Des Moines Federal Courthouse

Brian Gongol

The gateway to downtown

On the west bank of the downtown riverfront stands a magnificent piece of architecture -- a landmark recognized far and wide that attracts tourists, serves as an icon of the city, and enhances the value of everything around it.

I'm referring, of course, to the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.

But I wish I were making reference to something in Des Moines, too. Alas, I am not -- and it doesn't look like we're going to get one. The Federal courthouse proposed for the site of the old YMCA seems unlikely to be turned around, though I object on three grounds.


First, it's a poor use of the site. Maybe we don't have our own Gateway Arch to install, but prime riverfront real estate on the doorstep to downtown ought to be used for some landmark architecture that raises the value of everything around it. It ought to contribute not only to the tax base, but to the value of the area. The GSA considered three other sites, including the site of the existing courthouse and annex. The chosen location wasn't the only option, but its selection preempts any better use of this prime riverfront real estate from coming into being. And as they've always said about land: Nobody's making any more of it. Once the old YMCA site is occupied by a Federal courthouse, we should expect it to stay that way for three generations to come.

Second, people who have reviewed the existing courthouse facilities (on the east side of the river, near the police station) say that the existing courthouse and annex are under-utilized, and that the proposed replacement would actually be smaller than what's already built. (And then, by the way, what becomes of the old facilities -- a courthouse built in the late 1920s and the annex built in 1995?)

Third, the proposed courthouse design is a disappointment. For $136 million, it ought to be dazzling. Perhaps because of the constraints imposed by the government's design guidelines (or perhaps not), the proposed design is undistinguished. It isn't bad, it's just...good enough for someone not to get fired. And that shouldn't be good enough; not when the last courthouse has served the city for 90-plus years.

This isn't the place for "good enough"

Des Moines is home to architecture by Mies van der Rohe, IM Pei, and Frank Lloyd Wright. We have the Butler House, Renzo Piano's new Krause Gateway Center, and what is widely regarded as the one of the best-looking capitol buildings in the country. The campus of Drake University still bears the imprint of Saarinen. The point is that Des Moines deserves magnificent buildings and has a right to expect them, especially in prime locations. The new courthouse just isn't. Maybe it's far too much to expect our own Gateway Arch -- but whatever lands on that site needs to stand out from what a person might see in any ordinary suburban office park.

What to do?

Time is running out -- groundbreaking could come within weeks. There may well be a material case for replacing the old courthouse; the decision to do something appears irreversible. But that doesn't mean the community shouldn't demand better before the first footings are poured. Former Des Moines city councilmember Christine Hensley recently said our best hope would be to contact Senators Chuck Grassley and Joni Ernst and ask them to scrutinize the project and hold it to a higher standard.