Downtown Des Moines: A Story of Historic Preservation and Economic Revitalization

Downtown Des Moines

Written by Paula Mohr, Architectural Historian, State Historic Preservation Office of Iowa

This post is part of a series from the State Historic Preservation Office of Iowa in honor of #Preservation50, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the National Historic Preservation Act.

Crane Building, 1916 (Knowles Blunck Architecture)

Every four years, Iowa is a media obsession. The state’s status as “First in the Nation” and the Iowa Caucuses draw thousands of international media, politicians, campaign staff and “caucus tourists” to the state and in particular, to downtown Des Moines. It takes an outside perspective every four years, to realize how much downtown has evolved and this year it seemed that visitors to the state were particularly complimentary about Des Moines.

Established in the 1840s as Fort Des Moines, Des Moines is located at the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers. The settlement has evolved from a defensive and trade post on the eve of statehood to a hub in the twentieth century for the nation’s insurance industry. Today, downtown is home to a number of national companies including Wellmark, Nationwide and Meredith Corporation.

One of the earliest preservation efforts in downtown Des Moines occurred in the Court Avenue area conceived as an entertainment district in the 1970s. Anchored by the historic Beaux-Arts Polk County Courthouse at one end, this area is made up of a number of historic commercial and industrial buildings that have been converted into restaurants, bars and office space.

Fleming Building, Burnham and Company, 1907 (Slingshot Architecture)

Another revitalization effort in the 1990s led to the establishment of what is known as the Western Gateway to downtown. The historic Masonic Temple (1913) at the corner of 10th and Locust streets was threatened by this development but fortunately, developers Harry Bookey and Pamela Bass-Bookey saw its value and embarked on a comprehensive rehabilitation of the building. Today, the Temple for the Performing Arts is a place for theatre, music and dining and is home to the Des Moines Symphony Academy. Three blocks west the Hallett Apartments was rehabilitated in 2002. The nearby Pappajohn Sculpture Park, featuring the works of Louise Bourgeois, Barry Flanagan, Deborah Butterfield and others, opened in 2009.

Des Moines Fire Department, 1937, now the Des Moines Social Club (Slingshot Architecture)

Since the last presidential election cycle in 2012, there has been much more progress downtown complementing the above projects. This renaissance of downtown Des Moines is due in large part to the continuing role of historic preservation. Using historic tax credits, recently completed rehabilitation projects downtown have taken underutilized office space and created 769 new housing units. As a result, assessed building valuations have increased from $4.7 million to $62.1 million making this an important win for local governments. Private and public investment has transformed downtown Des Moines from an area that emptied out at the end of the workday to one where approximately 80,000 Iowans work and live.

The Temple for Performing Arts, Des Moines, Iowa.
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