From the Real to the Ideal; Images of Des Moines in the Progressive Era.
The images reproduced here are from three sources covering the years 1904 through 1915. These were broad-shouldered robust years of growth and optimism in the future of America, our heritage, and of how American cities would transform themselves from places of industry and commerce to centers of culture and refinement. They envisioned that these new cities would not only metamorphize themselves, but by their melodious beauty bring about civic-minded harmony among its citizens of all walks of life and every class.
Our earliest source for images is Huebinger’s 1904 Atlas of Iowa. The Huebinger Atlas was an impressive endeavor. It employed photographs, often post-card views of Iowa cities arranged artistically about the town’s name in bold block typeface. Six pages of Des Moines views depicted a city proud of its real achievements. These included the Iowa State Capitol, Drake University, the Observatory Building (with its rooftop garden theater), the State Historical Hall, and Younkers Department Store. These illustrations show us a city of strong brick buildings, iron bridges, industry, piety and growth. The city’s slogan in those years was “Des Moines Does Things” which the views of local factories attested to, and of which politicians and the press boasted.
Over the years Des Moines had to take generous criticism from more refined eastern Iowa towns. The town got its start as a small, unimportant army camp; its dragoons erected double log cabins from the river point along the ridge lines of both streams. When they left in1845 for the Mexican War, they left sturdy, unglamorous log housing for the town’s first settlers. In 1846 these settlers laid out a town called “ Fort Des Moines” (the War Department declared “Fort Raccoon” to be not dignified) along the layout of the old barracks. As a result the downtown streets are twelve degrees off-compass to this day.
A mere fourteen years after settlement, Des Moines stole the capital from Iowa City. Fort Des Moines, on the west side, rushed to embrace the previously scorned eastsiders who had cleverly pulled off the heist, and in 1857 a new city charter dropped the word “Fort” from the name. The state legislators who arrived in January 1858 found a desolate wintry landscape with almost no accommodations to feed, house or move them around. The word spread fast around Iowa that one needed to be prepared for frontier life at the new capital city of Iowa.
The panic of 1857, the Civil War, and a lack of railroads or reliable river transportation kept Des Moines a rustic settlement until after the war ended. In short, with the capital, we became an important place long before we became a real city. The Dubuque and Davenport papers constantly reminded the rest of the state of this fact. While we boasted every census year that our population was catching up to them, they countered that we had, yet again, cheated the census takers.
These same census figures show why Des Moines wasn’t looked up to by the rest of Iowa. If you divide the population of Des Moines into the statewide total, the results for nearly a century was below 5%. Compared to the percentage of all the other largest cities in the rest of the states we always ranked dead last. If nowadays the city has become a strong population magnet, in those years it was a very weak one. Des Moines did not dominate Iowa in the same way Chicago dominated Illinois, Omaha dominated Nebraska or the Twin Cities have dominated Minnesota. Maybe Des Moines was slow in public improvements like parks, paving and honest government because across Iowa, all eyes were not on Des Moines.
Progress was sporadic with each period having its own, distinct character. The first big boom was at the end of the Civil War. The completion of the Rock Island Railroad tied Des Moines to Chicago, and demolished our weak riverboat dependence on St Louis. Some of the most ambitious businessmen made fortunes and built mansions on the bluffs over looking the town on the sandy river basin below. To the west, Benjamin F. Allen’s “Terrace Hill”, ( Iowa’s Governor’s Mansion today) was the most elaborate. Its grand opening in 1869 with trainloads of Chicago’s elite installed Allen in the “ Windy City” social circles. Coal miner and book seller Wesley Redhead’s “Seven Gables” graced the east side. Chester Cole, eventual founder of the Drake Law School built “Colechester” overlooking the town from the North.
These were expensive homes with impressive grounds, more country estates than city residences. In Des Moines the concept of fashionable neighborhoods did not yet exist. Small homes and farms surrounded these early manses. The first attempt to create in Des Moines, on Locust Street, a grand promenade of homes in the style of Cleveland’s Euclid Avenue came to naught with the panic of 1873 and Allen’s Bank failure of 1875.
The city did not rebound until the 1880’s. Then there was a wild rush to build housing for all the new residents that prosperity brought. Businessmen with spare capital erected rows of identical little houses, put up tenement blocks, double houses, and the first “French Flats” (apartment houses). And still people clamored for housing.
