Merle Hay Neighborhood History

General History of Northwest Des Moines


Since Iowa gained statehood in 1846, the Merle Hay Neighborhood (MNH) has been part of a region known as Des Moines; first as a township and later part of the city. Many developments and subdivisions joined as the Merle Hay Neighborhood Association. Unlike many parts of town, it was never officially known by any other name, due to the MHN being so far from the early city. Much of it was in a large area casually known as ‘Urbandale’ and not yet part of Des Moines until the time Urbandale incorporated in 1917. It may have been thought the area would be included with Des Moines, because it had come into the Des Moines Public School District in 1907 when several outlying school boards merged, and the name Urbandale was then available for their use as they started a city and a school district. At that time the new town of Urbandale was described as “three miles west of the Des Moines city limits.“ In fact, an ad of April 6, 1917 in the Des Moines Register, just before the incorporation, described the Clover Acres subdivision of 161 half-acre lots near the Inter-urban Railway line as “Urbandale property” between 58th Street (later renamed Merle Hay Road) and 62nd Street, south of Douglas Avenue. Plats near 49th Street and Urbandale Avenue were recorded in 1917 and retain the name as Urbandale Heights and Urbandale Gardens, near the Himeshurst plat; Urbandale Oaks in the Beaverdale Neighborhood at 38th Street and Urbandale Avenue was recorded in 1915. The western city limit between Hickman Road and Urbandale Avenue was not settled until 1960 after a vote to annex the area into Urbandale, a court case and an agreement reached with Urbandale to include the ‘Westover’ area, first platted in 1906, within Des Moines.

The MHN has had two major growth times; in the 1910s and 1920s after the Inter-urban streetcar line was built, and soon after World War II. Due to the Great Depression and WWII, few homes were built from 1929 through 1946, and many built then were single homes, not developments; so there was a great need for housing post-war; so great the federal government passed legislation banning non-essential construction. The early development near the streetcar was on large lots, many from eight to twenty acres and considered ’country living.’ The University Heights plats saw the most development during the 1930s, but there is a smattering of 1930s and early 1940s homes interspersed throughout the MHN. The MHN was so slow to develop in fact, that along 63rd Street there is a development called Suburban Farms. The finer four-square and Craftsman style homes on large lots came first on acreages and smaller homes came after WWII; including the unique round brick homes at 50th Street and Urbandale Avenue, two of the total of 2,500 produced post-war steel ‘Lustron’ homes, one in the Hollywood Gardens and the other in University Heights, and some concrete block homes without basements. Construction immediately post-war in 1946 to 1949 paid slight attention to amenities for the homes; the goal being merely to provide housing, but later homes had more features. Yet, even with all of the early growth of the neighborhood along the streetcar line, both 54th and 67th Streets just south of Urbandale Avenue and much of the Westover area weren’t built-up until the 1960s and 1970s; so it took 75 years to complete the MHN and it has a multitude and great variety of housing options.

Coming to the area in 1883, some of the earliest known residents of the neighborhood were of the Stuart family who owned land in the 62nd Street and Douglas Avenue area, which later was split between Des Moines and Urbandale. Before roads were laid out, travelers heading to the northwest would come from Hickman Road diagonally from near today’s 59th Street across a grassy ridge to the Stuart home. The 300foot jog in the city boundaries down the center of Douglas Avenue is due to Joseph Stuart not agreeing to be annexed and therefore pay residential city taxes on his farmland. The Inter-urban tracks were laid near the oldest homes known in the MHN; one built in 1894 is on Merle Hay Road and the others from 1895 on 49th and 51st Streets, all near Urbandale Avenue on their north. A decade later, in 1905, the Inter-urban Railway tracks were laid in what is now the grassy median strip down the center of Urbandale Avenue. In 1904 much of the land near the end of the railway line, including the Westover and Colonial Acres, and Whitehall were platted by the Corn Belt Land and Loan Co. That central ‘streetcar’ portion of the neighborhood consists of essentially not only the oldest, but also the newest and largest homes and lots. The names of some of the streets at that time were Montclair Avenue and Colonial Boulevard. To the south are plats named Bishop Place, Idleman Place and Lookout Heights in which the intriguing names of Geronimo and Custer were proposed for streets. The nearby golf course built in 1901 and at first the location of the Des Moines Golf and Country Club but now Waveland Golf Course, was at the end of the Ingersoll streetcar line and along with the former Ingersoll Park provided recreational options.

