The Elbert Files: Des Moines’ funkiest buildings
Friday, July 12, 2013 7:00 AM
Summer has me in a fanciful mood. Or maybe it’s the sense of freedom I feel as I begin my second year as a columnist for the Business Record. In either case, consider this an apology in advance if you find this subject too frivolous.
Des Moines needs more funky buildings.
I’ve believed that for a long time, and was reminded of it recently when architect Daryl Metzger pointed out the significance of the Riverfront YMCA property.
“Great cities have great icons,” Metzger wrote in an email.
“An opportunity like the Riverfront YMCA site only comes along every 50 years or so. This site is so prominent and offers so much potential … with views to and from our Capitol, the freeway and the downtown community, it is a natural iconic site.”
Metzger is right. The YMCA property is an important opportunity and deserving of an iconic structure, once the city and other interested parties agree on what to do with the space.
His email got me thinking about funky buildings. Over the years, I’ve compiled a list of what I consider some of the metro area’s funkiest buildings.
A few might even be considered iconic, but to me, they are just fun to look at.
Starting literally at the top, they include:
• 801 Grand – Eliot Nusbaum discovered the most unusual feature of Iowa’s tallest building. Nusbaum, who is now an editor at Meredith Corp., wrote in his Des Moines Register column back in the 1990s that the top of 801 Grand, with its peak and many points, looks exactly like a giant juicer, the kind you use to squeeze oranges or lemons.
• EMC building – The EMC Insurance Cos. building at Seventh and Walnut streets is known to many locals as the vodka bottle building. Architect William Anderson created curves and shadings on the south face that produce the image of a giant bottle similar to ones seen in ads for Absolut vodka. But I think the north side is just as interesting, because at night it looks like a giant jukebox, with colored lights chasing across its brow.
• Wells Fargo building – If you think of the EMC building as a giant vodka bottle, one block to the west atop the Wells Fargo Financial building, designed by Kirk Blunck, sits Des Moines’ largest cocktail glass. The two-story cylindrical glass lantern on the roof is actually meeting space, but viewed from a distance, it looks like a drinking glass.
• The Des Moines Art Center is a collaboration of wings designed by three internationally recognized architects. My favorite is Richard Meier’s 1985 clad porcelain and granite addition, which Des Moines Register Editorial Page Editor Gil Cranberg once described disapprovingly as looking like someone had replaced the nose on his face with a salt shaker.
• Principal’s Z building – The massive, eight-story building north of Principal Financial Group Inc.’s headquarters building is known as the “Z Building,” because from the air it looks like a giant letter Z.
• Flying saucer home – In 1993, fitness entrepreneur LeMar Koethe built a home on 142nd Street in Urbandale that looks like a flying saucer.
And while we’re on the subject of science fiction, the metro area has three buildings with nicknames inspired by “Star Wars” movies.
Darth Vader is Principal Financial Group’s diagonal building on Eighth Street whose huge panels of offset dark glass evoke the image of the mask worn by the Star Wars villain.
R2-D2 is located at 6000 Westown Parkway where a blue domed atrium rises above a three-story office building and resembles the dome of Luke Skywalker’s droid sidekick.
The Death Star is the name some Drake University students use for the school’s journalism building, a black-faced structure formally known as Meredith Hall.
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