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Des Moines’ iconic Depot to be sold

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Connie Wimer’s connection to the iconic former Rock Island depot in downtown Des Moines began long before she acquired the property in the mid-1980s.

When she was in her early 30s, Wimer would occasionally take the train to Chicago or, on Saturdays, to a University of Iowa football game. 

“The train would leave [Des Moines] in the morning and go to Iowa City and sit there until the game was over and bring everybody back,” said Wimer, owner and chairman of Business Publications Corp., whose offices have been located in the Depot for the past 37 years. “Those return trips could be raucous.”

In late May, Wimer announced that she planned on selling the Depot, located at 100 Fourth St. Business Publications Corp. BPC, which publishes the Business Record, dsm magazine and other related products, will move to space in the Plaza that Wimer has made an offer on to purchase. This would keep the company in Des Moines’ central business district.

The decision to relocate the company was sparked by the expansion of flexible work schedules, Wimer said. The company has 38 employees, a majority of whom work in a hybrid environment with many employees working remotely on any given day.

“I’ve known for a long time that it just did not make sense to stay” at the Depot, said Wimer, 90. The decision means selling the Depot property.  

“I will only sell to somebody who loves [the Depot] the way I do,” she said. “This building has a lot of meaning to the community.”

The Depot, where people said hello, goodbye

Commercial and passenger rail service in the U.S. expanded dramatically between 1870 and 1900, with over 170,000 miles of track added across the nation, according to information in the Library of Congress. It was slower to develop in Iowa because of disputes over land and other issues.

However, in the late 1890s, plans to lay rail tracks in Des Moines began moving forward. The topography of the land dictated that the tracks be placed south of Court Avenue, in an area already filled with warehouses and other buildings.

The Depot was constructed on a narrow parcel located north of the tracks, between Fourth Street and Fifth Avenue. The Depot, whose construction was completed around 1901, was built with dark bricks. Its roof was made of red tiles and the building included large arched windows and a covered passenger waiting area.

A wide arched structure spanned Fourth Street, connecting an older depot with the new building. (The older building is now occupied by Hessen Haus, a German-style beer hall.) A portion of the arch remains, which Wimer owns.

At one point, 22 trains arrived or left from the Depot on a daily basis, according to an article in the Des Moines Tribune.

The Depot’s “Golden Age” began around 1937 with the arrival of the Rockets, silver-colored stainless-steel streamliners that traveled up to 104 mph and were air-conditioned, Lillian McLaughlin wrote in June 1970 for the Tribune. The first Rocket came through Des Moines in August 1937.

The Depot was a gathering place for the community. It was where Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry Truman stopped during presidential campaign tours. Where family and friends tossed rice at newlyweds leaving for honeymoons. Where loved ones said hello to college students coming home for holiday breaks and goodbye to young men headed to war.

“By 1952, Des Moines was among the top five cities on the far flung Rock Island Lines system, ranking in passenger business with the metropolitan centers [of] Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis [and] Denver,” McLaughlin wrote.   

The Depot was shuttered in 1970 when the Rock Island Railroad discontinued passenger service.  

“The community was thrilled that the property was sold,” Wimer said. “I think there was fear that it would be torn down.”

The Depot’s restoration

Wimer, who owned and operated Iowa Title Co., began Business Publications Corp. in 1983. The two companies outgrew space in a building at 516 Third St., prompting Wimer to look for a new location.

Wimer said she had remembered that a former manager of the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce had once considered locating the group in the Depot. That recollection prompted her to tour the Depot, which had sat unused since 1970.

“When I first toured [the Depot], it had a lot of broken windows, dead birds lying around and papers piled everywhere,” Wimer said. A railroad employee had an office on the second floor, she said.

Wimer, who previously had worked in interior design, said she was able to visualize how the Depot could be restored for use for offices. With the help of local architect Douglas Wells, Wimer reimagined the space for offices for Business Publications and Iowa Title Co.  

The building’s red-clay tile roof was replaced with wooden shingles. Glass was installed in brick insets, a move that provided natural light into the building.

When the Depot was built, it only had one level. Arches with brick in the bottom and glass at the top stretched from the floor to the 40-foot-high ceiling. In the 1940s, a second floor was added, eliminating the natural light to the ground floor.

“I wanted to make sure everybody had as much light as possible,” Wimer said. “Making [the Depot] comfortable and efficient for a modern staff was challenging.”

After the building’s restoration, Wimer said she often saw people photographing the building. She said she frequently went outside and asked them to share their memories of the building.

“The stories I heard were very moving,” she said. “Some would say that their grandpa was a conductor and the family would pick him up on Thursday nights or that they left to go to war from the Depot.”

Depot offers unique space

Finding a buyer for the Depot won’t be difficult, said developer Jake Christensen, who specializes in finding new uses for historic structures.

When the pandemic hit the U.S. in March 2020, office employees across the country transitioned to working remotely. As the pandemic waned, many workers were reluctant to return full time to the office, preferring instead the flexibility of remote work.

The trend has meant two things, Christensen said: Office users no longer need as much space as they had prior to the pandemic, and luring workers back to the office means offering unique spaces.

“The word we keep hearing is ‘compelling,’” said Christensen, who recently announced plans to convert four historic buildings in Newton into a boutique hotel and apartments. “Companies need less physical space on a day-to-day basis, but the space they do have, they want it to be compelling, giving [employees] a reason to come to the office.”

Justin Lossner, a senior managing director of JLL, said several of his clients want to be located in Des Moines’ central business district in space that is “unique and creative.”

“There’s not a lot of those types of spaces available,” Lossner said.

What makes the Depot property even more appealing is that on-site parking is available. Office employees don’t want to pay for monthly parking if they are only in the office two or three days a week, Lossner said.

The Depot has over 17,000 square feet of space. The property is valued at $1.1 million, according to the Polk County assessor.

“I have great love for this building,” Wimer said during a BPC staff meeting to announce the move. “I plan on being very careful about who buys the building so that it will continue to be well used.”

Space at Plaza ‘a good fit’

Business Publications Corp. will move to space in the Plaza that Wimer has made an offer on to purchase.

The upper levels of the 25-story building at 300 Walnut St. include condominiums. Office and commercial space are located on the first two levels and include skywalk access.

“It was important to me to stay downtown,” Wimer said. “It’s the business hub. We are a business publication and I think it’s important for us to be in the middle of downtown.”

The 6,600-square-foot space at the Plaza “is a good fit for us,” she said.

A majority of the company’s employees work remotely. Suzanna de Baca, the company’s president and CEO, told the staff during a meeting that she and Wimer support offering flexible work schedules but that doing so means making changes. 

“It’s our responsibility to be proactive in managing our finances so that we can remain a strong company,” de Baca said during the staff meeting.

The move to the Plaza will likely occur in the fall when the space is remodeled, de Baca said.

Moving the company to a new location is the right thing to do but it will also be difficult, Wimer said.

“I probably will shed a few tears when I leave [the Depot] for the last time,” she said. “But I feel very, very positive about the new space. And frankly, it will make us a more efficient company.”

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Kathy A. Bolten

Kathy A. Bolten is a senior staff writer at Business Record. She covers real estate & development, law & government and retail.

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