Saturday is a big day for Zachary Mannheimer and the staff and volunteers at the Des Moines Social Club. They have spent seven years working toward it.

May 10 is the official grand opening for the Des Moines Social Club Firehouse. The historic 30,000-square-foot space is the culmination of a $3.5 million campaign to convert the abandoned fire station into an arts, culture and social center that gives the Social Club room to stretch its legs. The Firehouse, at 900 Mulberry St., is 25,000 square feet larger than any of the homes the Social Club had in the past. Inside, it houses a theater, an art gallery, a coffee and comic book shop, a restaurant and a bar, to name a sampling of the many things it will offer.

According to Mannheimer, executive director of the Social Club, one of the immediate goals – one that likely will be fulfilled as early at Saturday’s grand opening – is to bring residents of Des Moines together in ways they may not have considered before. However, Mannheimer is already looking past the grand opening and predicting that not only will the Social Club’s new location provide a place for local emerging artists to grow, but that its economic impact will far outweigh what it cost to get there.

“(The firehouse) would have made more money as a parking garage, but in the long term, the economic development we will bring to Des Moines is ridiculous,” he said. “With our budget and the number of people that will be coming through here, we will have an economic impact 
of $7 million in Central Iowa just through what we do.”

Aside from the economic impact, Mannheimer said he hopes the Firehouse will draw new residents to Des Moines and put the community on the radar for young people trying to establish themselves as artists.

“We will see Des Moines change in front of our eyes within the next five years,” he said. “There is no space like this anywhere else in the country, and on a national scale, this will be recognized for what it does for culture.”


Approaching his seventh year as a resident of Des Moines, Mannheimer -- who is originally from Philadelphia -- spent 10 years living in London and New York City, where he operated theater companies and restaurants. He was missing something, though, and during the summer of 2007, Mannheimer took a road trip across the country, checking out 22 cities to see where he wanted to move to next.

Des Moines was the place he chose.

“You can’t make a living as an artist in New York, and that’s something I tell a lot of young people,” Mannheimer said. “Chances of being an artist in Des Moines are much higher, and I wanted to see my art making a difference in my lifetime. I wanted to see results.”

Mannheimer spent a year working at the Des Moines Embassy Club, a job that helped him make the necessary connections to receive a $100,000 gift in 2008 to start what is now the Des Moines Social Club. 

The Social Club’s first home was at 1408 Locust St., near the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park. This was before the building was renovated, and thanks to the help of 200 volunteers to clean up the space, the Social Club called it home for approximately two years. The original location housed an art gallery, a black box theater, a bar and three classroom spaces.

“The space there was held together by dirt,” Mannheimer said. “We had a hodgepodge of stuff thrown together. Frankly, we didn’t know what we were doing.”

The building eventually was sold to another owner, and the Social Club relocated to the Kirkwood Hotel. The organization converted an old ballroom into a theater and an office. The lack of space was limiting, Mannheimer said, and leaders spent much of the time they were there raising awareness of the Social Club’s need for a new space, as well as raising funds and searching for the club’s next home.

Assistant City Manager Matt Anderson and City Councilwoman Christine Hensley were the first to suggest that the Social Club consider the vacant downtown firehouse for its next home, Mannheimer said. 

“There was a series of buildings we tried to buy and many reasons why those buildings didn’t work out,” he said. “We had a brief discussion with the city as to where another nonprofit belonged in downtown Des Moines. ... They were instrumental in helping us secure this location.”

Chad Cox, president of the Social Club’s board of directors, joined the organization about six months prior to the city’s vote to allow the Social Club to purchase the firehouse. He was not involved in the search, but he said he loved the building’s historical vibe and the symbolism it brought with it.

“I’ve always thought firefighters have a great grasp on how to engage the community,” Cox said. “I’ve hired firefighters in the past. They give back an incredible amount to the community, have a great work ethic and they do a great job bringing the community together, and that’s also what we’re trying to do.” 

The building’s history helped the Social Club staff determine what to offer those who will gather there. Mannheimer said.

“We were limited in what we could do by the historical nature of the building,” he said. “There was a period of discovery, and I think the building organically told us where it wanted these things. It worked out well because we’re already out of space and we haven’t even opened yet.”


The Social Club’s goal, first and foremost, is to create a space where local artists can create and present their work and to get the resources and support needed to develop it. Second, Social Club leaders hope to partner with local companies to continue promoting the recruitment and retention of young people in Des Moines.

“We always tout that Iowa has all these people who grow up here, leave in their 20s, and come back in their 30s when they want to have kids -- that’s not a good measure to me,” Mannheimer said. “I think it’s fine they go out and see these other places, but I want people who grow up in Chicago to come here in their 20s, and we don’t see any of that.”

Cox said partnerships have been formed with Drake and Grand View universities. The Social Club will provide internships for students. 

Finally, the Firehouse will help the Social Club achieve its third key goal of offering new and better ways to bring residents of Greater Des Moines together.

