My family lore has it that in the early 1900s, a La Valleur spent time in prison because he shot and killed a sheriff from Des Moines. I haven’t been able to substantiate that story, but my paternal grandfather was born in Iowa, and the first La Valleur from Haute Sauté, France, to immigrate to central Iowa in the mid-1800s is buried next to a cornfield there. That seemed reason enough for a trip to Iowa’s largest city.
Des Moines was the last stop on a recent nine-day, nine-state road trip that my husband and I took to shake off the winter doldrums. The trip was designed around visiting friends and viewing public art in Chicago, Nashville, St. Louis and Des Moines — a high point.
Des Moines is perhaps better known as the third-largest insurance capital of the world than it is for art and culture. A quick Google search shows that Des Moines has many accolades to boast about, including:
• Listed in the top 10 “Hippest Mid-Sized Cities in America” by travel website Gogobot.
• Named the “Best Place for Business and Careers” in 2010 and 2013 by Forbes.
• Ranked America’s “wealthiest city for regular people” in 2014 by NBC’s “Today.”
All that press aside, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with Des Moines, with its plethora of public art and delightful mix of historic and modern architecture.
Architecture and sculpture
The magnificent gold-leafed State Capitol dome towering above the city can’t be missed. Built between 1871 and 1886, the building is situated high on a hill and visible from many parts of the city.
Across E. Court Avenue from the Capitol is a massive domed building housing judicial offices. What caught my eye was a stunning civil rights-themed sculpture, “Shattering Silence” by local artist James Ellwanger, perched on a steep hilltop nearby.
Downhill from the Capitol is the Principal Riverwalk area along the Des Moines River. The 1.2-mile Riverwalk was built in 2002. It features recreational trails connecting the east and west sides of downtown with two pedestrian bridges. With its trails, fountain, skating plaza and civic garden, it’s a convenient place for downtown workers to have a power walk.
I was struck by the modern artistic features of the Riverwalk Hub (215 Water St.), which houses a convenient coffee shop and clean restrooms. The roof juts out over the Riverwalk with five colorful plinth-like sculptures drawing pedestrians in for a hot cup of coffee on a cool spring day.
I was compelled to take the stairs down to river level to check out the arched bridges, old and new. Mounds of goose droppings along the concrete walls were not enough to keep me from enjoying the view,and the antics of a lone goose, whose only movement was a nearly 360-degree head rotation as it keenly eyed passersby who were interrupting its sunny respite.
We drove past the Science Center of Iowa and Blank Imax Dome Theater, with its unusual design of circular gray metal, orange and yellow brick. I’ve marked that as a place that deserves a future visit.
The skyline has undergone dynamic change in the past four decades, with numerous skyscrapers. Evidence of a healthy economy is visible in the numerous cranes dotting downtown.
A few blocks from the Riverwalk is the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, which is what drew me to Des Moines in the first place. Created in 2009, this 4 ½-acre, $40 million world-class park contains 28 works. It met my expectations. The park, named for two passionate philanthropists and art collectors, was also funded by more than 35 businesses, community organizations and art lovers. Cleverly laid out between Grand Avenue and Locust Street, the rectangular park is surrounded by walking paths that wind throughout the park for closer viewing of the sculptures.
My favorite piece, “Nomade” by Spanish artist Jaume Plensa, is a 27- by 17-foot human torso made entirely of a motley array of large white letters. People were drawn to step inside the towering piece, which made a perfect backdrop for selfies.
I give top marks to this sculpture park not only for its stunning class, but also for being accessible for the disabled. It even features a Braille map locating sculpture placements. The Greater Des Moines Public Art Foundation offers a free app that allows users to have a cellphone tour. By touching any point on the app’s map, you can read about the artists and their work, watch videos, find links to other artist information and discover more than 100 works throughout the city.
Des Moines’ Skywalk System, while less than half the length of the Minneapolis skyway network, has more than 4 miles of enclosed walkway. The city has also an impressive 76 city parks and boasts three golf courses, three aquatic centers, and five community centers.
When I asked my friend Melinda Voss of St. Paul (who was born in the city and worked at the Des Moines Register for 25 years) what she loved most about living in the city, she said “I never worried about my kids’ safety. They could roam the west side neighborhood and enjoy the delights of childhood. People are friendly and help each other. It is very easy to develop good friendships there, even for people who are not natives.”
Voss also encouraged me visit Salisbury House, a Tudor- and Gothic-style manor home built in the 1920s. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for that, but I’m looking forward to returning soon to take in the Salisbury mansion, gardens, library, fine arts and rare books collection, and many other sites.
Call it a nostalgic nod to my ancestors, but I definitely feel drawn back. I left my heart in Des Moines.
Where to eat
We had a light lunch with a friend at the Ritual Cafe, a small, friendly vegetarian haunt reminiscent of my hippie college days (1301 Locust St., 1-515-288-4872; ritual cafedsmiowa.net).
The city has a reputation for art festivals, trendy restaurants and oodles of craft-beer options like the Des Moines Social Club (1-515-369-3672; desmoinessocialclub.org) or the hip Zombie Burger + Drink Lab (1-515-244-9292; zombie burgerdm.com) For a classy meal, try the upscale Italian cuisine and wine at Centro (1-515-248-1780; centrodesmoines.com).
Voss recommended La Mie Bakery in the Shops at Roosevelt for great breakfasts and homemade bread and pastries. It’s a favorite spot for locals and is closed on Sunday (1-515-255-1625; lamiebakery.com).
Couldn’t be easier: Hop on I-35 south and set your cruise control. It’s only 245 miles away, or 3½ hours straight south, from the Twin Cities.
Barbara La Valleur has been an international freelance photojournalist for more than 50 years. She is chair of Public Art Edina and lives with her husband in Edina.