The Elbert Files: Little-told Younkers stories
Friday, April 18, 2014 7:00 AM
Much has been written about the former downtown Younkers store since the March 29 fire, but here are five things you probably do not know, courtesy of the National Register of Historic Places and architect Kirk Blunck.
No. 1: The store was actually three buildings cobbled together during the past 100 years and reconfigured more than two dozen times.
The first building was erected in 1899 at a cost of about $160,000 on the east half of what we now call the Younkers block on Walnut Street between Seventh and Eighth streets. It was five stories tall with 90,000 square feet and was built by Charles and Fred Weitz. It had extra-wide sidewalks paved with glass to allow daylight into the basement.
The new store replaced a “Ten Cents Store” operated by the Younkers brothers one block east, where the Kaleidoscope at the Hub mall is today.
Seven Younker brothers had emigrated from Poland during the mid-1800s. Three brothers opened a dry goods store in Keokuk in 1856. A fourth brother, Herman Younker, opened a store in Des Moines in 1874. The Des Moines store became the focus of the family business after the Keokuk store closed in 1879.
The opening of the Des Moines store was delayed by an Oct. 3, 1899 fire that destroyed a department store on the east side of Seventh Street. The fire was so intense it broke 71 windows in the new Younkers building.
The store finally opened on Nov. 9, 1899.
It was such a success that a major addition – the second building – was added in 1909. The retailer tore down an adjacent three-story building and expanded 44 feet to the north. At the same time, a sixth story was added to the original building, creating a single front along Seventh Street.
No. 2: The third structure that was eventually incorporated into the Younkers store was a six-story commercial building erected in 1908 by pioneer businessman Frederick M. Hubbell.
Hubbell owned land on Walnut Street just west of the Younkers store, and following Younkers’ success, he decided to construct a building of equal size and scope. During construction, the new building was called the Hubbell Building. But when Wilkins Department Store was signed as a tenant, it became the Wilkins Building.
Wilkins had a 15-year lease. When it expired, the department store declined to renew, prompting Hubbell to offer the space to Younkers, which signed a 92-year lease in 1923.
The following year, 1924, Younkers joined the two Walnut Street storefronts with a four-story bridge – Des Moines’ first skywalk – across the north-south alley that separated the buildings.
No. 3: The original Younkers building appears to be at least one story taller than the building on the west half of the block, even though each has six floors.
The height difference is because the ceilings of the first five floors in the east building are two to four feet taller than those in the west building. The one exception is the sixth floor, where the ceiling of the west building is 18 feet, 9- nches, a full four feet higher than the east building.
No. 4: Younkers’ first Tea Room was located in the east building but was moved to the sixth floor of the west building, where the ceiling was dramatically higher, following the 1924 remodel.
No. 5: Hubbell’s 1908 building was the first commercial structure in Des Moines to use reinforced concrete floors and columns.
That and other fire suppressant systems used in the west building were perfected during the decade after the original Younkers building was completed.
It’s still too early to know what exactly happened on March 29, but it is clear that the fire that gutted the 1899 building did far less damage to the more technologically advanced 1908 building.
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