The first residential neighborhoods were being developed. The first being Brown’s Additions to the city (now called Sherman Hill) where Des Moines got its first taste of suburban life. Here there were new homes painted in new brighter color schemes. Between these houses grew grassy lawns free from protective picket fences. Lathe boards girdled young trees to discourage destruction by the marauding cows which had nightly trampled gardens and awoke irate city dwellers with their mooing and clanging cow bells. By the 1880s cows were being corralled by city “cowboys”.
The 1880’s brought new street cars and suburban towns extended out beyond the city limits. University Avenue was called “ North Street” above which was located “North Des Moines” location of Des Moines College. To the northwest was “ University Place” and Drake University. The stately homes of Greenwood ( Grand Avenue) comprised the confines of “ Greenwood”. “Sevastopol” was a Welsh coal mining community south of the Capital, “Grant Park” had new stately homes overlooking the Des Moines River from the east side, and later “Highland Park” with Highland Park College attracted home buyers to the northeast. Private amusement parks owned by the streetcar companies lured city residents tired of dirty, noisy city life to buy lots in these new suburbs. ( Des Moines’ first “roller coaster” was at 21 st and Cottage Grove and attracted potential buyers for Drake University’s land company). By 1887 and 1888 land developers were making real money and buying more land.
In 1890, the Des Moines City Council, not wishing to see the city hemmed in, annexed every last inch of these new developments. There followed the panic of 1893 and more troubles in 1897. Real estate developers went bankrupt, and many left town. The bright side was that by 1894 some land holders were then eager to unload large tracks to the recently formed Des Moines Parks Board who then laid out Greenwood and Union Parks in 1894 soon followed by Grand View and Waveland Parks.
So when good times returned by 1900, we were glad to show off examples of the local prosperity in the Huebinger Atlas. The architecture of some of the buildings shown might not have impressed other cities, but we were very happy with the financial results. Yet almost all of these buildings have been demolished. Today, only the Capital Building, Younkers, the Elliott Hotel, St Paul’s and St. Ambrose Churches, the Soldiers Monument and Drake’s Old Main and Cole Hall survive. Sturdy brick business blocks and iron bridges can survive anything but changing times. These are glimpses of a lost cityscape, a real city which was proud of what it was but now had critics as to what it could be.
The critics pointed to the smelly packing plants, river-side foundries, the world’s largest distillery and a thousand and one smoke stacks belching soot, fueled by cheap soft coal dug from mine shafts that dangerously undermined the city. Des Moines houses were painted brown or daub colors to mask their griminess, which earned us the title “ Pittsburg of the West”. Across Iowa, Des Moines had a reputation as an unwholesome place. The business -minded city fathers had allowed a streetscape of dusty or muddy streets, broken sidewalks, tangles of telephone and electrical wires, and street railway tracks laid indiscriminately about, destroying what remained of the old cedar block paving.
The old City Hall at 2nd and Locust was a disgrace; a rabbit warren of private rooms where secret deals were hatched among crooked ward alderman for the interests of the private utilities. Here the madams of “White Chapel”, Iowa’s most notorious red light district, paid their monthly fines to continue to lure Iowa farm boys off the nearby passenger trains. By 1904 Mayor Brenton and the aldermen had turned a deaf ear to outside criticism. They felt that the dirt that swirled about the capital city was evidence of prosperity; that we were leaving other Iowa cities in our dust.
But by this time the progressive idea was taking root in peoples minds. Teddy Roosevelt was president; smashing the trusts, preserving the wilderness, and digging a big ditch across Panama to create a hemisphere of U.S. economic interest. Roosevelt may have carried a big stick, but he was speaking softly in America’s ear that they could affect change themselves.
And Des Moines “did things”, real, tangible things. We built a home for the elderly near Drake’s Campus, erected hospitals, a settlement house, playgrounds and neighborhood parks. Citizens fought for ownership of the water company; promoted smog free air, women’s suffrage, temperance; and advanced the eradication of the “social evil”, filthy alleys and breeding grounds for contagious diseases.
Four thousand five hundred reform-minded ladies packed the Des Moines Auditorium for the first National Mothers Congress in July 1904. Cora Bussey Hillis and Chester C. Cole, Dean of the Drake Law School drafted a bill for a juvenile justice system. In December, New York social activist and photo journalist, Jacob A. Riis lectured at Drake on the evils of urban slums.
With the election of progressives Jonathan P. Dolliver of Fort Dodge to the U.S. Senate and Des Moines attorney Albert B. Cummins to the governorship, Iowa became the flagship of progressive politics. In 1908, when Cummins joined Dolliver in the senate, they allied with “Fighting Bob” La Follette of Wisconsin. Their most important reform in Iowa was the adoption of direct primaries, which stripped the bosses of the power to hand pick candidates.
