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The Elbert Files: Des Moines’s new ‘Bridges’ story


Several months ago, while collaborating with Slingshot Architecture on a master plan for Hubbell Realty’s Bridge District housing development, Dennis Reynolds had an unusual idea. 

Reynolds is a transplant to Iowa, a creative guy who worked all over the world for high-end design firms before arriving in Des Moines for a single job more than a decade ago. That job was to help plan West Des Moines’ Village of Ponderosa, which he did to considerable acclaim, and which was on its way to implementation when the Great Recession of 2008-09 sidelined developer Jon Garnaas.

But by then Reynolds had embedded himself in the Des Moines design community, and he’s continued to live and work here ever since. Which is how he happened to be working with Hubbell. 

The Bridge District is a 16-acre site on the east bank of the Des Moines River between the City Armory Building and Interstate 235. Until recently, it held warehouses and small-scale office buildings owned by Principal Financial Group. 

But the site was cleared, and in May Hubbell bought it for $1.9 million. 

The first phase of the development calls for 47 three-story town homes and two five-story buildings with 128 apartments. Hubbell’s plan is to attract higher net worth buyers and renters and create an urban neighborhood similar to the Village of Ponderosa. 

Which brings us back to Reynolds’ idea. To improve aesthetics, the planners wanted to create a significant feature that could serve as a gathering point. Something like the crescent-shaped lake at the Village of Ponderosa.

The Bridge District didn’t need a water feature. The Des Moines River is barely more than a stone’s throw away, with the Principal River Walk’s signature white arched bridge providing pedestrian access to the river and the Iowa Events Center.

They decided that a small park at the entrance to the Bridge District could serve the same purpose, provided it included a unique piece of art.   

Reynolds’ idea was to create that unique piece of art, which he calls “Bridges,” from a much older bridge and to tweak its design to create a contrast to the Riverwalk’s ultra-modern Women of Achievement Bridge. 

The perfect foil, he decided, would be an early 20th-century Iowa pony truss bridge. Pony truss bridges are small structures without cross bracing on the top that were used throughout rural Iowa in the early 1900s to help bring farm produce to market. 

Together with the high-tech, high-arched bridge, the old bridge will help span the history of the Des Moines River as a centerpiece of the city for more than 150 years. 

The old trusses will be offset. One truss will be elevated at one end, and a canopy and lighting will be added to create a unique gathering place. 

When Reynolds began inquiring about recently dismantled bridges, he was directed to Boone, where a bridge over Montgomery Creek in northeast Boone County was scheduled for removal. The gravel road approaches on both ends of the 1920s bridge had washed out and been replaced in 1993 and again in 2008, according to Boone County Engineer Scott Kruse. 

The bridge had a 20-ton limit and was “fracture critical,” which means “if I hit one of the trusses and it fails, the whole bridge goes down,” said Kruse. It was also too narrow for modern farm equipment. 

The bridge was taken down this summer by a contractor who sold the trusses to Hubbell. 

“Most Iowans have fond memories of rural bridges,” Reynolds said. “And for many people outside of Iowa, our state identity is linked to a story of bridges. We hope, this new piece of art will evoke memories and provide opportunities for new stories.”

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