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Take a Self-Guided Architectural Tour of Downtown DSM

Downtown DSM Architectural Walk

April 2, 2020

If you are looking for something to do on these beautiful spring days and, at the same time, continue to operate within the bounds of social distancing, Iowa Architectural Foundation has a great idea for you and your family! Many of you architectural enthusiasts have joined us in the past for our popular Architecture on the Move summer walking tours. Others have organized special tours for your company or family. Those tours are personally guided by architects or historians.

IAF Walking Tour App

We have good news for you! During this period of isolation, you don’t have to give up your architectural tours! And if you’ve never been on one, now is your chance! You can take five different tours with our Walking Tour App, which is essentially the same as the guided tours — but you can do it on your own. All you have to do is follow this link to access the app from your smartphone:

iowaarchfoundation.org/IAFTours (Be sure to use a capital T!)

You can access the tours by direction or by building. Included are East, South, West, North and Western Gateway tours. Or, if you are standing by a building and want to know more about it, click on your location on the app map, and the building's profile will pop up with a photo and audio description generously donated by KFMG founder, Ron Sorenson. Workiva's team of volunteers created the app for IAF at a recent DSM Hackathon.

Create an App Shortcut

If you want to take it a step further, you can create a shortcut on your phone for the app. That way you’ll have it easily accessible at all times.

  1. Click the Share button at the bottom of the screen.
  2. Click the Add to Home Screen button.
  3. Click Add in the top-right corner.

The tours cover both contemporary and historic architecture and provide an opportunity for local residents and visitors to appreciate the rich architectural heritage of Iowa’s capital city. Downtown Des Moines (DSM) boasts a remarkable architectural portfolio, rich in depth and quality. As one of our guides says “We punch way above our weight class.” We have impressive skyscrapers by local and national architects, buildings by the world’s most important Twentieth Century architects and public art by internationally celebrated artists.

DSM Architecture

Looking at our city’s important architecture, the name Proudfoot and Bird or Proudfoot Bird Rawson comes up again and again, and no firm shaped the face of our capital city more than they did. Now known as BBS Architects + Engineers, they are celebrating their 125th year in operation. Included in their portfolio are the Polk County Court House, the buildings along “Auto Row” on Locust Street, the U.S. Bank Building and the Temple for the Performing Arts. Also designed by these architects and Neuman Construction are the 14-story Des Moines Building, which is on the cutting edge of Art Moderne, and the building it faces across the street, built fewer than 10 years before, the Equitable Building. The two buildings could not be more different. This 19-story skyscraper was for many years Iowa’s tallest building. What I love about this building is the beautiful water tower, its Gothic revival detail and frivolous gnome corbels.

Downtown DSM has its own building by famed architect, Daniel Burnham, whom you may remember from the riveting book Devil in the White City. That would be the Fleming Building. And we are further connected to Burnham and Chicago by our adoption of The City Beautiful Movement philosophy. This was a movement inspired by Chicago’s 1893 World Columbian Exhibition which led the efforts to beautify and make noble America’s cities. Influenced by this movement, the Des Moines Women’s Club and other civic-minded organizations began clamoring for improvements along the river. They replaced meat packing and houses of ill repute with what we experience now as a series of beautiful civic buildings including City Hall, the World Food Prize and the Armory Building along the Principal River Walk.

Fast forward to the Mid 20th Century, when notable national firms made their mark on the city. The Des Moines Art Center hired Eliel Saarinen in the 1940s to design the first section of a multi-phased arts building to which I.M Pei and Richard Meier would later design additions. Drake University engaged his son, Eero Saarinen, to prepare a campus plan and design several academic and residential buildings.

In the 1960s, Bauhaus master architect, Mies van der Rohe, made his Modernist mark on DSM with two buildings. Home Federal Savings and Loan, preserved by the graces of the Catholic Pastoral Center, has Mies’ signature applied I-beams, travertine marble and granite pavers. Soon afterwards, Mies designed Meredith Hall for Drake University’s School of Journalism.

In 1962, American Republic Insurance Company and Watson Powell turned to Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) to design a new headquarters. This project is the only one to receive two AIA NATIONAL design awards — one when it was built, and another two years ago when it was restored by BNIM architects.

Principal Financial Group has been a major patron of architecture beginning with its 1939 building, which Architectural Record named “The Building of the Decade.” As the company grew, so did their campus, and in 1992, Helmut Jahn of Chicago designed the Z Building on Seventh Street. Recently Principal 1 has undergone a major re-design by OPN Architects.

The most recent addition to Downtown DSM’s “showcase of architecture” is the Krause Gateway Center, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. “Lightness, simplicity and openness are the main concepts expressed in the design.

As you can see there are many reasons to appreciate Downtown DSM’s architecture. While you are out, if you come across a building that needs a better photo within the app, please send us one at director@iowaarchfoundation.org and we’ll credit you if we use it. One caveat, the audio may not match up with the written profile. The cityscape is changing so quickly that just like a travel guide, it’s hard to keep it up to date. But you will still have an enjoyable tour. Be sure to follow IAF on Facebook and let us know how your tour went, as well as any if there are any additions you would like to see. Once we are out of isolation, many of our events, which are now on hold, will start up again and we hope to see you there!

The Iowa Architectural Foundation’s mission is to inspire an appreciation of architecture and design through educational programming for adults and children. IAF is? a non-profit charitable organization, depending on donations and fees for support. IAF provides a new lens for viewing and understanding the built world, and encourages citizens to engage in design issues and consider high standards as they build and shape their communities.

You can count on The Partnership to continue to share accurate and fact-based updates as well. See more on COVID-19 here.

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Claudia Cackler

Claudia Cackler is executive director of the Iowa Architectural Foundation. With 25+ years in public relations, nonprofit management and development, Claudia has worked with talented teams at Twin Cities Public Television, AIA Iowa, The Nature Conservancy, Salisbury House, Sherman Hill Association and Drake University.