Des Moines’ oldest area of the city, which though the years fell into disarray, has reinvented itself into the city’s entertainment and restaurant area.
To better understand how the Court Avenue district — the area between the Polk County Courthouse and the Des Moines River — has become the destination it is today, bustling with restaurant-goers, night-time entertainment, the popular Downtown Farmers Market, and multiple apartment and condo buildings, one must go back more than 170 years.
Capt. James Allen landed a steamboat on May 20, 1843, at the site where the west end of the Court Avenue Bridge is today. Thus, the early Des Moines, then given the name Fort Des Moines, was laid out along two blocks parallel to the river.
By 1846, settlers had claimed the surrounding area, more streets were plotted, there was a public square and the railroad had come to town.
Transportation continued to grow as the population flourished. Commercial buildings and manufacturing took the place of residences in the area. The Des Moines Street Railway Co. installed tracks along Court Avenue in 1867, the same year rail became a reliable mode of transportation to Des Moines. By 1880, there were 38 passenger trains arriving and departing from Des Moines each day, according to “A Self-Guided Tour of the Court Avenue District,” a brochure produced for the Des Moines Public Library.
Most business sprung up on surrounding streets, but Court Avenue and its surrounding area were home to a barbed wire manufacturer, pottery works, carriage factories, grain and feed mills, saddlery companies, dry goods businesses, furniture manufacturers, hat makers and wholesale and retail groceries and businesses related to the food industry, according to “Court Avenue Historic Study Area.”
The Court Avenue area also served farmers and mechanics. A.F. Dicks’ hardware store was at the corner of Third Street and Court Avenue, and many prominent larger companies had smaller operations in Des Moines, including Deere & Co. and McCormick Harvesting Machine Co.
By the 1880s, Court Avenue was a bustling district for transit with the nearby railroad, but it was far from the “best” area of town. It had saloons and “female boarding houses,” some of which were actually brothels. The air was a mixture of smells that became unpleasant from the variety of manufacturing and production in the area, according to a Des Moines Skywalker article from 1987 that took a 100 year look back at the area.
More permanent structures with architectural features spring up on Court Avenue
Des Moines experienced a building boom by 1881: 37 business blocks and 715 residences were built that year. During the 1880s, 14 new buildings were constructed along Court Avenue to replace smaller shops, according to the study area.
The study, conducted in 1983, looked at 49 buildings constructed along Court Avenue and its surrounding streets. Thirty-five of these buildings were built between 1880 and 1925. Today, these are the historic buildings that still exist along Court Avenue:
- The Kurtz Warehouse, built in the early 1900s at 100 Court Ave, is now an office building. It’s considered one of Des Moines’ finest examples of early 1900 warehouse construction.
- The Chevalier Wright & Co. building, at 208 Court Ave. Records indicate it was built in 1880, but it’s possible the building dates back to the 1860s, according to a hand-drawn map and an 1866 city directory. There have been a number of businesses at the site. Presently, it is the restaurant RoCA. The exterior of the building was changed in the 1970s, so it retains little of its original character. Its importance lies in the fact that it is one of only a few remaining 22-foot wide storefronts that were common in the late 1800s and early 1900s, according to the historic study of the area.
- The A.H. Walker building, formerly home of Judge Roy Bean’s, was a retail hardware store. The building, located at 210 Court Ave., was built in 1880. A 1980s remodel removed any historical characteristics from the inside of the building. It is now the bar Tonic.
- The C.C. Taft & Company wholesale grocers building at 216 Court Ave. It is now the site of Court Center, Legends restaurant and several night clubs. The building was originally constructed as three separate buildings that were remodeled in 1922 to form one. It was the home of McCormick Harvesting Co. and later a wholesale tinware house, a seed and florist business, fruit and vegetable merchant, bailed hay dealer, peanut roaster manufacturer, saloon keeper and druggist.
- The Des Moines Saddlery Co. building, 309 Court Ave., built in 1887. The building was vacant from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. It took in 19 feet of water during the flood of 1993 and was vacant until Court Avenue Brewing Co. moved into it in 1996. It now has several offices on the upper floor. The Kaplan Hat Factory building at 307 Court, constructed in 1887, is part of the site.
