Revitalizing Des Moines’ Architectural Legacy: A Blend of History and Innovation

February 01, 2024
Architecture Sustainability Restoration

Exploring the transformation of the Civic Center Historic District, where historic preservation meets innovative urban design.

Nestled in the heart of Iowa, Des Moines boasts a rich tapestry of American history intertwined with a spirit of innovation and community. From its early days as Fort Des Moines in 1843 to its evolution into a bustling state capital, the city has always been a hub of cultural significance. The Civic Center Historic District, at the epicenter of this historical evolution, serves as a testament to the city’s commitment to preserving its architectural heritage while adapting to contemporary needs. This district is a canvas of architectural marvels from the late 19th and early 20th centuries and showcases the transformative power of historic preservation.

The intersection of preservation and modern innovation in the Civic Center Historic District echoes Des Moines’ architectural heritage and sets a precedent for future urban redevelopment. In this article, we’ll explore the benefits of preserving historic structures such as those within the district and delve into the rich history of the Civic Center Historic District as we highlight key projects that helped rejuvenate this iconic area. 

The Multifaceted Benefits of Historic Preservation

Historic preservation is critical to urban development and cultural conservation and offers various economic, social and cultural benefits. These benefits range from economic stimulation through job creation and tourism to fostering community bonds and preserving cultural narratives. Let’s take a look at these benefits more closely.  

  • Historic preservation is a significant economic driver. It creates jobs, both during the restoration process and in the long term, through the tourism it attracts. Historic districts often become prime locations for businesses, cafes and galleries, contributing to the local economy. Moreover, preserving historical sites frequently leads to increased property values in the surrounding areas. Studies have shown that properties near well-maintained historic sites often see a rise in market value, making preservation a sound investment for the future.

  • On a social level, preserving historic buildings fosters a sense of community. These buildings are tangible links to the past, providing a physical space where community members can gather, celebrate and engage. Restoring and maintaining historic sites often involves community participation, strengthening social bonds and fostering a sense of shared responsibility and pride in local heritage.

  • Culturally, historic preservation is invaluable. It safeguards architectural legacies and provides an educational resource, allowing current and future generations to experience and learn from the past. These buildings are physical narratives, telling the stories of different eras, architectural styles and societal changes. They are essential for understanding and appreciating our cultural and historical heritage. Additionally, the adaptive reuse of historic buildings often leads to innovative combinations of old and new, showcasing how modern functionalities can be integrated into historical structures without compromising their integrity.

Principal Riverwalk Civic Garden & City Hall Improvements in Des Moines, Iowa by RDG. Photo by Kun Zhang.
  • Historic preservation enhances the overall quality of life in urban areas. It contributes to the aesthetic appeal of neighborhoods, making them more pleasant places to live, work and visit. Well-preserved historic areas tend to attract diverse people, contributing to vibrant, dynamic communities. These areas also often become cultural hubs, hosting events, exhibitions and community activities, thus enriching the city’s cultural life.

  • From a sustainability perspective, historic preservation is often more environmentally friendly than new construction. It involves the adaptive reuse of existing materials, reducing the need for new resources and minimizing waste. This approach aligns with sustainable development goals and contributes to the conservation of resources and reduction in carbon footprint.

The Civic Center Historic District: A Living Narrative of Des Moines’ Evolution

One shining example of the transformative power of restoration and preservation is the Civic Center Historic District, an area marked by architectural marvels from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1988, the district flanks the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers. It features buildings constructed mainly between 1900 and 1928, including the library, post office, municipal building, municipal court building and the U.S. Courthouse. These buildings predominantly feature the Beaux-Arts architectural style, which was heavily influenced by the City Beautiful Movement, an urban planning effort that took root in the late 1800s/early 1900s and advocated city beautification as a means to inspire moral and civic virtue. The architectural elements in the district, such as stone rustication, full-height stone columns, balustrades, simple cornices and round-arched openings, are a testament to this style and philosophy.

Each structure within the Civic Center Historic District tells a story of the architectural trends of the past and the community’s resilience and adaptability. Today, the district remains a cohesive and significant representation of early 20th-century urban planning and architecture. It stands as a symbol of Des Moines’ commitment to preserving its cultural and architectural heritage while continuing to evolve as a modern city. RDG was privileged to work on several restoration projects within the historic district, including restoring and rehabilitating the former Public Library Building, renamed the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates. Working closely with the State Historic Preservation Office, RDG’s design team retained and restored historically significant design elements while incorporating modern fire sprinklers and electrical, mechanical, and data systems. A beacon of community and environmental impact, today, the World Food Prize building stands as a testament to sustainable development and the importance of sustainable materials. Its transformation into a LEED Platinum-designated building, the first in Iowa on the National Register of Historic Places, incorporates more than 100 geothermal wells for heating and cooling, an 8,000-gallon rainwater collection system for site irrigation, 96 roof-mounted photovoltaic solar panels supplementing electrical power and recycled stone masonry.

Other significant projects RDG contributed to include repairs and repointing at the Municipal Building/City Hall and the Municipal Court and Public Safety Building/Police Station, and the development of the Principal Riverwalk and Riverwalk Civic Gardens at City Hall, which have become cornerstones of community interaction. With each project, we sought to balance landmark integrity with the needs of a modern urban landscape. Collaborating with local authorities, we established preservation strategies that could meet contemporary building codes and accessibility requirements, addressing regulatory requirements and current safety and energy efficiency standards while retaining critical historical elements. These endeavors safeguarded the city’s architectural treasures and ensured they would continue to serve and enrich the community. 

The Civic Center Historic District’s journey illustrates the transformative power of thoughtful restoration and preservation. As Des Moines stands on the cusp of a new chapter in the Civic Center Historic District, the upcoming vacancies of key buildings like the courthouse, police station and armory present unique opportunities. The decisions about these structures’ future use will significantly impact the city’s architectural and cultural landscape. In navigating these changes, the role of experienced architectural partners is crucial. Collaborating with a firm that can help steer the district towards a future that respects its past, meets present-day demands and lays a sustainable foundation for future generations is imperative. The right collaboration will ensure that this historic area continues to be a vibrant and dynamic part of the city, mirroring Des Moines’ commitment to preserving its architectural heritage while embracing opportunities for the future. 

Written by Scotney Fenton, Architect