One of downtown’s busiest intersections became a lot more interesting last year after Meycon Construction converted the former Bank of America lobby at Sixth Avenue and Locust Street into an award-wining design studio for BNIM architects.

“The first week we were here, I looked out the window and saw Jim Cownie walk by, I saw Mayor (Frank) Cownie walk by. I saw (City Manager) Rick Clark walk by. It was just a series of major leaders in the community walking by every day,” said BNIM principal Rod Kruse.

“We love the glass and exposure,” he said of the 16-foot-tall windows that wrap around BNIM’s ground-floor space.

Except for a conference room and storage area, the firm’s 6,500 square feet are configured in an open plan that holds 18 equally spaced workstations.

“The office honors the tradition of a bank lobby, but does so in a contemporary manner,” said Erin Olson-Douglas, an urban designer for the city of Des Moines.

Pedestrians frequently pause outside the tall windows to view the activity inside, while the nearly floor-to-ceiling windows provide the architects with great views of ongoing renovations at the nearby Equitable and Des Moines buildings.

For most of the 20th century, Sixth and Locust was the core of the downtown financial district. Insurance companies and banks began locating there as early as 1900 and remained until late in the century, when many moved to the west end of downtown or the suburbs.

As a result, many nearby buildings are now being converted to housing and other uses.

But not the Bank of America Building. It is a bit of an oddity, having been built in the mid-1960s, decades after many of its older neighbors, but a decade or more in advance of the modern downtown renaissance.

In recent years, technology startups have leased space in the bank building and others along and near Sixth Avenue, creating a new identity – the Silicon Sixth Corridor.

“There are a lot of young, vibrant, creative people in the area, and we like that,” Kruse said.

Bank of America joined other downtown banks and moved its retail operations to the skywalk level a decade ago, leaving the bank lobby empty.

“It’s always difficult to find a new use for purpose-built space, such as a bank lobby,” explained Downtown Community Alliance president and CEO Glenn Lyons. “But BNIM has fit into the space very well. It’s great to see activity there again.”

Before last year, BNIM had leased ground-floor space in the Arlington Building on 13th Street, where you could walk out a door and be in the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park.

That space was ideal, until it became too small, Kruse said. With a growing firm and a lease coming due, he began looking for a larger space in late 2011.

Kruse’s wife, Jan Berg, a broker for CBRE/Hubbell Commercial, suggested the bank lobby. He resisted, believing the space would be too expensive. But with Berg’s help, “we got a deal that worked,” Kruse said.

To create the space BNIM wanted, the architects made two relatively simple changes: They removed a reflective window tint that the bank had used to keep out sunlight and prying eyes, and they completely opened up the area by removing rows of loan offices.

“We wanted this to be very simple, where the activity of what we did here was the life and vibrancy of the space,” Kruse said.

And it is.

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) will honor the BNIM office with a top interior design award at its national convention in Denver this summer.

“The studio has brought life to the street level and helped foster a rejuvenation of the neighborhood,” said AIA’s announcement of the award. 

Dave Elbert is a Business Record columnist | Email: | Phone: (515) 988-3787 | © 2013 Business Record