The Elbert Files: Grand Avenue
The 7 3/4 -mile stretch of road we know as Grand Avenue was once anything but grand.
It is a compilation of three earlier streets, all with different names, none of which was Grand.
But today, it truly is a grand avenue.
It begins on the east side at the State Fairgrounds and bends slightly south to match the downtown street grid before passing through the Iowa Capitol complex, the eclectic architecture of a newly thriving East Village and alongside City Hall before crossing the Principal Riverwalk and Des Moines River.
West of the river Grand Avenue is home to Iowa’s tallest buildings, Des Moines’ signature John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, and four buildings designed by world-famous architects:
Ludwig Meis van der Rohe’s 1962 bank building at Sixth Street – now offices for the Catholic Diocese of Des Moines.
London architect David Chipperfield’s uniquely shaped, two-block-long, see-through public library, which opened in 2006 between 10th and 12th streets.
Italian architect Renzo Piano’s nautically inspired Krause Gateway Center, which opened in 2018 with huge glass walls and rooflines that pay homage to the downtown’s off-center street grid.
The Des Moines Art Center at 44th Street with wings designed by Finish-born Eliel Saarinen (1948), Chinese-born I.M. Pei (1966) and Richard Meier (1985).
Grand has been home to many of the city’s largest and most prestigious residences as far back as 1869 when Terrace Hill, now the Iowa governor’s mansion, was built by pioneer businessman B.F. Allen.
Although Grand Avenue may be the city’s best-known street, it is not the longest – University Avenue and East 14th Street are each about a mile longer than Grand.
Nor is it the oldest street. An 1844 map shows a planned grid that is six blocks wide and seven blocks deep. East-west streets were named Elm, Market, Vine, Cherry, Mulberry, Walnut and Locust. Cross streets were Water, Second, Third and on up to Eighth Street.
An 1854 map shows a much larger area and includes the earliest known versions of Sycamore Street and Greenwood Avenue, two streets that were merged during the 1890s to become Grand Avenue.
On that early map, Sycamore begins at Fifth Street and runs west to what is now 17th Street, where it bends to merge with Greenwood Avenue, which is on a true east-west grid, unlike downtown streets.
During the earliest years, Keokuk Road, a wagon route, approximated the path of Grand Avenue east of the river. Once the city began growing, Keokuk became East Sycamore Street.
As strange as it sounds today, the California gold rush was responsible for Des Moines’ first traffic jam in 1850, according to historian George Mills, who in 1991 wrote “Looking in Windows: Surprising Stories of Old Des Moines.”
Mills said a bottleneck of California-bound wagons collected at the Des Moines River, where the only way across was a flatboat ferry, which “operated a little south of what is now Grand Avenue.”
The ferry did land-office business in early 1850 when it “carried 1,049 teams of horses and wagons and 2,813 people in six weeks,” Mills wrote.
Later that year, the first pontoon bridge across the river was built “on a line with the present Grand Avenue,” Mills added, but the bridge was carried away in a flood, as were later bridges at Market, Walnut and Court.
The city began paving streets with cedar blocks in 1882 and switched to bricks in 1889, records show.
Newspapers show the name “grand avenue” for many years was a lowercase description for the widening of Sycamore Street and Greenwood Avenue to accommodate attendance at the Iowa State Fair in 1879, the year it moved to Des Moines. The original fairgrounds were on Greenwood (Grand) Avenue at 38th Street, before they were moved to the current site on the east side in 1886.
Articles touted the new “grand avenue” to the west-side fairgrounds.
The name caught on and city directories show that by the turn of the century, the entire length of Greenwood Avenue and Sycamore Street had been renamed Grand Avenue.