Des Moines was eager also to rid itself of party politics and corrupt bosses. By 1907 attorney James G. Berryhill had succeeded in replacing the old ward system with an efficient commission form of government with councilmen elected at large and each supervising one area of the city administration. Patterned after the 1901 “Galveston Plan”, the new “Des Moines Plan” gained national prominence. The idea was civic minded business elites would provide honest and efficient service where ward style cronyism and waste had prevailed. Unfortunately the first election under the new plan re-elected the old crowd and discarded the reformers. But the idea was born that the right sort of people could shape a city to their shared vision.
That collective vision of what a city could be, or even should be, was indelibly imprinted on them by Chicago’s stunning World Columbian Exposition of 1898. The images of white alabaster classical architecture arranged in perfect order in a park - like setting of reflecting pools, fountains and flowers was their romantic notion of Europe brought to perfection in the new world. European trappings were all the rage with the rich. Even the thrifty, thoroughly, Yankee capitalist, Frederick M. Hubbell scored social status by marrying his daughter Beulah to Count Wachmeister of Sweden in 1899.
People started to share ideas in the literature of the day and look to expert advice. The ideas of Boston landscape architect Warren H. Manning in “Municipal Art” was read to the collected Women’s Club, Grant Club and the Commercial Exchange. That summer the Park Board hired Swayne Nelsen of Chicago to improve the existing parks and recommend river front improvements made possible by a Parks Department victory over industry control over the river front. By 1903 newspaper articles on the great park system of Kansas City and the publishing of John Mulford Robinson’s "Modern Municipal Art”, the soon-to-be bible of the new “City Beautiful Movement”, sparked local discussion.
The earliest river front improvements were started before any overall vision was in place. The present library site was as much about acquiring the old State Arsenal site cheaply as it was about starting a decade’s long struggle to create a river front “civic center”. Then an enormous fight erupted in 1900 to force the
location of the new Polk County Court House to the river front to redress the East -West power imbalance. The public vote favored the river front location but the politicians ignored the referendum and plunked architects Proudfoot and Bird’s stately beau arts masterpiece at the old courthouse site instead of gracing the river front for which it was designed.
1904 saw the launch of the “City Beautiful Movement” in Des Moines. Locally famous and classically trained painter Charles Atherton Cummings took charge, waged war against ugly billboards and marshaled his own personal painterly assault on all black and white business signs, which he felt were impossible to harmonize with the color values of buildings, streets and sky.
By 1906 the Women’s Club had organized platoons of society women to discuss the topic “What Civic Art Is” as presented by J. G. Berryhill, wife of the Des Moines Plan reformer. A long list of municipal art literature was required reading. The pubic library followed with a list, published in the newspapers, of reading materials on the “City Beautiful” movement available on their shelves.
More expert propaganda was presented at the YMCA in three lectures presented by Professor Charles Zueblin, sociologist from the University of Chicago which outlined the tranquilizing effects of beautification on social unrest, class warfare and the labor movement. By this point the city was already employing Roy Floyd Weirick of Kansas City, recently returned from a tour of Europe, to introduce up to date boulevards and parkways upon the existing grid of Des Moines streets.
The pinnacle of success for the Women’s Club was 1909 when they convinced the city to pay John Mulford Robinson $1000 for his expert advice. The city fathers however were reluctant to give him office space, disliked his effete manners or his Van Dyke beard and didn’t wish to pay his fee until the council was browbeaten by an army of club women. Despite his lack of popularity with city leaders, Robinson’s ideas took firm root in Des Moines.
Eventually four graceful masonry arch bridges replaced the iron ones and in 1911 the crown jewel of the “ Civic Center”, the new City Hall was in place. Handsome in its exterior yet it was spectacular in its interior vaulted ceiling which opened up all city government transactions to public view. It remains today largely unchanged, an architectural expression of the then new Des Moines Plan and the progressive era in general.
1911 was also the year that Johnson Brigham finished his two-volume history of Des Moines and Polk County. The book is commonly referred to simply as “Johnson Brigham” as its entire title reads “ Des Moines, The Pioneer of Municipal Progress and Reform of the Middle West together with the History of Polk County, Iowa – the Largest and Most Prosperous County in the State of Iowa”.
