A nomination that recently placed a four-block commercial area in the East Village on the National Register of Historic Places contains many interesting nuggets.

For example, the city’s oldest gay bar, Blazing Saddle at 416 E. Fifth Street, was a “Swedish-owned butcher shop” eight decades before it became a popular nightspot in 1983.

Also, for more than 50 years, aluminum siding hid “a spectacular early twentieth century painted sign advertising Hammer pharmacy” at its corner location at East Grand Avenue and East Sixth Street. From the day the Hammer building opened in 1899 until two years ago, it was home to one of Des Moines’ oldest family businesses.  

The National Register’s official designation for the area is the East Side Commercial Historic District; the name East Village is a modern appellation that dates from 1998 when the most recent makeover began.

When white settlers arrived in 1843, a portion of the East Village was “in timber,” according to the nomination document prepared by local history expert Jennifer James. The earliest businesses were on the west side of the river, due in part to flooding on the east riverbank.

The announcement in 1856 that the new Iowa Capitol would be located on the east side changed everything.

The first bridge across the Des Moines River was built at Court Avenue in 1857, the same year Des Moines was incorporated with six east-side aldermen and eight representatives from the west side.

By then, there were already separate business communities on the two sides of the river.

Construction of the new Capitol during the 1870s greatly increased the flow of wagons and workmen to the east side, James wrote.

By the time the Capitol was completed in 1886, the east side had its first railroad, the Des Moines and Minnesota Railroad, which crossed in front of the Capitol, roughly where East Fourth Street is today.  

James’ nomination notes that the East Side Commercial District is the third district in the East Village area to be recognized by the National Register. A Civic Center Historic District spanning both banks of the downtown river was recognized in 1988, and an East Des Moines Industrial Historic District covering the southwest corner of the East Village was created in 2017.

While many buildings in the commercial district predate structures in the two other districts, creation of the new district was not possible until recently, James said, because many architectural features were hidden behind false fronts made of plywood and metal, like the aluminum wrap on the Hammer building.

Before modern developer/preservationists, including Jake Christensen, Tim Rypma and Bill Dodds, ripped off the false fronts to reveal historically relevant 19th-century buildings, there was not a significant mass of historical structures to warrant recognition as National Register district, James said.    

In addition to seven buildings that already had their own citations in the National Register, James found 33 other historically significant buildings in the relatively compact district.

The boundaries of the district look a bit like a gerrymandered political district, but the area includes most of the ground between Fourth and Sixth streets and between Des Moines and Locust streets.

One of the newer buildings in the district is the 1946 Orville Lowe Ford dealership at East Sixth and Des Moines streets. It is now occupied by Alba, a high-end restaurant.

The oldest building is a former furniture store built in 1877 and now occupied by Porch Light, an antiques and hand-crafted gift store.

The 142-year-old building is directly across East Sixth Street from Hammer pharmacy. It was purchased by historic preservationist pioneer James Boyt in 1976, and renovations were completed by Rypma, who acquired it and four adjoining buildings in 2005.