We kicked off our own little Discover Des Moines weekend at the city's center of gravity: the Iowa State Capitol (9th Street and E. Grand Avenue, 1-515-281-5591, www.legis.state.ia.us/pubinfo/tour), a pile of murky limestone capped with a magnificent 23-karat gold-leaf dome that roosts on a hilltop overlooking downtown. At first glance, my inner Minnesota snob sniffed, "It's no Cass Gilbert," a hat-tip to the architect's white-marble people's palace in St. Paul.
Then I stepped inside. One word: unbelievable. Until that moment, the prospect of a free, 75-minute guided tour sounded very sixth-grade social studies extra-credit project. But the building's avalanche of carved marble and wood, stained glass, cast iron, paintings, mosaics and statuary told me otherwise. Another lure was our tour guide, Kae Coppock, a walking Wikipedia of knowledge and a person so into her job that she had a miniature of the Capitol dangling off her necklace. There was tremendous affection in her voice as she talked about the building as if it were a living thing and spoke of its original contractor, Robert Finkbine (born 1828, died 1901), as if the two of them had just bonded at Starbucks.
After we eyeballed the governor's office, the former Supreme Court, the eye-popping law library and the two vast legislative chambers, the tour concluded with a 99-step climb to the narrow interior balcony ringing the dome's lower drum. The view to floors below, with their wild pattern-on-pattern tile work, was spectacular. Like a Victorian-era Iowa farmer in the big city for the first time in his life, I was bowled over, and told Coppock as much. My reaction was nothing new to her.
"It's great when people from out of town come here and say, 'Wow, this little state in the Midwest has this castle?'" she said. "We hear that, a lot."
Art and architecture
We became acquainted with the city by seeking out -- actually, more like stumbling across -- its distinctive architecture. No formal tour, just a spontaneous blend of walking and driving and nosing around, with lots of Google searches filling in the gaps. My favorites were definitely downtown's art deco beauties: US Bank is fortunate enough to be ensconced in the sophisticated Iowa-Des Moines National Bank Building (520 Walnut St.); its equally beguiling neighbor, the Des Moines Building (405 6th Av.), is worth a peek for its glamorous black marble lobby.
Another dramatic foyer sits across the street at the historic Equitable Building (604 Locust St.), a neo-Gothic treasure being converted to high-end residences. The city's more recent skyscrapers are a fairly forgettable lot, with one notable exception: the striking Ruan Center (formerly Bankers Trust, 666 Grand Av.), a 36-story glass and rusty Cor-Ten steel box that would easily fit right into Chicago's loop.
Early Sunday morning I bundled up and walked the ever-growing esplanade spreading out along the Des Moines River. Birds aside, it felt as if I had the city to myself as I explored a handful of stately Beaux Arts-era civic landmarks, several distinctive bridges, a fish-out-of-water Chinese pagoda, block after block of prosperous-looking loft apartments and Principal Park, the city's handsome minor-league baseball stadium.
Locals apparently have a love-it-or-hate-it relationship with the new Des Moines Public Library (1000 Grand Av., 1-515-283-4152, www.pldminfo.org), by Brit architect David Chipperfield (designer of the striking Figge Art Museum in Davenport, Iowa), but I definitely landed in the "adore" camp. The long, low building -- a lovely refuge for cracking a book or jumping online -- is sheathed in glass panels covered with fine copper mesh screens. It's a clever visual trick, making the monochromatic exterior appear opaque by day, yet glow from the inside out by night.
The library is in the same coming-back-to-life part of downtown as the just-opened John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park (Grand Avenue and 13th Street, www.desmoines artcenter.org), a two-block outdoor gallery dotted with works by the core of artists that make up the DNA of any self-respecting contemporary sculpture garden, including Mark di Suvero, Ellsworth Kelly, Sol LeWitt, Judith Shea and Richard Serra. Rolling, parentheses-shaped berms enliven the flat, grassy, nearly treeless landscape, and much like the Walker Art Center's iconic "Spoonbridge and Cherry," this garden has a talker of a focal point: Jaume Plensa's "Nomade," a three-story shell of a human head and torso that appears weightless and is devised, like some crazy airborne jigsaw puzzle, out of interconnected white stainless steel letters. Like the library, it's a post-sunset stunner.
