A- A+

Why You Should Take an Architectural Walk Through Historic Downtown DSM

Architectural Walk

October 10, 2023

I’ve worked in Downtown Des Moines (DSM) for the bulk of my career which began in 1988, and I love our skywalk system. I sometimes take our skywalk system for granted. Last week, I had to run over to the Polk County Administration building to do some paperwork related to a car purchase. As I rambled along my short journey, I opened my eyes a little wider, and I noticed that I was walking through an architectural and historic tour of Des Moines!

Downtown Des Moines Skywalk Historic Buildings

I started my journey by walking past Bruce the barber on the skywalk level of the Insurance Exchange Building which is celebrating its 100th birthday this year. It’s the building with the Traveler’s umbrella on the roof. As I shuffled through the Renaissance Des Moines Savery Hotel skywalk corridor, I enjoyed its rich décor and lighting, and I wondered about all of the weddings, receptions and celebrations that this building has housed since 1919. I remembered that entertainer Tiny Tim lived in the hotel for many years, and he used to walk around the skywalk and randomly chat with people. I guess Carol Channing, Eleanor Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman and many other dignitaries stayed in the Savery Hotel, once home to the famous Guido’s restaurant.

Next stop: the Capital Square office building with its bright, white lines and all that glass! I noticed how shiny and modern it was compared to the stately brick buildings surrounding it ... certainly an interesting contrast in styles. Still heading to the Polk County building to do paperwork, I entered The Kirkwood on Fourth and Walnut building, which was built in 1930, once a glamorous hotel. I was again thrust back in time. My wife and I honeymooned at The Kirkwood after celebrating our reception at the Younkers Tea Room in 1990! We walked the three blocks via the skywalk together, me in my tux, Liz in her beautiful white wedding gown. It was oddly romantic. I digress … I headed east through the Plaza, and I remembered when it was built in 1985. It was Des Moines’ first (and only?) luxury high rise condominium project with its iconic blue roof. It was and still is the gateway to Court Avenue via the skywalks.

View of the Savery Hotel 

I continued toward my destination and entered the Neal Smith Federal Building. I remembered how unappealing it used to look in the past. About 15 years ago, it was reclad in all white metal skin with larger windows, and now it looks new, refreshed and clean similar to its counterpart, Capital Square.

Finally, I entered the historic Polk County Administrative Building, which was built in 1908. It’s so iconic, yet functional for 115 years old. I love the terrazzo floors, high ceilings, historic light fixtures and all of the sunshine that washes through it. Alas, I had to write a check, collect my papers and head on back to work in reverse order. It was an entertaining five-minute trip through time, and the rich history and architecture along my “trip” made my day.

Downtown Des Moines (DSM) is a growing, vibrant community that offers the energy, sophistication, housing and attractions of a burgeoning city with a brilliant future. It’s also easy to visit with plentiful and affordable street and ramp parking options. Find event information and follow @downtownDSMUSA on Facebook and Instagram for other news, tips and events happening downtown.

Jeff Hatfield

Jeff Hatfield is Senior Vice President of Medical Properties for The Graham Group, Inc.