The hundreds of images in Johnson Brigham are predominantly portraits of Des Moines pioneers, found at his job as State Librarian or maybe he just located across the hall at the State Historical Society. But one doesn’t go to Johnson Brigham for the photos but for its ponderous year by year chronicle of local events. Much thanks goes to James Leonardo (All time longest Cowles Library employee at thirty-five years, eight months) who in 1971 completed the WPA index to this two volume set making it the standard source for local history before 1911.
But now look at the beautiful images from the 1915 Artwork of Des Moines. This boxed set of nine folios of plates of photographic views was printed by photogravure. This process is just opposite of letter press where the ink sits on the raised portions. In photogravure the plate is etched, the ink is applied then whipped from the surface leaving the ink in the recesses. By controlling the depths of these wells the printer can control the amount of ink that each dot of the half toned images transfers to the paper. This resulted in velvety highlights and subdued shadows reminiscent of expensive platinum prints. The selection of images and the soft muted tones of the photographs, speak directly to the ideals of the City Beautiful. The book’s introduction clarifies that the three important aspects of civic life are: civic buildings, private homes, and parks or natural scenery, the same three elements highlighted by Robinson twelve years earlier.
The houses shown are almost entirely located on the West side and concentrated in the newer fashionable neighborhoods of Owls Head, Gilmore Park, 37th Street and Grand Avenue. Unlike the illustrations in the 1904 state atlas, many of these homes still stand today. The exception being homes on Grand Avenue, as the majority of these have fallen to commercial development.
Homes with scenic views of the Des Moines River on both the East and West banks are prominently shown along with their respective vistas onto the river. These scenic views of the Des Moines and Raccoon River basins are devoid of any man-made structures. Views of the Des Moines parks are largely empty of visitors. Cars don’t show up in the home views and garages are mostly hidden from sight.
The photo of the Des Moines Golf and Country Club gives the illusion that it laid way out in the countryside, not merely three blocks off Polk Boulevard. These country clubs were large structures because the upstairs were utilized as a hotel where club members could stay for a week or two pretending to be at some far-flung resort while only being walking distance from home.
Robinson in his book writes much of the “repose” of homes in their settings which the new style of houses with their horizontal elements, porches, awnings, and spacious lawns suggest. These individual images of homes do not show their relationship to the suburban streetscape; one can easily imagine the house in a rural setting. These houses seem to invite the reader to lie in a hammock and rest. Des Moines by 1915 was no more the city that “does things” but according to its new motto became “Des Moines City of Certainties” suggesting a certain, effortless, natural destiny. Even the few photos of downtown city streets show no effort to produce an effect of bustling city life.
The views of the Civic Center on the riverfront concentrate on the architectural elements most conforming to their shared vision of the Columbian Expositions “White City.” The brick non-classical Coliseum finished in 1910 was the most important riverfront project to the economy of the city, but it is only shown but in the corner of a couple of general views.
The Polk County Court House, Iowa State Capitol and Historical buildings are depicted inside and out. The paintings of lazy clouds in the roundels under the dome of the Historical Building aptly fit the mood of the book. A busy photo of the Indian artifact displays in the adjoining room would not have reflected this mood of repose.
The idea of manifest destiny is reflected in the interior views of the Capital and Court House. The painting of “Removal of the Indians” by Charles Atherton Cumming at the Court House anticipates the wagon train of confident white settlers in the State Capital’s wall mural “Westward Ho” by Edwin Blashfield. Ironically the very cities so admired by exponents of the City Beautiful, Paris, Vienna and Berlin were in 1914, the year these images were made, were filled with masses not pacified by civic beauty but clamoring for a war that would finally lead to the end of European global dominance.
“Artwork of Des Moines” is a beautiful book but it is no snapshot of the City. Des Moines led the nation statistically in private home ownership of which the vast majority was cottages, bungalows, and four squares lying close together on streets running rigidly north, south, east, and west.
Robinson’s 1903 “Modern Civic Art or the City Made Beautiful” begins that in the “promise of the dawn of a new day . . . whatever was dingy, course, or ugly, was either transformed or hidden in shadow.” So look closely at these carefully crafted images. What do you see? It’s a wonderful show of a beautiful, long-forgotten era, but step back and reflect on what is not seen, what they have left “hidden in shadow.”
John Zeller is a Des Moines native, Drake alumnus and local historian. He works with the State Historical Society's Department of Historic Preservation and provides research for various local historical projects. Currently, he is working on verifying properties that were connected to the Underground Railroad in Iowa. He has contributed to "Behind the Badge", a history of the Des Moines Police Department, and is currently working on a book about the Iowa State Capitol.