Many of us have stories about things we’ve seen or heard in Des Moines’ skywalks.  

My story happened 20 years ago when I was business editor of the Des Moines Register and took a job applicant to lunch on a cold, overcast day. After walking four blocks through a half dozen buildings, my companion turned to me and asked if we were still in the Register building.

I was reminded of that long-ago day after reading Kathy Bolten’s recent article about plans to reconfigure a key skywalk link on Seventh Street that had once provided access to Younkers department store.  

Des Moines’ skywalk system, which began with single bridge in 1971, has grown into a four-mile network. And as it reaches middle age, it is increasingly in need of joint replacements, much like many of my aging friends.

That’s what’s happening with the segment Bolten wrote about. Following the 2014 Younkers fire, the badly damaged skywalk was replaced with a bridge on stilts. Now, developers need to remove the stilts so they can begin rebuilding on the Younkers site.

To do that, they will put a new link in the system and move the Seventh Street bridge a few hundred feet to the north.  

The history of Des Moines’ skywalks goes back to that first pedestrian bridge in 1971, which linked a then-new J.C. Penney store with a parking garage on the southeast corner of Walnut Street and Fifth Avenue.

The concept, however, goes back to the early 1960s when Harland Bartholomew and Associates of St. Louis was hired by the Greater Des Moines Chamber of Commerce to draw up a new comprehensive plan for downtown.

The plan said the city could reduce traffic in the downtown core by building a series of parking garages around the fringe and connecting them to office buildings with elevated walkways.

There were other suggestions that also resurfaced decades later, including a proposal for a central park, a Rockefeller Center-like cluster of tall buildings along Seventh Street, a pedestrian mall in the East Village and a new downtown hotel.

One proposal that never got off the ground was the creation of a tunnel that would bring traffic on Ingersoll Avenue into downtown at Ninth and Pleasant Streets.

It’s worth noting that Bartholomew’s plan did not envision enclosed walkways. It called for exposed pedestrian paths attached to building exteriors with periodic bridges over streets.

The 1971 Penney skywalk was modeled after the enclosed bridges that Minneapolis had begun erecting in the mid-1960s to help downtown retailers compete with suburban malls. 

After that first bridge was built, plans for a more expansive system surfaced in 1974 as John Ruan was building his 35-story Ruan Center and banker John Fitzgibbon was completing the 25-story Financial Center.

The concept really took off in the early 1980s when Ruan built the Marriott Hotel across from the Ruan Center. Never a man of small ideas, Ruan suggested placing the hotel’s ballroom on a multistory bridge that crossed Locust Street, connecting the hotel with a planned parking garage (now the Partnership Building).

The skywalk ballroom got a lot of notice but was ultimately turned down as impractical and because it would have ruined the dramatic view down Locust Street to the state Capitol.

During the 1979-81 period when the downtown Marriott was being built, city and business leaders created the foundation for public-private partnerships that were instrumental in selecting and paying for most of the skywalks we have now.

Today, the city’s skywalks extend well beyond the downtown core, from Second Avenue on the east to 12th Street on the west and from the Court Avenue entertainment district on the south to the Iowa Events Center.