Downtown Des Moines’ riverfront was an undesirable place to visit in the 1890s.

Areas just east and west side of the Des Moines River were cluttered with soot-covered red-brick buildings with sagging roofs, according to several historical documents. Some of the buildings, a mix of businesses and residences, were occupied by unsavory characters and enterprises that were avoided by many respectable citizens of the time.

A movement to improve the riverfront’s appearance was launched around 1893 after several women returned from a train trip to Chicago where they attended a world’s fair. The fair’s main attraction  was a prototype of what architects of the time envisioned a city should look like. The buildings, known as the White City because the buildings were covered with a white-colored material, were designed to follow Beaux-Arts style architecture.

The women – members of the Des Moines Women’s Club – were impressed and inspired with what they saw in Chicago, according to an article by Jay Pridmore that was written for Des Moines Architecture & Design. When they returned to Des Moines, they launched what’s known as the City Beautiful movement, a several-decadeslong effort to beautify downtown’s riverfront.

Among the seven buildings constructed during that period were the federal courthouse, Argonne Armory and public safety building, now known as the police station. Ownership of the those three buildings will likely change hands in the coming years. The federal government will be moving its judicial operations into a new courthouse that is under constructed at 101 Locust St. Many city departments and police operations will likely be moved to an office building the City Council has approved purchasing at 1200 Locust St.

"One of the things I think is important to keep in mind with these buildings is the drive to rehabilitate the riverfront and turn it into a walkable, workable, welcoming, City-Beautiful-influenced area that became a seat of government," said Jennifer Irsfeld James, a Des Moines-area architectural historian and preservation consultant.

Members of the Women’s Club brought national experts to Des Moines to help plan and redevelop the riverfront, James said. "This is interesting because it was done before women had the right to vote. … I think that’s part of the story the people may not know about."

                                                                                                               – Kathy A. Bolten

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