The flywheel from the original elevator of the Argonne apartment building is part of the artwork being installed where a billboard once stood on top of the building at 1723 Grand Ave. in Des Moines. The artwork, called Workaday Ghosts, was designed by Peter Goche, a local installation artist, architect and educator. Photo by Joe Crimmings


For more than 70 years, a billboard sat atop the one-story annex of the Argonne building in downtown Des Moines.

This week, artwork that includes the flywheel from the original elevator at the Argonne building, located at 1723 Grand Ave. in downtown Des Moines, is taking the place of that billboard. The artwork also includes galvanized pipe and copper wire, all of which is being installed on the heavy metal framework that supported the billboard. The artwork will be lit at night.
Called Workaday Ghosts, the artwork is designed by local architect, educator and installation artist Peter Goche. The artwork includes the flywheel from the original Argonne elevator. The galvanized rods will reflect the sky and sun, creating different "dynamic ghostly effects" that will appear differently depending on the time of day and year, Goshe wrote in a description of the art.

The flywheel represents the Industrial Age and is a reference to the people who once lived in the Argonne and worked at the Ford assembly plant that was located across the street, he said.

"One of the things we tend to do as a culture is erase history," Goche said. "In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a lot of razing of old buildings. It was more economical to tear them down than restore them."

Workaday Ghosts is an attempt to "gain some interest by the public in the history of this place," he said. "It’s very easy to forget that both agriculture and industrialization is essentially what built Des Moines."

Joe Cordaro, principal of Benchmark Real Estate, bought the Argonne in 2013. The structure includes a four-story brick building and one-story annex, both built around 1915.
In the 1920s, the Argonne housed workers from a factory – first the Ford Assembly Plant and later the Solar Aircraft Co. – located across the street at 1800 Grand Ave., which now houses Des Moines schools’ Central Campus and Downtown School.

The first floor and annex of the Argonne included retail, an auto garage and five automotive-related showrooms. The Argonne is the "last remaining building containing an auto showroom on Grand Avenue," according to a history of the building compiled by Benchmark Real Estate.

Cordaro hired Goche to help design the building’s $7.25 million historic renovation, which was completed earlier this year. The building includes 45 apartments and street-level commercial space that is available for lease. Cordaro also asked Goche to design the artwork that would replace the billboard.

"The Argonne was recognized as ‘the building on Grand with the billboard,’" Cordaro said. "We didn’t want to have any advertising on it but we wanted to preserve the historic nature of the billboard and contribute to the public art that is so fascinating around that area."

Cordaro said he also wanted to provide Goche, who has been involved with the historic renovations of several buildings in the Des Moines area, to showcase his talent as an artist.
"What he’s done around town is bring back to life other architects’ original vision," Cordaro said. Workaday Ghosts "serves as not only a tribute to the workers but also as a nod to Pete, who has been instrumental in a lot of rehabilitation efforts in Des Moines."
Workers doing demolition at the Argonne found the elevator flywheel when they were tearing out some walls on the north side of the building, Cordaro said. The elevator had been decommissioned after fire in the building in the 1930s or 1940s, he said.

The elevator shaft "had floors put into it," Cordaro said. "When I bought the building, those were the laundry closets on each floor. [During the demolition] we found the flywheel that had been encapsulated in the wall."

Said Goche: "The whole idea of mounting the historic flywheel from a former elevator in the Argonne Building … is a way of trying to recall the historical Industrial Age, which relates back to the Ford assembly plant."

Cordaro and Goche estimate it will take about two weeks to complete the installation of Workaday Ghosts, which was approved by the National Park Service, which oversees a program preserving historic place in the U.S.

Top photo: A view looking down on Workday Ghosts, which is being installed on the one-story annex of the Argonne building at 1723 Grand Ave. Photo by Joe Crimmings Bottom photo: The photo from May 2019 shows the billboard on the roof of the Argonne Building’s annex. Business Record file photo

Related content:
Read Argonne Building’s renovation nearing completion
Watch a video showing the renovations of the Argonne Building.