Varsity Cinema

Des Moines Film Society
Des Moines, IA
6,641 SF
Completion date
December 2022

RDG worked with the non-profit Des Moines Film Society to restore and rehabilitate the 5,500 square foot historic Varsity Theater, in an adaptive reuse project that establishes the theater as a community art house cinema. 

This dramatic renovation gives the Varsity - Des Moines' last remaining historic movie house - new life as The Varsity Cinema, an art house home for Des Moines film lovers. Designated a Landmark Building by the City of Des Moines in 2020, the 1917 building was first used as a theater in 1938. Its historic feel, with mid-century modern stone, brightly colored travertine and Art Deco decorative elements, is reinforced and celebrated in the renovation, while more modern elements 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. 

The theater boasts enhanced acoustics and seating, and decorative lighting features that echo the Cinema’s logo with an Art Deco feel.
The project includes an expanded lobby and a fully equipped concessions area.
A new second theater – a microcinema – was crafted from unproductive space on the upper floors.
Excellence in Archaeology and Historic Preservation Award
State of Iowa Historic Preservation Office
Excellence in Archaeology and Historic Preservation Award
Preservation Iowa
Preservation at Its Best — Small Commercial Award
Preservation Iowa