The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs Presents Highest Awards for Historic Preservation

June 29, 2023
Interior Design Restoration

Varsity Cinema, renovated in collaboration with RDG, received two prestigious awards at the 2023 Preserve Iowa Summit.

The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs recently announced that 17 projects and individuals in 10 Iowa communities received the state’s highest historic preservation honors at the 2023 Preserve Iowa Summit. The Preserve Iowa Summit, organized annually by the State Historic Preservation Office, brings together more than 220 professionals and officials from architecture, development and historic preservation. At this year’s event on Thursday, June 1, RDG Planning & Design’s renovation of the Varsity Cinema received two awards: the Excellence in Archaeology and Historic Preservation Award, which acknowledges the outstanding efforts made in preserving and showcasing the historical significance of the building; and the Small Commercial Award, one of Preservation Iowa’s “Preservation at its Best” awards, which honor properties and educational efforts that meet the highest standards of preservation practices.

The Varsity Cinema, located near Drake University in Des Moines, boasts a rich and diverse history. Originally built in 1917 as the University Motor Company, it later served as Drake University’s Student Army Training Corps Mess Hall and Canteen from 1918-1919. Over the years, the building transformed into a Coca-Cola bottling facility before becoming the iconic Varsity Theater in 1938. In 2019, Des Moines Film took over the space and partnered with RDG to embark on an extensive, multi-year.

“Our work on the Varsity Cinema exemplifies what it means to honor the past while adapting the space to conform to present and future needs,” RDG Architect Andrea Ytzen. “We’re incredibly honored and proud to play a role in bringing this historic structure back to life so that our community can enjoy and be inspired by its history and uniqueness.”

RDG’s design reinforces and celebrates Varsity Cinema’s historic feel by marrying the structure’s mid-century modern stone, brightly colored travertine and Art Deco decorative elements with more modern elements that make the space work for contemporary audiences and staff. Upgrades include enhanced acoustics and seating, improved accessibility for patrons, upgrades and modernizations to office spaces and concessions and an expanded lobby and restrooms to enhance traffic flows and audience comfort. The most visible change is the addition of a microcinema, which serves as a second viewing space and allows for greater programming diversity and flexibility. Today, the Varsity Cinema again serves as a social, cultural and economic hub for both the Drake Neighborhood and the broader city of Des Moines.

Written by Erin Van Zee, Communications Director