It actually was kind of fun to spend a few consecutive days in downtown Des Moines this week, although big bland windowless conference rooms created by moving ceiling-mounted panels around don’t enhance a guy’s sense of place.
But this always has been “my” city, since Chariton and the capital are only 50 miles apart, the go-to place for special occasions and special needs --- not at the drop of a hat to buy cheaper widgets at Home Depot, however.
Golly, when I was really small you could board a train to Des Moines at the Chariton depot in the morning, then turn around and board another train for Chariton that evening. Not many people did that by the 1950s, of course, which is why it’s no longer an option.
I came equipped with a vision problem that required specialists, so we were downtown frequently beginning when I was say 3 or 4 years old. Their offices were in the Equitable Building, at that time Des Moines’ tallest I believe. I was really impressed, especially by the brass-bound, wood-paneled elevators, each with an attendant. I’d still be impressed by that, if I could find one.
I plucked this kind of arid photo of the downtown skyline as seen from the south from Wikipedia because it reminded me of how things have changed. The classic tower of the 1906 Polk County Courthouse is at far right, The brick building with the white top a step up to the left, with a tower mirroring in shape that of the courthouse, is the Equitable Building.
The brown step up to the left of Equitable is John Ruan’s Ruan Center (in rust we trust); and some distance to the west, 801 Grand, now Iowa’s tallest building and the centerpiece of the Principal Financial Group campus --- never forget that Principal was founded by Chariton’s own Edward Ames Temple.
The building with the curved roof in front of the Principal tower is the EMI Building, which caused something of a stir after it was completed because when viewed from heights across the river it looked exactly as if the architects had embedded a multi-story Absolut vodka bottle in the south façade.
Out of the picture to the right (east) of the courthouse tower is the Court Avenue entertainment district, then the Des Moines River, then the East Village, then perched atop its hill our beautiful 1871-86 multi-domed state capitol surrounded by government buildings ranging in design from sublime to ugly as dirt.
Out of the picture to the left is the newly redeveloped Western Gateway and the Pappajohn Sculpture Park. Drive through all of that and you’ll hit the Grand Avenue hills and the “south-of-grand” neighborhood north of the Raccoon River, still the most prestigious place the live.
Anyhow, when I was a kid much of downtown Des Moines other than the Equitable and other comparable office buildings and hotels looked a good deal like a county seat town on steroids, streets lined with retail and some wonderful old movie theaters.
Just to be down there shortly before Christmas when the lights were bright and streets bustling with real live shoppers in addition to office workers was quite a treat. Who else remembers the flagship Younkers, lunch at Bishops Buffet (chocolate pie to die for), the KRNT Theater, live broadcasts of WHO Radio's "Barn Dance" from Hoyt Sherman Place?
If you wanted to tour the grand old Capitol building, you still could climb (without permission or supervision) the narrow stair that circled up inside the shell of the central dome to an observation deck at the tiptop --- and a view not many see these days.
Anyhow, malls sprouted, bulldozers moved in, architects started looking up and downtown kind of went away --- and so did many of the rest of us. Not that we didn’t come back now and then, for an appointment, to commune on some occasions in the grand flagship churches on Piety Hill or on other occasions in the flagship gay bars --- Blazing Saddle and The Garden, still East Village fixtures. When I was a pup, so was Java Joe's. But it really was kind of grim for a while.
Downtown’s back now, and I like it --- in an angular urban-canyon sort of way that still is recognizably Iowa --- clean, neat, trees where possible, cement-bound versions of Grandma’s flower garden, generally friendly people and, since it is compact, within walking distance of the river or broader green spaces.
The East Village has revived, the Court Avenue district has revived, lots of folks are moving into newly-developed downtown housing, the river walk is fun. If you had to live in the city, it would be kind of a cool place to do that --- if HyVee or Dahl’s would build the first multi-story downtown superstore on a compact footprint so you didn’t still have to drive somewhere to get groceries.
As long as I’ve been coming into the Des Moines from the south, it's been on Southeast 14th Street, once almost rural; now, ragtag mixed commercial. I always note the constants driving in. The Hawkeye and Cozy Rest motels still are there, once bright and shiny, now faded lodging based primarily on economic necessity.
And Sister Ann, Psychic Reader, still is perched in her little house above a sea of recreational vehicle sales and service lots, one of the few actual houses sill along 14th, with a big Cadillac parked in a shelter to the north and an even bigger shiny pickup parked in the cemented front yard/parking lot.
Many of those who live not far from Southeast 14th are now Hispanic or Latino, so quite a number of business names are in Spanish. Sister Ann has added a version of her sign translated into Spanish, too.
That’s reassuring. You never know when you’re going to need a psychic reader --- and there’s something to be said for continuity and progress combined.