Long before city buses dominated Walnut Street and a Walgreen Co. pharmacy was the only retailer left standing, the street was a lively, bustling cultural center. Here’s a look back at Walnut Street’s history as it readies for yet another transformation.
In the late 1800s, shops, pharmacies and large department stores such as Younker Brothers and Chapmans lined the streets, taking up shop next to an opera house and the Iowa Business College. It housed the post office and Citizens National Bank, which kept its doors open even after the block it sat on caught fire in 1873. The Kirkwood building, which is still located at Fourth and Walnut streets, was the most prominent feature in all of Des Moines.
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Walnut Street was one of the first in the nation to be fully illuminated by electric lights. The beautification project even received the admiration of Electrical World magazine, which named it “The Best Lighted Street in the United States.” Its accolades then spurred the business community to fund the lighting of the remainder of downtown.
But by the early 20th century, as cars became more commonplace and roads were finally paved, many of the residents left the city for its outlying communities.
Between 1950 and 1970, the downtown area lost population at the rate of about 1,000 people per year. Retail quickly followed. Stores closed down. Buildings began to deteriorate.
The Des Moines Coliseum, a downtown landmark used to house large-scale events and that even furthered several presidential campaigns, burned down in 1949. Walnut Street, along with the rest of downtown, had become a shadow of its former self.
By the 1970s, the city of Des Moines realized it needed to intervene. The Plan and Zoning Commission put together an urban revitalization plan, enlisting the help of the business leaders, Polk County and six of the state’s architecture firms.
The urban revitalization was in full swing by the 1980s. Aimed at bringing development back to the core, the city offered incentives to developers through the Urban Revitalization Act, which was signed in 1979. It was during this time that the Civic Center of Greater Des Moines, the Des Moines Botanical & Environmental Center, the Polk County Administrative Office Building and office towers, like the Ruan Center, were built. Roads were rerouted and improved and the Court District was in its humble beginnings.
The skywalk system was developed and completed in the late 1970s and early 1980s, modeled after a similar idea in Minneapolis. City leaders hoped this new system that shielded consumers from unpredictable and extreme weather would encourage and sustain retail activity.
It was also during this time that the city received federal funds to build a public transit center, opting to place it on Walnut Street because so many of the city’s large employers were located there. With the street now closed off to cars and retail establishments moving off the ground level, retailers continued to uproot themselves and leave Walnut Street.
In 2005, Younkers department store, one of the last retailers left standing, closed its doors.
Despite the struggles of Walnut Street, downtown Des Moines continued to see improvements throughout the 1990s and 2000s. The East Village was transformed from a no man’s land to a thriving area filled with trendy shops and eclectic restaurants. The Science Center of Iowa packed up and expanded to its downtown location. The Central Library moved to bigger and better facilities, taking up two city blocks. Twenty-four sculptures were donated to the Des Moines Art Center, and the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park was born.
But through it all, Walnut Street has seen little attention. Until now.