“That’s the philosophy behind what we do -- how do you get two people who wouldn’t normally socialize together in the same room at the same time?” Mannheimer said. “Des Moines is so much more ideologically diverse than New York City, and I think that’s way healthier. ... This can help bridge those ideological gaps we have, and when you can do that through the arts, everybody wins.”

Under the Social Club’s funding structure, a quarter of its revenue will come from building tenants, and a significant amount will come from programming. Mannheimer said the goal over 10 years is to hit a point where 80 percent of the organization’s budget comes from earned revenue. Right now earned revenue is between 40 and 50 percent of budget.

But that’s right now.

Mannheimer predicts that if the organization hits that 80 percent goal, the people who come through the Social Club each year will contribute $7 million to the local economy. 

Social Club leaders hope the Firehouse will expand Des Moines’ arts and culture scene. Des Moines is a blank canvas, Mannheimer said, and there are a lot of ways in which the city can continue to develop its draw to newcomers and maintain the unique offerings that keep residents here. 

What's inside the Firehouse

Circus, Culinary, Dance, Education, Film, Literary, Music, Social, Theater, Visual Arts

Located across the courtyard in the firehouse’s former maintenance shop, the black box theater with no fixed stage or seating will be home to performances by Repertory Theater of Iowa, Des Moines Onstage, StageWest Theater Company, 3XWrestling, Iowa School of Burlesque and more.

The basement bar and rooftop terrace will feature craft beers, whiskeys and cocktails paired with entertainment pods.

The Viaduct Gallery is a partnership with Grand View University to showcase artwork by emerging local, regional, national and international artists. Led by Director Elise Goodmann, the gallery is curated by local artists Rachel Buse, Joe Crimmings, Benjamin Gardner, Jami Graves and Aaron Tinder. 

Housed in the firehouse’s former apparatus bay, MALO restaurant – the newest culinary venture by Orchestrate – will serve Latin cuisine. The restaurant officially opens May 14 but will sell samples of both food and drink offerings at the grand opening.

To support the music and spoken word scene in Des Moines, the Social Club will house a recording studio for use by local artists at a discounted rate.

Handball court 
Rent for: Small parties and meetings.
Culinary studio 
Rent for: cooking classes and demonstrations
Studio A 
Rent for: Movement classes like yoga, fitness or dance
Studios B and C 
Rent for: Meetings and classes for up to 20 people
Rent for: Outdoor concerts, receptions and other large-group events

Formerly Cup O’ Kryptonite, the Fire-house’s former dispatching center becomes a combined coffeehouse and comic book store.  

Contains offices of local nonprofits, including the Civic Music Association and Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines Collaborative Office Space.

The memorial will feature work from local artists and mementos from former Des Moines firefighters who were stationed at the firehouse.

“If this building does anything, I hope it sends a signal not just to young people but everyone in Des Moines that if they have an idea, they can realize it,” Mannheimer said. “This started from nothing, but it grew rapidly, and Des Moines is one of the few places where that can happen.”

What a few cultural leaders had to say

For downtown Des Moines, what will be the economic impact of the Social Club’s new location?

Sally Dix
executive director, Bravo Greater Des Moines

“A good friend of mine says that the biggest threat to arts and culture in Des Moines is people who choose to stay home. There’s no doubt the Social Club gives new reasons to get out and participate, and the draw to so many different audiences can’t help but impact the economy in a variety of positive ways.”

Glenn Lyons
president and CEO, Downtown Community Alliance

“I see the Des Moines Social Club as having a very positive impact on downtown. Its location at Ninth and Mulberry (streets) will bring more life to downtown’s core and to the Walnut Street area. There are a number of restaurants on 10th Street that should directly benefit from it. ... The long-term impact will be in attracting or retaining young people in Des Moines. Recruiting young, highly trained people to work in Des Moines is difficult because the competition out there is so intense. Anything that can convey the impression that this would be a good city to live in helps.”

Amedeo Rossi
project manager, 80/35 music festival

“The kind of economic impact I would like to see is more artists working in their particular discipline full time. The huge anchor of 
this project has always been theater -- working actors, writers, directors, technical people, stage design, lighting design, etc.  Seeing more money flow directly to creatives changes the nature of our city. A healthy economy is not only about attorneys, accountants, actuaries and bankers. To be viable, we need art and entertainment as much as we need anything else.”

How will it change the downtown culture scene?

Glenn Lyons
“The addition of a new theater will be a big help to the downtown arts scene. And the Social Club will offer opportunities to artists to showcase their work in ways that the existing theaters do not.”

Amedeo Rossi
“The Social Club has always supported a wide variety of things. I think their classrooms and spaces will bring new opportunities in many disciplines. Fundamentally, the theater is the centerpiece of everything that is good. I look forward to the day a significant play/musical is launched from Des Moines with all area talent leading the way.”

Chris Ford
program manager, Greater Des Moines Music Coalition

“The Social Club has the opportunity to change the downtown scene for the better if it can truly put the power into the hands of the creatives who will generate entertaining content and meaningful experiences. The space needs to be ‘owned’ by the creators for it to reach its full potential. I think they have a good team of people who can make it happen.”