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The Elbert Files: The riverfront a century ago


The Principal Riverwalk and World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, which have dramatically transformed the downtown riverfront are part of a tradition of riverfront improvements that go back more than a century. 

The efforts began as far back as the 1890s when riverside brick-making factories and other industries prompted complaints that the Des Moines River had become an industrial sewer lined with billboards.

Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition and its “White City” of the future presaged 20th century efforts to boost civic pride by showing how new inventions and better planning could improve the quality of life. 

Phillip Kell, manager of Iowa Turf Publishing Co., was among the first to see the possibilities for Des Moines in 1896. 

Thirty years ago, New York architect Mario Gandelsonas told about Kell’s effort and other riverfront plans during the founding days of the Des Moines Vision Plan, which remade the downtown into a 21st century model of urban living.  

Kell’s idea was to create a riverside boulevard, a “tree-lined drive with a center bicycle lane along the river north of the Center Street dam and extending to the bathhouse,” which was more than a mile upstream, Gandelsonas explained.

Kell envisioned a road that would connect the city’s burgeoning park system. A version of Kell’s plan, with an added chain of riverfront parks with lagoons and groves, was included in the park commission’s 1899 annual report.

“None of the plan would come to fruition,” but that did not stop the city from solidifying control over the downtown riverfront, Gandelsonas said.    

In 1898 a riverfront site was provided for the first Public Library of Des Moines, which opened in 1903. (The building underwent a $30 million renovation in 2011 and is now the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates.) 

At the dawn of the 20th century, a campaign was underway to create a Civic Center District that featured public buildings along the downtown riverfront with seven built by 1930.

In 1900, the Park Board hired Boston architect Warren H. Manning, a “White City” veteran, who  expanded the concept of riverside boulevards and promenades. His plans were dropped following a 1903 flood that was described as the worst since 1851.

In 1906, the East Des Moines Commercial Club commissioned a riverfront plan by Charles E. Eastman to stimulate interest in a new city hall on the east bank of the river. The cornerstone was laid in 1910 and City Hall opened in 1912.

By then two more riverfront plans were on the table.

A 1908 plan created by Frank E. Wetherell at the request of the Chamber of Commerce proposed an interurban railway depot at Second and Des Moines streets and small landscaped parks along the riverfront from the Center Street dam to the Raccoon River with parallel rows of trees lining the riverbanks.

A year later, the Federation of Des Moines Women’s Clubs hired nationally known planner Charles Mumford Robinson to report on city-wide beautification efforts and propose a master plan for the entire city.

Robinson introduced the idea of zoning and building codes, as well as a public market, public restrooms and a new Union Station. He wanted to tie the State Capitol to the riverfront by widening Locust Street from 30-feet to 96-feet, bury water and gas pipes under the river and permanently raise the water level with a dam.

He also proposed a transportation plaza near the Polk County Courthouse, suggested freight traffic be routed south of the city and the Raccoon River be diverted to control flooding. 

Most of Robinson’s proposals were still on the table when a 1920s farm crisis pulled Iowa into recession a full decade before the Great Depression.

As the 1930s began, even grander plans were posited, and they will be the focus of a future column.

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