The garden is managed by the fabulous Des Moines Art Center (4700 Grand Av., 1-515-277-4405, www.desmoinesartcenter.org), a small-scaled jewel of a museum noteworthy for both its one-of-a-kind campus -- designed in stages by architects Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei and Richard Meier -- and fine permanent collection. After enjoying an inexpensive lunch at the museum's cozy restaurant (and then walking it off in the galleries, soaking up memorable works by Edward Hopper, Marsden Hartley, John Singer Sargent, Helen Frankenthaler and Grant Wood, among others), we got back in the car and happily lost ourselves among the hilly, heavily wooded streets of the nearby Greenwood and Salisbury Oaks neighborhoods, gaping at one spectacular residence after another, most notably the palatial, open-to-the-public Salisbury House (4025 Tonawanda Dr., 515-274-1777, www.salisburyhouse.org). Finally, Drake University's well-tended campus (University Avenue between 25th and 31st Streets, www.drake.edu) sports several modernist must-sees, including Ludwig Mies van der Rohe's trim Meredith Hall and Eero Saarinen's solemn Oreon E. Scott Chapel.
The city's restaurants fed us very, very well. Lucca (420 E. Locust St., 1-515-243-1115, www.luccarestaurant.net) was so impressive that we returned the following night for a second shot at chef/owner Steve Logsdon's spare, unadulterated cooking (a sublime thyme-kissed gnocchi, fall-apart-tender pork shoulder with white polenta and cabbage), which more than matches the chic minimalist surroundings. It's one of the Midwest's great restaurants.
Logsdon's brother Joe bakes the city's most enticing breads and sweets at his La Mie Bakery (841 42nd St., 1-515-255-1625, www.lamiebakery.com). Walking in for Saturday breakfast and encountering marble-topped tables loaded with golden brioche, knobbly scones and gleaming, fruit-filled Danish was a rapturous died-and-gone-to-heaven moment.
In the converted automobile showroom that is adventurous Alba (524 E. 6th St., 1-515-244-0261), chef/owner Jason Simon cranks up the flavors: a colorful tuna tartare with pie crust-delicate crackers, perky chicken-jalapeño fritters drizzled with lemon aioli, a mint-scented toasted farro salad tossed with garbanzos and bits of feta. I loved sitting at the oyster bar at super-stylish Django (210 10th St., 515-288-0268, www.djangodesmoines.com) and digging into a fantastic array of cured meats, all produced by the state's top culinary ambassadors, La Quercia owners Herb and Kathy Eckhouse in nearby Norwalk, Iowa.
The best lunch I've had in months came courtesy of Proof (1301 Locust St., 1-515-244-0655, www.proof restaurant.com), a boisterous noon-hour-only downtowner (one exception: Friday dinners) that specializes in Mediterranean flavors. The brief, under-$10 menu ranges from crisp house-baked flatbread sandwiches to hearty, well-seasoned entrees built around grains: paellas, pastas, risottos and couscous dishes. "If we lived in Des Moines, I would eat lunch here every day," said my partner. Same here.
I'm glad we didn't leave the city without parking it at the old-fashioned soda fountain at Bauder Pharmacy (3802 Ingersoll Av., 1-515-255-1124). A few scoops of the store's famous fresh strawberry and peach ice creams proved to be a delicious way to kick off our 3 1/2-hour trip back home. It's a breeze of a drive, not unlike navigating the traffic-free streets of Des Moines. If you're expecting an Iowa joke here, think again.
Rick Nelson • 612-673-4757