Nearly a century ago, Des Moines planners envisioned a downtown riverfront bedecked with wide plazas and monumental architecture similar to 1930s Berlin. They even included a Brandenburg Gate-like feature.  

The proposals never got off the ground and sound strange today, but they were taken seriously at the time.

Des Moines’ population had more than doubled between 1880 and 1900. By 1920, it had doubled again to 126,000 residents. 

In a 1920 interview, banker Simon Casady foresaw “a quarter million population” in the not too distant future. He credited the growth to riverfront improvements.

“When I was a little boy,” the 68-year-old banker told the Des Moines Tribune, “the Des Moines River was a stench hole, … a place to dump tin cans, garbage and the debris of the town. When we went down to the river to swim we had to hold our noses to keep from smelling the dreadful odor.” 

I wrote last month about how city leaders at the turn of the 19th century were inspired by Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition to create a Civic Center District along the downtown riverfront and adorn it with public buildings. 

The Public Library was the first, completed in 1903. Three years later, a massive new Polk County Courthouse was built a few blocks west of the river. In 1908, the Des Moines Coliseum opened north of the library and a new post office to the south. (The Coliseum was destroyed by fire in 1949 and the post office is now the Polk County Office Building.) A new City Hall was completed in 1912 on the east riverbank, and in 1920 a new police station was added two blocks south of City Hall. 

By the 1920s, planners had recommended a growing list of riverside improvements, including tree-lined boulevards, bicycle lanes and a string of city parks. Little of that was accomplished, although significant transportation improvements occurred, including new bridges at Grand, Court and University avenues.

Each plan built on earlier proposals, often with little regard to reality or the economy, which by the mid-1920s included a statewide farm recession. Nonetheless, an ambitious 1928 plan called for a new convention hall, a bathing beach, baseball diamonds, a golf course and tennis courts between the Center Street Dam and University Avenue. None was built.

Separately, St. Louis planner Harland Bartholomew authored proposals in 1929 for a riverside art museum, fountains and monuments, including an obelisk in a traffic circle near City Hall. 

Local groups expanded and enlarged Bartholomew’s plan, and in 1931 the Des Moines Federation of Women’s Clubs hired artists to create images depicting the possibilities, which at one point included a proposal to locate a Union Station Railroad Depot on a platform above the Des Moines River. 

The Women’s Clubs’ final rendering was a wall-sized oil painting titled “Airplane View (of the) Civic Center,” which hangs today in a conference room in the city’s Argonne Armory Building. 

That idealistic view placed the train depot back on dry land east of the police station, but it  reconfigured much of the area.

The painting shows Center Street as an interstate-style highway and replaces the library and Coliseum. The Coliseum is in a new east-side location south of Center Street, while the library is shown as half of a pair of U-shaped buildings connected with massive open columns reminiscent of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. The library’s twin structure is for school administrators. 

Traffic on Locust Street flows east through the gate-like columns, around an obelisk, over the river and through a traffic circle before reaching the Iowa Capitol. 

The painting, which includes more than a dozen new structures, was displayed at all Des Moines high schools in 1933.

None of the proposed buildings ever materialized.