DES MOINES – It’s been part of the Des Moines community for 165 years. Today, it’s one of Iowa’s most treasured historic districts.
The East Des Moines Commercial Historic District has been added to the National Register of Historic Places. The official historic district, within the broader East Village, was originally platted in 1854, and its period of historic significance is tied to its ethnic heritage, social history and architecture from 1873 through 1959.
"We're pleased the East Des Moines Commercial Historic District has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, and we commend all the stakeholders who worked so hard on this successful nomination," State Historian Laura Sadowsky said. "This recognition marks an important milestone for Des Moines as it continues to preserve the legacy of its past for future generations of Iowans to enjoy."
Many of the district’s commercial buildings have historical associations with European immigrants, including Scandinavian and Eastern European Jewish immigrant communities that settled on the near east side beginning in the 1870s and 1880s and became merchants, tradespeople and professionals delivering goods and services from buildings within the district, according to the district's National Register nomination.
Geographically asymmetrical, the district as listed on the National Register is bound roughly by Des Moines Street to the north, East Locust Street to the south, East Fourth Street to the west and East Sixth Street to the east. It contains 40 buildings that contribute to its historic status, including seven that have been previously listed on the National Register and two others that are eligible for listing.
The district features the city's "largest grouping of 19th- and early 20th-century retail storefront architecture, including rare surviving Italianate buildings among its mix of commercial buildings,” the nomination form said. “The range of buildings illustrates the evolution of retail, trade and professional commerce in the city of Des Moines from circa 1873 through the 1950s – from narrow simple storefronts to large, richly ornamented brick commercial blocks to soaring low-rise skyscraper to automobile-related service stations and mid-century discount chain stores.”
The nomination describes three different generations of building construction that took place in the district from the 1840s until 1959, including:
- First-generation buildings (1840s-1890s) were framed with wood and included single family homes, double-houses and row houses, some of which have been remodeled or replaced by commercial buildings. The Swedish Mission building at 509-511 E. 5th St. is one example.
- Second-generation buildings (1870s-1920s) were built almost exclusively of brick in a variety of styles popular at the time, including Italianate, Gothic Revival, Romanesque Revival, Queen Anne, Classical and Commercial styles. These brick storefronts with ground-floor retail/service had second-floor living spaces and were owned or leased by merchants and service professionals, including many of Scandinavian or Jewish heritage. The district contains several rare surviving buildings from this time period, such as:
- The 1894 Samuel Green Rowhouse at 425 E. Grand Ave., the only known surviving row house on the east side of Des Moines. It was moved within the district in 2013 and represents the once-common row house that provided multi-family housing near Capitol Hill. It now houses a wine bar called Della Viti.
- The landmark First Swedish Evangelical Lutheran Church, now called Capitol Hill Lutheran Church, at 511 Des Moines St. remains on its original site and in operation since 1886. This is a rare surviving religious institution in an area that was wiped clean of most residential housing between 1910s and 1960s due to City Beautiful riverfront cleanup, mid-century urban renewal, freeway construction and government expansion.
- Third-generation buildings (1920s-1950s) generally reflect continued influences of the automobile on both design and use. This era saw many properties redeveloped or remodeled as part of the East Des Moines Auto Row, including Orville Lowe's Ford auto showroom and service center on the site of two former houses at 524 E. 6th St., which is now occupied by several businesses, including Alba Restaurant. Its minimal design and concrete masonry block construction in 1946 was an expression of post-war Modernism. Many existing older buildings were modernized via “facelifts,” reflecting the continual need for merchants and manufacturers to modernize and adapt to new technologies. In addition to Modernism, stylistic influences included Art Deco, Commercial and Moderne.
Over the years, river flooding, fires, building collapses, government expansion, parking-lot development and urban renewal substantially eroded the number of historic buildings in the district.
“This elevates the importance of these rare-surviving buildings within the historic district boundaries,” the nomination form said.
The seven buildings within the district previously listed on the National Register of Historic Places include:
- Three buildings within the Italianate 1878-1883 Baker-DeVotie-Hollingsworth Block/Studio Block, 516-526 E. Grand Ave. Listed in 1978.
- The Renaissance Revival 1883 Syndicate Block/McCoy Building, 501-507 E. Locust St. Listed in 2001.
- The rare surviving 1898 cast-iron Hohberger Building, 502-506 E. Locust St. Listed in 2002.
- The commercial-style low-rise skyscraper Teachout Building, 500-502 E. Locust St. Listed in 1999.
- The Art Deco Elliott Furniture Building, 425 E. Locust St. Listed in 2015.
In addition, several properties next to the historic district may be eligible as contributing buildings if cover-up façade treatments are removed, including the J.R. Cohen Wholesale Cigars Building, 315 E. 5th St., built in 1888.
The State Historic Preservation Office oversees the National Register of Historic Places program in Iowa in conjunction with the National Park Service. The State Historic Preservation Office is part of the State Historical Society of Iowa, a division of the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs.
The Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and its three divisions – the Iowa Arts Council, Produce Iowa - State Office of Media Production and the State Historical Society of Iowa – empower Iowa to build and sustain culturally vibrant communities by connecting Iowans to the people, places and points of pride that define our state. The department’s work enables Iowa to be recognized as a state that fosters creativity and serves as a catalyst for innovation where the stories of Iowa are preserved and communicated to connect past, present and future generations.