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The Elbert Files: Commodore memories


A few years after Amy and I moved into our home on the west side of Des Moines, a memorable event occurred. 

On March 7, 1980, the Commodore Hotel, a stately, six-story building at 3440 Grand Ave., was demolished with 360 simultaneously ignited explosions. 

Amy was home with our 12-month-old daughter at the time and watched as a cloud of dust rose above the treetops from a half mile away and settled on everything. 

Removing the hotel allowed the College for Osteopathic Medicine and Surgery to expand the campus it had acquired in 1973 from St. Joseph Academy, the former Catholic girls’ high school. 

The medical school later expanded its curriculum and changed its name to Des Moines University; it acquired other nearby properties and grew out and up until it ran out of room.

A new campus was built in the southwest corner of West Des Moines, where DMU will move this summer.

A few medical services will remain in our neighborhood, along with memories of doctors in training scurrying along the sidewalks on Grand Avenue.

Older residents can also conjure memories of patrons coming and going from the Commodore Hotel and its iconic Zodiac Club bar and restaurant.

By the time Amy and I moved here, the hotel and Zodiac Club were well past their prime, although I do remember cars turning into the hotel’s parking lot on Friday nights along with occasional weekend weddings.

The Commodore Hotel was built during the early years of the Roaring ’20s, the post-World War I decade, when anything seemed possible. 

Construction began in the fall of 1922. The big downtown project at the time was the Equitable Building; at 19 stories, it would be the tallest structure between Chicago and Denver when it was completed in 1923.

The 350-room Commodore was also finished in 1923 in what now seems like record time at just under 12 months. The Des Moines Register described the building as “a fashionable apartment hotel” with a “U design” and an exterior “faced with cream colored brick and ornamented with cut stone.”

On Sept. 1, 1923, the Des Moines Tribune reported, 300 guests attended an opening-night, sit-down dinner prepared by Des Moines Club manager Frank Dowie, who had been hired to oversee food service at the hotel. 

Newspapers reported the Commodore cost $924,000 to build and had 90 apartments, most of which were occupied by permanent residents. The original garage held 75 cars, although parking was available for up to 250 vehicles. 

Cash flow was not what developers had expected, and the Commodore was sold at a sheriff’s sale in 1924 for $575,000. It was sold again at court order in 1932 for $478,000. Ownership continued to change frequently with sales reported in 1955, 1958 and 1959. 

Despite the financial problems, the Commodore was reported to have been home at various times to members of several well-known Des Moines families, including the Hubbells, Wallaces, Brentons and Jewetts. Gov. Dan Turner, a Republican from Corning, lived at the Commodore with his wife when he first arrived in Des Moines to begin his two-year term as Iowa’s chief executive in 1931.

My favorite Commodore story involves real estate developer Bill Knapp, who hung out with car dealers Charles Betts and Dave Ostrem and other up-and-coming business leaders at the basement-level Zodiac Club after it opened in 1959.

Des Moines Tribune columnist Walt Shotwell, who wrote a biography of Knapp in 2000, said the Zodiac Club was “a good pickup spot. It featured singing at the piano bar and free-flowing booze, … a perfect setting for ambitious young men to outdo one another with big talk of their conquests in business and bedrooms.”

Knapp, who had been a boxer in the Navy, “was occasionally challenged to test his skills,” Shotwell wrote. 

One night Knapp was asked to “step outside” by a man who was “about twice his size” but did not know about Knapp’s boxing career, Shotwell reported. 

“Knapp quickly bloodied the poor guy,” but later hired him as a property manager, Shotwell said.

Bar fights were different back then.


Dave Elbert

Dave Elbert is a columnist for Business Record.

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