The growth of the MHN was primarily due to the advancements in transportation, which meant residents could live farther from the center of a city; but it has also been important in distance transportation by airplane and motor vehicles. By allowing residents to live further from downtown, the land could be used for country living residences rather than farms. Beginning in 1905, the Inter-urban Railroad was the first step to bring better transportation to the area, long before there were paved roads. On the railroad people could more easily get to work, shopping, school, church or entertainment. They could shop downtown or go to work in the coalmines of Urbandale, and riders could take the cars out to the circus farm near Granger to see the elephants. Before most families had cars, an entire family could ride for just 25 on Sundays to see a movie; and the railway published the City Railway News, which had movie listings. Every two weeks flat cars would bring merchandise from catalog companies such as Sears and Roebuck and bring groceries to the small stores which grew up along the tracks; they also carried cattle, eggs and milk from the farms into town. Between 5:00 a.m. and midnight, trains came by at least every hour, and at times every five minutes; it took forty-five minutes to travel from the turnaround at 70th Street and Roseland Avenue to downtown Des Moines.

As growth started and after the area joined the city, in the 1919 R. L. Polk City Directory there are five listings on 49th Street between the addresses of 2615 and 2701. Some homes at that time had not yet been given house numbers and are not therefore listed, but by 1920 house numbers are showing up for 50th and 58th (Merle Hay Road) Streets in the MHN. Before 1935 Urbandale High School students rode the streetcars to North or Roosevelt High School. Until 1950 when the tracks west of 49th Street were removed for paving, a long trestle spanned the low point so the tracks could cross over Merle Hay Road. All streetcar services in Des Moines ended March 4, 1951 and were replaced by the busses or, as they were called, ‘curbliners’ because they were boarded from the curb rather than the middle of the street. To this day, the neighborhood is served well by public transportation. There is a commuter express bus service from the mall area and there are routes along University, Urbandale and Douglas Avenues. The streets not yet developed before WWII began to fill in during the late 1940s and 1950s after the war. A few roads remained gravel into the 1950s. To help understand how small the original City was, Holcomb Avenue, one block north of Hickman Road and University Avenue were both originally called ‘North Street’ but changed when no longer was relevant.

The area northwest of Drake University was once part of the Oakdale School district beginning in the 1890s with the schools of Rawson, Windsor and East and West Woodlawn and the far northwest corner was known as Pleasant Hill. Rawson School was on 48th Street about a block south of Franklin Avenue. West Woodlawn was used until Rice School was built in 1910, and stood on land owned by the Meredith family at Madison and Beaver Avenues near where the Hoover/Meredith campus is now. Built in 1917, James Whitcomb Riley Elementary school stood on the corner of 53rd Street and Urbandale Avenue along the Inter-urban Railway line. Used as a school 56 years, from 1917 to 1973, the building is now gone, but the MHN gained a very needed park on that corner that has kept the name as Riley Park where the neighborhood hopes to live the “life of Riley,” for the namesake for which the phrase was coined. The Inter-urban Railway is remembered in that area with the Inter-urban Bicycle Trail and the area has become a recreational spot. In the 1940s a school was seriously proposed to be built on the south side of Franklin Avenue at 61st Street. The former Franklin Junior High School at 48th Street and Franklin Avenue opened in January of 1951 and closed in the 1980s. Until fairly recently the Franklin building was used as Des Moines Christian School, and is still part of the First Federated Church. Dr. Fred B. Moore Elementary School built in the early 1950s at 52nd Street and Douglas Avenue closed in 2007, and was initially known as Fair Meadows School; planning for a school at that location began in 1924. Only two neighborhood schools remain in the neighborhood: Cora Bussey Hillis Elementary at 56th Street and Hickman Road and Windsor Elementary at 59th Street and University Avenue; they have both recently been updated. Hillis was originally known as ’Tower’ school due to the proximity to the Hazen Water Tower; it was first a temporary wooden building before the first section was completed in 1953. Windsor was named for Henry Clay Windsor who settled in the area in 1840. It began as a two-room brick school in 1918 and teachers had to walk from the end of a street carline at 49th and University to the school; the first portion of the current building was completed in 1949. Making a full circle, students living in the Aviation Park neighborhood north of Douglas Avenue once again attend a Woodlawn Elementary, but they are now bussed about two miles.

