A yearlong renovation of the East Des Moines Union Depot is complete, as is the construction of a 7,500-square-foot events center. Photo by Joe Crimmings

Owners of the East Des Moines Union Depot weren’t sure what to expect when construction workers began removing sand and rubble from the floor of the historic building that for more than 60 years had been used for refrigeration storage.

Before clearing 3 1/2 feet of rubble from the building originally built as a train depot, a 6-inch concrete cap had to be removed, said Tim Waddell, chair of the Des Moines Heritage Trust. The Heritage Trust bought the depot in 2017, which is located at 120 E. Fifth St. in Des Moines.

“We didn’t know what we were going to find underneath all of that,” Waddell said. “When they started to vacuum out and dig out all of that sand … they discovered these beautiful, original brick-tiled floors of the 1909 deport. They were all there. That was a huge surprise.”

The $4 million project, which took a year to complete, included the restoration of the depot and the addition of a 7,500-square-foot events center with a 400-guest capacity. Sustainability features include rain gardens and bioswales. The events center includes energy-efficient lighting and wiring for future solar installation.

The 112-year-old depot was built by William H. Brereton for the Des Moines Union Railway, Wabash Railroad, Chicago Great Western Railway and Milwaukee Railway, according to information supplied by the Heritage Trust.

The building operated as a depot until the 1950s when it was sold and converted to a cold storage facility. The building was unused for several years and was at risk of being razed before the Heritage Trust purchased it.

The East Des Moines Union Depot is in an area known as the Market District, an aged industrial area roughly between East Court Avenue, Scott Avenue, Southeast Fourteenth Street and the Des Moines River that is experiencing a surge of redevelopment.

Backers of preserving historically significant buildings advocate restoring the buildings rather than tearing them down, Waddell said.

“This is who we are,” he said. “The buildings that we built in the past are all part of the culture of this area and the history of it.”

When people travel to Europe, many comment that they wished the United States had preserved its centuries-old buildings, Waddell said.

“We had some really fantastic buildings here but they are gone,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to save what we still can – like the depot – so that the next generation can see what has been done in the past.”

The building will host board meetings and other events held by Des Moines-area heritage and ethnic heritage organizations. The event center is available to rent for private gatherings.

Future plans at the site include digitally showcasing historic buildings, street cars, historic neighborhoods, college campuses and Des Moines’ endangered buildings.

The public can tour the renovated depot and the new events center from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.

Photo captions: Photo 1: A brick floor was found under 3 1/2 feet of rubble and a 6-inch concrete cap.
Photo 2: A photo of the East Des Moines Union Depot before it was renovated.
Photo 3: The main room in the depot, restored back to the original flooring and paint colors. During the restoration process the paint colors were found behind wood trim pieces and were replicated. The original floor was found underneath 3 feet of sand. The only non-original flooring is the wood floor in the middle, but there had been wood flooring there originally.
Photos by Joe Crimmings


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The restored East Des Moines Union Depot with new events center. Photo by Joe Crimmings