“Downtown D.M.: Where Is It Heading” was the headline in the Des Moines Tribune 50 years ago on July 6, 1970. The three-part series by reporter Arnold Garson examined problems rooted in the changing lifestyles of the post-World War II era.

As population grew and families moved away from the downtown core, the city’s vibrant retail economy also migrated to the suburbs. Major downtown retailers, including a Davidson store, the New Utica, Sears and Montgomery Ward, either closed or moved to Merle Hay Mall.
It wasn’t that Des Moines’ economy was bad. In fact, Garson listed a dozen significant downtown efforts in recent years, including: 

  • The sleek black-steel and glass office of Home Federal Savings and Loan at Sixth and Grand designed by renowned architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Now the Catholic Pastoral Center, the three-story bank office opened in 1962 with an expansive ground-floor patio set back from the street.
  •  The “muscular” headquarters for insurer American Republic that opened in 1965 on Sixth Avenue north of the city center. Architect Gordon Bunshaft, a Mies protégé at Chicago-based Skidmore Owings and Merrill, turned convention on its ear, designing six floors that looked like bureau drawers – office workers occupying window seats and executive offices pushed to the middle.
  • The 14-story Central National Bank building at Sixth and Locust Street. Completed in 1967, it  was downtown’s first commercial office building since 1931. The bank initially hired “a major national architect” to design a $3 million building. But when estimates topped $6 million, the bank pulled the plug and turned the project over to a private developer who built a less expensive building and leased the ground floor to the bank.

Meanwhile, EMC Insurance chief Robb Kelley shared Central National’s concerns and cut two floors off the new building his company moved into in 1971.
There were many reasons the downtown felt unmoored in 1970.
First, there was no plan. At least no plan that was being followed. Business leaders had commissioned a comprehensive plan a decade earlier, but it was quickly shelved.
Another problem was land ownership. Much of downtown real estate was tied up in a perpetual trust created in 1903 by real estate and insurance pioneer F.M. Hubbell. Hubbell died in 1930 but his trust did not expire until 1983, and until then many efforts were on hold because of the difficulty of developing or redeveloping  property held by the trust.
Elsewhere, ownership of many downtown locations had become fractionalized, making it difficult to obtain agreement among multiple owners.
A good example was the land under the Davidson store at Seventh and Walnut streets where the Financial Center stands today.
The store closed in 1964 and the eight-story Davidson building sat empty for four years before Des Moines Savings and Loan bought it and demolished the building. One reason for the delay was that the property’s more than 100 owners were scattered across the country.
Despite the difficulties, Garson’s three Tribune articles offered hope. 

A new generation of leaders that included transportation wiz John Ruan and banker John Fitzgibbon was coming of age and had convinced retailer J.C. Penney to remain downtown. There was talk of replacing the Davidson store with a new hotel and retail mall on Walnut Street. Major new buildings were also being considered by Fitzgibbon’s Iowa Des Moines National Bank and Ruan’s Bankers Trust. 

Much would be accomplished in the decade that followed, although not always in the locations under consideration in 1970.
One final prescient note from those newspaper stories of 50 years ago: American Republic chief Watson Powell Jr., whose oddly shaped new building had stunned many, talked about the value  that quality of life improvements have in attracting new talent to the city.