John Ruan and Frank Lloyd Wright were larger-than-life people.

Both were builders who were productive into their 90s. Wright designed innovative structures throughout the world; Ruan built one of the nation’s largest private transportation networks from a single dump truck.

Ruan also dabbled in real estate, which resulted in one additional parallel.

When they died — Wright in 1959 and Ruan half a century later in 2010 — the unfinished work of each included plans for what would have been breathtaking buildings.

In 1989, Ruan began creating plans for an 85-story skyscraper in downtown Des Moines that he envisioned as a beacon of agriculture and a possible headquarters for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Three decades earlier in 1956, Wright unveiled plans for a mile-high building in Chicago, which he said could house 100,000 state and local government workers.

Drawings of Wright’s mile-high Illinois Building are featured in an exhibition that runs through Oct. 1 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

The MoMA exhibit prompted me to ask John Ruan III for permission to publish an illustration of his father’s 85-story building, which was used to drum up support for the project during the early 1990s.

One potential supporter who saw the illustration was President George H.W. Bush. Ruan said that Bush was leaning toward backing the project with federal money when he lost his re-election bid to Bill Clinton in 1992. 

The illustration of Ruan’s building was created by Ken Kendall, the Des Moines architect who had designed the Ruan Center and other buildings for Ruan.

At one point, the elder Ruan showed me the image, and I asked more than once if he would allow me to publish it in The Des Moines Register.

The last time I asked was when I wrote an article that amounted to an obituary for the project. Ruan declined and a cartoonish version of the building created by Register artist Mark Marturello accompanied my Feb. 20, 1995, article.

Wright’s mile-high building captured a lot of attention when it was unveiled in 1956. But interest faded when critics declared it impractical, if not impossible, to build.

In fact, during the 60 years since Wright unveiled his dream, the closest anyone has come to reaching the Illinois Building’s planned height is the half-mile-tall (2,722-foot) Burj Khalifa building in Dubai, which opened in 2010.

Nonetheless, it is clear from the MoMA documents that Wright gave his idea considerable thought. He even came up with a new method for anchoring the structure with what he described as a deep “taproot” that would extend for hundreds of feet below ground.

Even now, when I look at the new One World Trade Center in Manhattan, I see similarities to Wright’s Illinois Building with its cantilevered floor plates and the side-by-side elongated triangles that form its exterior.

Television was in its infancy in 1956, but one of Wright’s proposals was to locate a television studio in the top nine stories, which would be capped by a 300-foot antenna capable of broadcasting, he said, to the whole country without relay.

Ruan’s 85-story building, while not as visionary as Wright’s, would, Ruan believed, focus attention on Des Moines as the “Agriculture Capital of the World.”

The concept grew out of his efforts in 1983-84 to build a 30-story World Trade Center and convention hotel in Des Moines.

Pieces of that mid-1980s effort were eventually realized in the Iowa Events Center.

By the late 1990s, Ruan had moved on to the project that became the defining value of his life: sponsorship of the World Food Prize and conversion of Des Moines’ first public library into the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates.


left: The mile-high skyscraper that Frank Lloyd Wright proposed for Chicago in 1956.
right: The 85-story World Trade Center that John Ruan wanted to build in 1989.