Next to come were highway and street improvements. In the summer of 1917, Camp Dodge was becoming an important training center for soldiers and a better road was needed to it. The namesake for the neighborhood, Glidden, Iowa native Private Merle David Hay, was killed in France November 2, 1917; and was one of the first three Americans to die during World War I. Less than three weeks later, with the swell of patriotism, the Des Moines City Council brought action to change the name of 58th Street to Merle Hay Road. The 16-ton memorial boulder near Aurora Avenue along Merle Hay Road was dedicated May 30, 1921. The east side of Merle Hay Road was said to be a swamp full of smart weeds. The brick paving of the road south to the corner of Douglas Avenue was completed by the following spring, but not finished to Hickman Road until 1935. Douglas Avenue from Beaver Avenue to Merle Hay Road also received brick paving at this time. Running electrical lines out to Camp Dodge in 1917 helped electrify the neighborhood. Further highway changes came in the 1930s, with the highway US 32 begin rerouted from Adel to downtown Des Moines along Hickman Road in 1931. The MHN still has parts of IA 28 on Merle Hay Road and 63rd Street, and US 6 along Douglas Avenue and Hickman Road. Adding to the growth of the northwest side of town was the building of the Veterans Administration Hospital at 30th Street and Euclid Avenue rather than in West Des Moines, and the new Euclid Avenue Bridge over the Des Moines River on Highway US 6. Putting things in perspective, in 1916 it was so novel to own a motor vehicle that it was noted in the 1916 F. A. Moore Company Polk County Farm Directory what kind of vehicle was owned and it was listed by automaker.

As the area grew, fresh water supply systems were needed and the MHN has two such supply facilities. Construction began on the distinctive ten-story tall, 16-pillar, 20,000 ton, 2 million gallon tank, Doric Classical Revival architecture influenced Allen Hazen Water Tower in 1929. When completed in 1931 the older 1891 tower at 17th Street and Crocker Street was no longer used. Hazen was a prominent New York engineer; overseeing the water supply at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Possibly due to the prior nearby airfield, a large arrow was painted on the top of the Hazen Tower to point the way to the new Des Moines airport. The 4 million gallon Morris K. Tenny standpipe at Merle Hay Road and Madison Avenue was built in 1959 after much growth in the area and named in 1973 for the Water Works Manager from 1955 - 1968 who was instrumental in the growth of the DMWW and getting Urbandale and Camp Dodge connected to the system in 1934.

At the edge of town, and perhaps due to the highways and proximity to Camp Dodge, and aviation beginning to grow due to the learning experiences and surplus airplanes from WWI, the MHN has been home to two airfields. Clyde Herring Airport, who later became Governor, was at the northeast corner of Merle Hay Road and Douglas Avenue from 1918 to 1924 and seriously considered to receive the early airmail, and then possibly become the airport for the city. Lots were sold beginning in 1924 along the east side of Merle Hay Road north of Douglas, but for the most part this area was not developed until very soon after WWII in 1947 and 1948 for those getting their lives started again and it has smaller lots and smaller, simpler homes, most originally without basements, than much of the rest of the MHN. Although water service was near the area, wells were common there and some may still remain. Many of these homes were built as one-bedroom, but few are left that have not had additions. The second airfield, White’s Field, may have replaced Herring Airfield, existing from 1924 to 1926. ’Pop’ Burd White performed air tricks over Riverview Amusement Park. It was at the corner of 49th Street and Hickman Road where Tower Park is. A flashing beacon stood at Merle Hay Road and Aurora Avenue from 1929 and displays a number “12” to show how many miles to the new airport which was completed in 1933 on Fleur Drive. It could be presumed the beacon was placed at that point because it was near a major highway that planes might follow.

The major business corridors of Merle Hay Road and Douglas Avenue were originally residential and to this day have quite a few residences. The short lots on these streets make commercial development difficult. During 1922 and 1923, the St. Gabriel’s Monastery of Passionist monks was built on the northwest corner of Merle Hay Road and Douglas Avenue on 50 acres of land the Moran’s bought from the McDivitts to donate for the monastery. Ray Stuart operated the farm functions of the monastery and continued farming in the area until the mall bought his land and expanded into Urbandale in the early 1970s. Now bearing the name of Merle Hay Mall, during the initial planning stages it was known as Northland Shopping Center until Younkers executives suggested the Merle Hay name. The monastery buildings were razed in 1958 after the monks sold out to Chicago developers. The open corridor Merle Hay Plaza opened August 17, 1959 with thirty-one stores and a bowling alley anchored by Younkers Department Store. Some residential construction has continued even though the mall property was the last remaining large tract of land not developed. Those houses were in the Westover and 54th Street plats. Even today, there is occasionally a new home built on some of the remaining large original homesteads from the early country living times that were not split up in earlier years.

August 1, 2008
Compliments of Pat Meiners &
A-1 HAWKEYE APPLIANCE 515-270-1234

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