Eat. Drink. Architecture.
How’s this for a great concept: A walking architectural tour of downtown Des Moines interspersed among stops at some of the city’s most popular bars? It’s like a super-classy pub crawl.
The Iowa Architectural Foundation’s fourth-annual “Eat.Drink.Architecture” fundraising event happened last Saturday, and despite the on-and-off showers and generally windy conditions, it was a very good time.
The event — described as a “progressive food, drink, and architectural tour of downtown Des Moines” — started at El Bait Shop at 200 SW 2nd St., home to the “world’s largest selection of American craft beers.” Or so they say. There we checked in and were assigned to our groups. My husband, Dave, and I were in Group 3; there were four groups total. Before we set out on our walk we were each offered a can of Summit Hopvale, a new organic beer from the Twin Cities, and an appetizer of buffalo chicken egg rolls. Since I don’t eat meat, and since I was nervous about drinking on an empty stomach, I ordered some chips and salsa and hoped the next stop would offer a vegetarian snack. The beer was OK…light, refreshing, and a bit too hoppy for my taste.
Also while we were waiting to take off, we learned more about the Iowa Architectural Foundation and participated in the door-prize drawings. My name was actually drawn FIRST – this never happens to me – so I won a cute Eat.Drink.Architecture T-shirt.
The first group took off and the rest of sort of chilled out at El Bait Shop and looked at the enormous beer list. The second group took off. And finally our group was called. We headed outside and got the low-down about how the tour would run by our group leader, Tom Wollan, a principal architect with FRK in Des Moines.
He told us that the El Bait Shop and sister bar High Life Lounge building had once been a transfer station and warehouse but had been purchased in 2004 by Full Court Press, Inc., owners of Hessen House, Mullet’s, Royal Mile, Buzzard Billy’s, Fong’s Pizza, and other popular bars and restaurants.
From here our group of about 20 people set off on our walk. We headed north and east and walked across the Des Moines River on the Red Bridge, a pedestrian bridge that was once a railroad bridge. We stopped on the bridge and took in the historic architectural sights on both sides of the river: The Polk County Courthouse Annex, the old Des Moines Library building that now houses the World Food Prize, City Hall, the Federal Courthouse and police station.
Wollan talked to us about the “City Beautiful” movement, a reform philosophy of North American architecture and urban planning that flourished during the 1890s and 1900s with the intent of introducing beautification and monumental grandeur in cities.
In addition to the historic buildings, from our mid-river vantage point we can also see examples of modern architecture, specifically the Embassy Suites Hotel and the Principal Riverwalk initiative. We can also see the glorious new Iowa Women of Achievement Bridge.
We crossed into the East Village, where we learned that city code decrees that no building can be built no higher than the state capitol. We also talked about the movement toward downtown living – in condos on both sides of the river.
From here we took a sort of meandering walk through parking lots and alleyways to a building under construction in the 200 block of East Third. Known as the Dilley Building, the large brick structure built in 1907 was most recently the location of City Plumbing Supply. Soon it will be the home of The Iowan, another bar/restaurant in the Full Court Press stable. (It should be noted that the good folks at Full Court Press donated all the food and drink for this Iowa Architectural Foundation fundraiser.)
The building is definitely still a work in progress, but you can just imagine what it will look like, say, six months from now. Jeff Bruning, one of the Full Court Press owners, told us about the building and also about the new all-Iowa craft beer hall concept: The building was a lithograph company in WWII, a warehouse, and home to a tire manufacturer. In its new life, it will celebrate all things Iowa: beers, cheese, distilled spirits, wine – all made in Iowa.
Excited about this possibility, I nearly forgot that we got to eat and drink at this stop. We were offered cans of Bell’s Oberon Ale, which was really good, and some kind of meat wrapped in more meat – maybe a little smoky in bacon? I declined.
After our food and drink and friendly chatter, we headed back out, through the streets of the East Village, and across the Locust Street Bridge, with more views of City Hall and the World Food Prize building and some discussion of the recently shuttered Downtown YMCA building. We also got an opportunity to touch the exterior walls of the Civic Center, but I’m not sure why.
“Buildings tell a story,” Wollan told us, using as an example the Homestead Building (above), home to Splash restaurant. He pointed out how we could see that the building had been built on to by looking at the different bricks and architectural styles.
From here, we crossed by Cowles Commons, still under construction, and toward Hotel Row (Fourth Street between Walnut and Court).
At this point it was raining, so we ducked in to the Kirkwood Hotel and had a nice discussion of the lobby’s art deco style. Our group was flush with architects and interior designers, so Wollan frequently gave up the floor to guest speakers who had specific knowledge of one thing or another.
Our next stop was the Royal Mile (410 Fourth Street), where we were served Scotch eggs (which contain sausage) and a pint of Tallgrass Pub Ale. By this point, I didn’t even care about the food. I was enjoying the beer and the conversation.
It didn’t seem like we were at the Royal Mile nearly long enough before we were moving along toward our next stop – via the skywalks. I believe the skywalk route was a last-minute decision based on the rain showers that were occurring at the time, but it was fun to stand inside and watch the rain while hearing about the Randolph Hotel, the old Elliott Hotel (now Fong’s Pizza), and the Saddlery Building (home to Court Avenue Brewing Company).
Court Avenue was once an area for light industry and commerce. The Italianate fronts of the buildings are a bit fancy, with simple brickwork on the sides and back. “Very Main Street America” according to Wollan.
Eventually we had to pop outside into the rain and walk a couple of blocks to Hessen House (101 Fourth Street), our final stop. Standing outside under the awning, Wollan pointed out the 801 Grand Building, the Science Center, the depot, and other structures within our view.
Inside, Hessen House, a German-themed bar and restaurant known for beer consumed out of enormous boot-shaped glasses, was hopping. A wedding party poured out of a party bus and went inside while we were waiting to go in, so we were lucky to have a reserved seating area.
I do enjoy German beer, but German food is really not my favorite. So I was pleasantly surprised when the server brought out small pieces of Dutch apple pie with ice cream as our snack. Something I could actually eat! Hallelujah! Dessert came with a beer cocktail called a Hessen Grapefruit Radler Rita – vodka with Stiegel Grapefruit Radler Bier. It was yummy.
And with that, our four-hour tour was over. Four drinks, four snacks, and a fun tour of downtown Des Moines. If you like the idea of the architectural walking tour but don’t want to wait for a year for the 2016 Eat.Drink.Architecture event, you can explore downtown with the Iowa Architectural Foundation’s annual summer Architecture @ Hand walking tours. Tours are the second Friday of each month, May through September, beginning at 5:30 p.m. at the IAF office, 400 Locust Street, Suite 100. Cost is $10 and supports the IAF.