- The Lederer, Strauss & Co., now The Old Spaghetti Works and Johnny’s Hall of Fame building, at 300-310 Court Ave. It was built in 1889, and has been renovated to have condos on the upper floors.
- The building at 319 Court Ave., has been home to numerous themed night clubs and restaurants, most recently The Surf Shack. The building was constructed in 1890, and its early use dates back to the Onyx Saloon in the early 1900s. The second floor was usually used as a hotel or rooming house. Present day, the exterior has been painted to go along with the bar’s theme.
- The Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Depot, the west section built in 1905 and the east section in 1910, was renovated in 1986. It is known for its larger half circle windows and the arch that spans Fourth Street and connects the two buildings. It houses Business Publications Corp. and the Des Moines Business Record in the western half and Hessen Haus bar in the east section.
- The Randolph Hotel, located at the northwest corner of Fourth Street and Court. It was built in 1910 and through the years served as a hotel with a barber shop and other commercial spaces to its most recent use as an apartment building with a bail bondsman office below. The building is undergoing a complete renovation.
- Directly west of the Randolph Hotel is the Redhead & Wellslager building. The original use was a wholesale and retail book and paper products store. It had a range of tenants that included a carpet store and a wholesale china business. The building was mostly vacant in the 1960s and 1970s, and is now part of the Randolph Hotel renovation.
Preservationists fight to save buildings, retain history
A 1982 Des Moines Tribune article described the area as “slightly disheveled, even a little seedy.” Later articles in the Des Moines Register referred to it as a red-light district where people did not want to walk after dark or be seen.
City officials and preservationists in the late 1970s and early 1980s hired consultants and considered plans and ideas to revitalize the area, and to come up with ways to keep people in downtown Des Moines after work hours. Ideas were tossed around: Create an indoor-outdoor market shopping mall. Utilize the proximity to the riverfront to create more shopping opportunities.
Those ideas fell through, but quietly, developers grew interested in the idea of converting older buildings into retail and restaurants. Omaha-based The Old Spaghetti Works quietly converted the ground floor of the former Lederer, Strauss & Co. warehouse into a restaurant in 1978.
Co-owner at the time Nick Hermann was quoted in a June 7, 1979 article in The Des Moines Tribune as saying owners knew the restaurant was about two years before its time when it opened, but business was better than was expected.
“We figured the potential of the area was worth a year or two of not-so-good business, but it didn’t work out that way,” he said in the article.
Other plans at the time called for proposed luxury housing closer to the riverfront and a renovation of the Rock Island and Pacific Depot into shops, bars and restaurants. Those plans fell flat, as did a plan to reconstruct a fountain on the west end of Court Avenue near the Polk County Courthouse. Old photographs show a fountain, though it is not known when or why the fountain was removed.
The first step to the success of revitalizing the area was to have it placed on the National Register of Historic Places, which allowed property owners to receive tax credits to rehabilitate their properties.
Piece by piece, building by building, change came. First, with the Old Spaghetti Works building. Then the Kurtz building was converted into office space. More restaurants settled into the area, as old warehouse buildings found new life. New period lighting and landscaping were added to the street fronts as part of a $1.8 million project to repair the street in 1986. Restaurants brought the action outside with outdoor patios.
Throughout the revitalization of the area, preservationists worked to ensure the old buildings remained and new uses were found for them. Anytime a developer suggested tearing down a building and constructing a new one, there was an outcry, as was the case with the Lederer, Strauss & Co. building in 1987.
That building was saved, but its neighbor was demolished. The building at 312 Court Ave., formerly F. Brody & Sons clothing manufacturers, was razed. It was built in 1906.
Residential development takes hold, continues with recent projects
By the mid-1980s, developers thought adding residential to the mix would create an interesting dynamic and draw even more people to the area. Some scoffed at the idea, but today residential development remains strong in the Court Avenue district.
Fourth and Court Condominiums were built on the former site of the Brody & Sons building. The Hotel Randolph, at the corner of Fourth Street and Court, is undergoing a $19 million renovation into apartments and first-floor retail space. The building had previously sat empty for almost a year, but prior to that had been home to about 100 low-income and disabled people.
Developers also have shown interest in converting parking space across the street along Court into more mixed-use space with a combination of residential and retail.