The Elbert files: One house, one family, 125 years
Friday, April 26, 2013 7:00 AM
No one could have known in 1887 when Anna Evers Johnstone and her husband, Andrew, built a house in the thriving suburb of North Des Moines that the two-story Queen Anne style home would still be in the family 125 years later.
Ownership of most houses turns over every 10 to 20 years; a few might stay in one family for a generation or two. But the home at 1830 Eighth St. has been in the same family for four generations.
Current owner Jon Royal, the great-grandson of Anna and Andrew Johnstone, believes that’s a record, at least for Polk County. Whether it is or not, one thing is clear: Royal’s house has witnessed a lot of history.
It was built seven years after the suburb of North Des Moines was incorporated, just three years before it and six other suburbs merged with Des Moines, dramatically increasing its size.
In the 1880s, North Des Moines was the place for up-and-coming professionals. Older, more established families might live in Sherman Hill or west on Grand Avenue, but young families were attracted to North Des Moines.
It was less than 2 miles from downtown and only minutes away once streetcar lines were extended to Prospect Park. Before the merger, North Des Moines had its own city council, schools and water plant.
Two years after the Johnstones built their home, Charles Weitz Jr., son of the German immigrant who founded one of the nation’s largest construction companies, built a home nearby at 1424 Fifth Ave. A few years later, Bankers Life founder Edward A. Temple, built at 1930 9th St. Directly across from the Johnstones at 1821 8th St. was the new home of entrepreneur and banker Edward H. Hunter.
The Johnstones were part of a rising class of professionals; Andrew owned a china and glassware store at 607 Walnut St.
But in 1892, Andrew died of a stroke, leaving Anna with two daughters. She moved the girls into a two-bedroom apartment in Sherman Hill and rented out the 10-room house on Eighth St.
Anna had been a teacher before marriage. After Andrew’s death, she sold real estate and insurance before returning to school and becoming one of the first female doctors of osteopathy.
She received her medical degree in 1900, moved back into the house on Eighth Street and converted part of it to treatment rooms.
Anna’s daughter, Isabel Beatrice Johnstone, joined her mother’s medical practice, after graduating in 1908 from S.S. Still College of Osteopathy in Kirksville, Mo. City directories show the two Drs. Johnston practiced from Anna’s home for many years.
A family history reports: “In 1917 Isabel married Clifton de be Voise Royal, a promising lawyer,” and that after a time the couple moved into the Eighth Street house and raised four children.
When Clifton died in a car accident in 1946, his son, attorney Lewis Royal, moved into the house and raised his own family.
Before Anna died in 1949 there were four generations living in the house. When Isabel died in 1958, only Lewis, his wife and four children were left.
Son Jon Royal left for college in 1966 and pursued careers in counseling and financial planning before moving back to 1830 Eighth St. following a divorce in 1991. Jon bought the house in 1999 when his parents moved to a retirement community.
Jon said the neighborhood changed a lot after Interstate 235 was built in the 1960s, creating a wall between it and downtown. Many of the larger homes were chopped up and turned into apartments. The Hunter home across the street had 11 units at one time, he said.
In more recent years, a new wave of professionals have been buying and rehabilitating older homes, including the former Temple residence on Ninth Street
Plans for revitalizing Sixth Avenue as a retail corridor are helping to infuse new energy, Royal said. Developer Jack Hatch, who has done signature projects in Sherman Hill and the East Village, is interested in the area, he added.
But plans for the Johnstone-Royal home are up in the air. Jon turned 65 in February. Neither of his children is in a position to take on that responsibility today.
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