The Elbert Files: The Hippee Building
George B. Hippee was one of Des Moines’ most enigmatic business leaders 100 years ago – a successful banker, developer and railroad owner who was accused in 1906 of attempting to bribe a city official.
Hippee is again a person of interest today as his signature accomplishment, the 12-story Hippee Building, prepares to reopen as the Surety Hotel, a boutique inn in the heart of Des Moines’ original financial district.
Hippee’s father, George M. Hippee, was one of the city’s earliest pioneers, an Ohio drug merchant who arrived in December 1855, seven months after legendary businessman Frederick M. Hubbell had stepped off a stagecoach on Court Avenue.
The elder Hippee “was one of the first to venture up Court avenue from Second street,” and he built the city’s first three-story brick commercial building, according to the Des Moines Tribune.
Son George B. was born in 1860 and grew up in the parlors and counting rooms of his father’s business associates, including Hubbell and his law partner Jefferson Polk, whose daughter George B. married in 1887.
While Hippee’s father focused on banking, father-in-law Polk ran the city’s street car franchise, expanding it to include interurban railroads to Ames and other nearby towns beginning in 1874.
George B. worked for Polk, replacing horse power with electricity, and was named president of the Des Moines Railway Co. in 1898.
But then came trouble.
Newspaper headlines told the story: “Hippee is held for bribery.” “General Manager of Street Railway Company Arrested.” “Alderman Hamery Files Charges in Connection With Street Railway Franchise.”
In 1906, a newly elected alderman accused Hippee and an associate of offering “several hundred dollars” to “vote for the reduction of the assessed valuation of the Des Moines Railway company,” the newspaper reported.
The case went before a grand jury in October. On a split vote, the jurors declined to indict, leading to two years of additional headlines before the case was dropped.
Hippee left the railroad business and, after his father died in 1911, focused on one of his father’s banks.
In 1912 he announced plans to build the 12-story Hippee Building on the west side of Sixth Avenue between Walnut and Mulberry streets. The bank would be his signature tenant.
The building would be the tallest in Des Moines, one story higher than the immediately adjacent Fleming Building, which had opened in 1907.
Those were heady years for Des Moines development with more than a dozen significant buildings rising up during the first decade of the new century, including the Polk County Courthouse in 1906 and City Hall in 1910.
The Fleming Building was designed by Daniel Burnham, creator of Chicago’s “White City” in 1893 and New York’s famously shaped Flat Iron Building in 1901, and it was considered the best commercial address in the city.
But now, Hippee’s building would have more architectural ornamentation on its doors, windows and rooflines, and it would be taller, the tallest in Des Moines until the Equitable Building arrived in 1923.
Ultimately, Hippee’s building would prove as enigmatic as its developer.
The cost to Hippee in 1913 was $650,000. He sold it for $1.5 million in 1924 to the Southern Surety Co., which renamed it the Southern Surety Building. In 1947, Des Moines Building-Savings and Loan bought it and renamed it the Savings and Loan Building, which changed to Midland Building when the S&L rebranded in the 1980s as Midland Saving Bank.
Florist/developer Ed Boesen bought the building in 2005 for $750,000 with plans, but little money to redevelop it. He died by suicide three years later.
Chicago-based Aparium Hotel Group purchased the building for $2.6 million three years ago and expects to complete a $40 million renovation this summer and reopen as the Surety Hotel.