In 1916 the Des Moines Association of Fine Arts began operating out of the Des Moines Main Library. In 1933 a wealthy Iowan and arts patron named James D. Edmundson died, bequeathing more than half a million dollars to the Des Moines Association of Fine Arts to build a stand alone art center separate from the library. Edmundson stipulated that the money be held in a trust for ten years, hoping that it would recover its assets after the Great Depression. In 1940 the city of Des Moines designated land in Greenwood Park as the site of the future building at the request of the Edmundson Arts Foundation trustees. In 1943 the trustees requested design submissions for the new art center. The trustees requested that the design include educational facilities and an auditorium as well as viewing galleries. They also required a building that would correspond to the best style of that period, avoiding any imitation of Greek, English or Gothic architecture. Other requests for the design were the use of stone in the building, and a limitation to a determined height. Eliel Saarinen was asked to submit a design for the Des Moines Art Center after his design entry in the competition to build the new Smithsonian Art Gallery was exhibited at the Des Moines Association for Fine Arts. On March 22, 1945 Saarinen’s design was chosen and he was commissioned as the architect of the new Des Moines Art Center, set in Des Moines Greenwood Park. His design called for a 47,000 square foot, S-shaped, low-rise building sitting on the crest of a small hill in the Park. Construction began in 1945 and was completed in 1948. The Des Moines Art Center opened to the public on June 2, 1948. In 1966 the trustees decided to expand the facilities of the art center. They asked I.M. Pei to submit a design for an addition to the original structure for consideration. The new space would exhibit sculpture, requiring a large space where three dimensional art could be viewed from all sides. Pei’s design filled in a U shaped wing on the south side of Saarinen’s building, creating an enclosed courtyard. The design was approved and completed in 1968. In 1982, the trustees again decided to expand. They asked Richard Meier to submit a design for a new addition to the art center to house temporary exhibits and a café. The commission asked for a design of 28,000 square feet. Meier submitted a design for three separate structural additions. The largest building was a three story independent building, north of Saarinen’s original structure, accessed by glass corridor. The other two structures were built around the western most wing of the original structure. The design was approved and completed in 1984.
The Des Moines Art Center has been built in phases. Each structure or addition is distinct and easily identifiable as the work of different architects. Saarinen’s design resulted in an S shaped building, sitting low and hugging the crest of a small hill. The primary entrance is located on the east side of the building. The S shape creates a series of wings, encompassing different aspects of the center such as the auditorium and the classrooms. The building has a flat roof and is clad in Lannon stone from Wisconsin. The four inch veneer is backed by standard brick. Steel and aluminum details surround the primary entrance and fenestration. The building is primarily one story, excepting a two story gallery in the west wing and a two story educational annex attached to it. Pei’s 18,000 square foot addition was built along the south side of the reflecting pool, filling in Saarinen’s courtyard to form a square with an enclosed outdoor courtyard. The wing is connected to Saarinen’s building on the east and west side, facilitating circular movement through the building. The addition is two stories in height and constructed of reinforced concrete. Pei chose to use the same Lannon limestone that was used as cladding in Saarinen’s structure as aggregate in his concrete walls, using a bush hammered finish to expose the aggregate and provide a coarse texture. The consciously rough masonry was a deliberate link on Pei’s part to the rough façade provided by the Lannon stone in Saarinen’s building. The addition’s position on a downward slope allows the roof lines of both structures to closely align. This positioning allows the Pei wing to conceal itself behind the original Saarinen structure when approaching the Des Moines Art Center on Grand Ave. The wing has a V shaped, butterfly vaulted roof protruding into the wing, allowing natural light to flow into the interior spaces through skylights. The principle façade of Pei’s design faces south, over the sloping lawn into the public park. Strong horizontal and vertical walls and lintels frame deep set windows, creating deep shadows on the exterior and a sense of massive geometric asymmetry. A contrasting rounded enclosed staircase protrudes into the reflecting pool within the courtyard. Meier’s addition deviated sharply from both Saarinen’s and Pei’s broad horizontal and angular visions. Meier’s addition was fragmented into three separate structures attached to the Saarinen building close to existing axes. His three structures curve horizontally and vertically around gridded square granite structures that anchor his designs. Gridded porcelain enameled steel and glass covers the dependent curves. The porcelain and glaze provides for a pink-beige color, reminiscent of the Lannon cladding exterior of Saarinen’s design. The curved walls contrast with both the gridded granite primary structures and the linear horizontality and flat roofs of Saarinen’s and Pei’s contributions. A pyramid shaped roof on the largest and most isolated of Meier’s structure counters the inverted butterfly roof designed by Pei on the previous addition. This structure is built to the north of the complex and connected to Saarinen’s structure by a long glass corridor. It is visible when approaching the Des Moines Art Center from Grand Ave. The smallest of Meier’s structures is tucked into the northwest corner of the enclosed courtyard and aligned with Saarinen’s roof line. This structure provides views through the curved glass walls of both the Saarinen and Pei wings. The courtyard becomes, in effect, a stage for the juxtaposition of the three different phases and varying degrees of modern architecture represented in the complex.
Eliel Saarinen Building: Wall covered with plaster and concrete block. I.M.Pei addition: Bush-hammered concrete. Richard Meier addition: Porcelain-coated metal panels and granite cladding.
The Des Moines Art Center sits on the crest of a cleared hill towards the north end of Greenwood Park in Des Moines. Greenwood Park is a heavily wooded acreage. The North boundary is formed by Grand Ave. The south side of the Des Moines Art Center overlooks the park. A rose garden is situated on the southern slope of the site. Lannon stone sculpture pillars line the walk through the rose garden, linking the garden to the original art center. The pillars were constructed before the art center, and are what prompted the trustees to request their use in Saarinen’s design. Below the rose garden a path continues south leading to trails around a man made pond and through the wooded areas to other outdoor facilities. The park is in no danger of being further developed.
Each architects' contribution to the Des Moines Art Center marked a technological advancement in its time. Saarinen designed a modern art center including educational facilities and an auditorium. This set a precedent in the Midwest in both design and use. Regional art museums had been designed almost unanimously in the Neo-classical style before World War II. Saarinen’s modern design was a decided break with design tradition in a very traditionally stubborn landscape. Notably, the Des Moines Art Center was the architect’s first foray into the use of Lannon limestone as a primary building material. Saarinen’s design also provided for far more than a simple display gallery. Saarinen’s design helped facilitate an educational center, not just a museum. Meier’s use of granite in his primary structures was a technological first for the architect. He had used the material as a base or a plinth in his former designs. His extensive curved glass walls were also a technical innovation. His design challenged the art center curators to work with new spaces and surfaces.
Edmundson stated in his endowment that the art center admit people for free at least three days a week, including Sundays. The goal of the center is to serve its community through art education and access. Its mission statement has changed very little from its original function. The center’s goal is to provide a comfortable and inviting environment in which to learn about and view diverse forms of art.
The stand out cultural aspect of the Des Moines Art Center is the visual collaboration between three renowned international architects it represents. Three separate visions and architectural ideologies complement and contrast one another. The varying styles shown in each architect’s contribution illustrates an evolution in modern architectural perspective, transforming the art center into a museum of architecture as well as art. As many people visit the site to witness the architectural dialogue between three recognized 20th century architects as to view the exhibitions inside the buildings.
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Des Moines Art Center website, 2 March 2007 (www.desmoinesartcenter.org)