsewhere in planning in the years after World War II. With the usual spread of housing and shopping to the suburbs, parts of the downtown began to be treated as urban renewal areas, and of course, an urban freeway (I-235) was plowed right through the community. The 1970s and 1980s witnessed the construction of a number of important public buildings, including an addition to the former post office building, a new convention center, and several buildings for the state of Iowa, including the Iowa Historical Society Museum building.

Downtown Des Moines was essentially a low-rise city at the end of the nineteenth century, but at that time it did possess several commercial buildings of six to eight stories. By 1918 these buildings had been joined by several real “skyscrapers,” including the 11-story Hotel Fort Des Moines. With the general American love affair with the skyscraper during the twenties, Des Moines acquired several even higher buildings, among them the 19-story Equitable Insurance Company building (1924). From the 1960s to the present, Des Moines has been right “up and at ‘em” in strengthening its downtown image as the locale of sophisticated buildings. The latest of these, currently the tallest building in the state, is the 44-story 801 Grand Building (1989–1990). Located at that address, this is a conservative Postmodern building sheathed in granite, glass, and copper. The architect, Gyo Obata of the Saint Louis firm of Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, has provided Des Moines with a design that starts off at the ground with a classical-inspired gabled entrance, and ends at the top with a star-shaped pyramidal form.

The malady of skyways has also hit the city, and as is almost universally true elsewhere in the country, these have turned out to be aesthetically disappointing and have had a negative effect on the uses of the streetscape. On the positive side, there has been a near renaissance in the restoration of and sensitive additions to many of the older downtown commercial buildings in Des Moines.

In a fashion characteristic of American cities, strip villages have developed in recent years adjacent to the highways that now bypass Des Moines (I-80 and I-35). These villages at the major interchanges (and many of the minor ones) exhibit the usual assortment of hotels, motels, restaurants, stores, and office buildings. At the junction of I-80 and US 65 is Adventureland Amusement Park, which among other things presents several Disney-like themes: Main Street, River City, Last Frontier, and Iowa Farm. Adventureland opened to the public in 1975, and since then additions and changes have been made in the park.

If one delights in parks and in the middle-class and upper-middle-class ideal of low-density suburbia, then one can experience its realization along the western reaches of Grand Avenue and in the region to the south, below the Des Moines Waterworks Park, developed since World War II. Greenwood Park and the adjacent Ashworth Park are a pair of the most successful suburban parks in the country. These are supplemented by wonderful settings for public schools, some reminiscent of the settings of country houses. Design imagery in this suburban section of the city takes one from the late nineteenth century through the period revivals of the 1920s and 1930s—both in the dwellings themselves and with respect to landscape architecture. The most interesting post-World War II single-family housing exists in the southern section of the city. Further to the northern and western edges of Des Moines one will encounter extensive areas of postwar single-family housing, and of course the classic commercial strips, shopping centers, and highway-oriented architecture. Des Moines has its share of Lustron houses, two well-preserved examples of which (along with their garages, c. 1950) are located at 1609 and 1703 Beaver Avenue. The houses are side by side; the one at 1609 is gray and the one at 1703 is yellow.


Orin L. Dahl, Des Moines: Capitol City.

Andreas, Atlas of the State of Iowa, 1875, 429.

Harry B. Frase, “A Municipal Natatorium for Des Moines, Iowa,” 453.

Writing Credits

David Gebhard and Gerald Mansheim

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