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The Elbert Files: A move that never happened


A friend asked a question recently about Des Moines University, the osteopathic medical school at 3200 Grand Ave. that will spend up to $200 million in the next three years to build a new 88-acre campus on the southwest edge of West Des Moines. 

She had seen a 1962 newspaper story about the school’s planned move from 722 Sixth Avenue, where it had been for decades, to the Oakridge neighborhood north of Methodist Hospital. 

The move never happened, and my friend wanted to know why.

To understand, it helps to know that a lot of big ideas were on the table in 1962. 

The Bartholomew Plan for reinventing downtown had been announced 14 months earlier, and officials were mulling over its innovative proposals for high-rise buildings, a downtown park and elevated sidewalks. Most of those ideas died on the vine, although similar ideas resurfaced and bore fruit decades later. 

There was also plenty of other activity.  

Construction of Interstate 235 through the heart of the city was underway with a few early sections nearing completion. The entire 14-mile freeway would be completed in 1968. 

Also in 1962, Des Moines was in the middle of two major urban renewal efforts. 

One involved tearing down flood-prone housing in an area called River Hills along the river north of downtown and replacing it with commercial buildings. The new construction would eventually include the River Hills/Riviera theater, which opened in 1968 and was where many Iowans first experienced “2001: A Space Odyssey” and “Star Wars” on a 90-foot curved screen with “surround sound.” 

The other urban renewal area was the Oakridge neighborhood between Methodist Hospital and the freeway. Oakridge was slower to develop, in part because River Hills ended up costing much more than expected.

Nonetheless, the front page of the Des Moines Tribune on Jan. 12, 1962, announced that the College of Osteopathic Medicine and Surgery planned to spend $8.6 million – roughly $75 million in 2020 dollars – to create a 24-acre campus in the Oakridge urban renewal area.

It’s worth noting that the estimated cost and size of the planned campus were roughly comparable to the leap forward DMU wants to make today by building new facilities in West Des Moines. 

But the school’s Oakridge plan did not last long. 

The city’s inability to clear the Oakridge space available in a timely manner prompted the osteopathic college to look for other options. (The Oakridge site was developed in 1968-69 by a coalition of churches as low-income housing.) 

For a time, osteopathic educators focused on Fort Des Moines, a former military compound on the south side. Fort Des Moines was where black medical personnel had trained during World War I and where the Women’s Army Corps was based in World War II.

But fundraising and planning lagged, and in 1966 a third option surfaced, according to a 2015 history of DMU by Lee Anderson and Kathy Penningroth.

Osteopaths in Texas proposed moving the entire Des Moines operation to Fort Worth. That idea was explored for several months, but it was rejected when the local business community and Iowa osteopaths promised to find and support a suitable location in Des Moines.

Five more years passed before a permanent solution was found in 1971, when the school announced plans to acquire the 15-acre site of the former St. Joseph’s Academy, an all-girls Catholic high school, at 3200 Grand Ave. 

In the decades that followed, the Grand Avenue campus expanded to 24 acres, the same size as the original proposal for an Oakridge campus. New buildings, including an 11-story clinic and a gymnasium, were added.

Last year, DMU officials said a lack of parking spurred their decision to find a new location.

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