Botanical Center & the gardens of Des Moines Parks

25th Anniversary of the DM Botanical Center


December 15, 1979 - December 15, 2004

While these dates are very significant, some fifty years of planning, dreaming, working out details, frustrations, setbacks, second place finishes and readjustment of sites and aspirations were at work first. It often takes many months or even years for any seed of a dream to finally germinate, mature, and bloom. This was the case in our collective dreams of a botanical cultural asset for the community.

Since 1929 (according to records from the Des Moines Garden Club, Des Moines Founders Gardens Club, minutes of Park Board proceedings, records of the Des Moines City Council and Des Moines Register and Tribune files) the "site of a proposed 'horticultural facility for the benefit of the citizens of Des Moines and Central Iowa--' has been seriously considered in many places. It was first proposed to be located in Greenwood Park as the Floral Park with a beautiful Floral Conservatory Building surrounded by formal gardens, the Rose Garden and aquatic plants by the lake. Many of Des Moines' finest visionaries worked on this concept including Amos Emory, Jay Norwood "Ding" Darling and members of the DM Garden Club.

Portions of the plan were eventually implemented. The Rose Garden was one of these and today is one of our cities greatest assets. Designed by Harold Parnham with the structural components designed by Amos Emory, it was dedicated in 1933. It has recently been named for Clare and Miles Mills for their years of dedication to the care and cultivation of the roses originally given to the gardens by Izanna Chamberlain and supplemented over the years with many new varieties.

“Ding” Darling proposed a two-story structure at Greenwood Pond for a warming house for ice skaters on the lower level and a Garden Center on the upper. The ensuing publicity encourages the DM Garden Club to enthusiastically engage Emory to draw up construction drawings. Since it was during the depression, the $25,000 needed was not available so the plans were filed away. The building it was to replace was never anything more than a warming barn. It has since been removed and the pond is now the site of the Art Center’s Mary Miss project, Greenwood Pond Double Site.

Eliel Saarinen presented a plan for the design of the Art Center in 1939 on the site for the original floral conservatory. The plan was approved in 1945 and the Center opened in June of 1948. Again “Ding” Darling and other members of the Men’s Garden Club tried to incorporate a portion of the building for a Garden Center, but this was eventually deemed as space necessary for the Art Center’s use as a gift shop and rental gallery.

In 1939, the need to replace the 40-year-old conservatory in Union Park was apparent. A commercial greenhouse that had gone bankrupt in the 1500 block of Second Avenue was purchased for $1,003.83 to serve as a city greenhouse. An Additional $18,000 was spent improving each of the three greenhouses and later a new heating system was installed. This was to be a temporary measure until a suitable structure could be constructed for the city.

In 1955, the Horticulture Committee of the Park Board by Resolution #4973 instructed the Parks Superintendent to contact architects, engineers and greenhouse manufacturers for information on construction of a conservatory and growing houses; presumably to be located in Union Park. Brooks-Borg of DM was designated as local architects to work with Walter Kelsey of Tarryton, NY who designed a “U-shaped” building as an exhibition house as the base and the two arm-like structures the growing houses. By invitation a lay group of interested citizens from the DM Garden Club and the DM Founders Garden Club was formed to be advisory to this firm. In February 1957 final preliminary plans were approved at a cost estimate of $325,000. At this time there was a conflict with the construction of two new swimming pools that required a bond referendum, which the conservatory did not require. Eventually both pools were constructed and again the conservatory plans were dropped, due in part to the reluctance of neighbors to have it in Union Park, due to the assumed increased in traffic in the area. Another effort toward gardens in Des Moines came from Vivan Evans who donated the lilacs to Ewing Park.

In 1960 the project was reactivated by Herb Plagman of the Park Board working with Frank Price in Urban Renewal on land adjacent to the east of Veterans Memorial Auditorium, utilizing their parking lots. The major concerns expressed by the advisory committee were about being below a steep incline and in the physical shadow of the auditorium, now would be even more so, by the construction of the Events Center on a portion of this site.

In 1966, through the efforts of Albert Berkowitz, President of the Park Board; it was justified to use $8,000 - $12,000 from Urban Renewal funds to obtain new preliminary plans for a fourteen acre location on the east bank of the DM River immediately adjacent to East River Drive, north of the MacVicar (I-235) Freeway and south of the University Avenue Bridge. The City Council engaged the services of Architects Associated, later known as Smith-Voorhees-Jensen Associates, with Ray Hueholt as project architect.

A more active lay board was formed in 1969, to be advisory to this firm and to the Park Board on this project. For a brief period of time, the proposed new conservatory was known as the Iowa-Des Moines Plantron. It was a coined name to indicate the area to be served and tying in plant material. This name had an undercurrent of a similar name in Illinois of a commercial firm of questionable nature. The name was legally changed in March 1971 to Des Moines Botanical Center, Inc., as a 501(c)3 nonprofit, tax-deductible organization for educational purposes, to allow fund raising to proceed.

In 1972, fund raising efforts were suspended to combine with a proposed total revitalization of the central core of the city. In conjunction with this, a possible relocation site on the west side of the river was rejected as unsuitable, however the DMBC Board agreed to be flexible and cooperative for the total betterment of the city and to facilitate funding for the total project. In March 1973, the Executive Board gave preliminary approval to an alternate site (the current site of the Simon Estes Theater and the Embassy Suites). This led to the formation of the combined efforts of the fund raising for the proposed Civic and Botanical Centers; then to a bond referendum which required 60% approval. A strong 57% approved but was not sufficient. At this point it was requested fund raising efforts cease until the funding for the Civic Center was secured.

Martin Bucksbaum suggested looking into federal funding, so through the efforts of Harold Smith in the City Engineers Office, a suitable grant application was made for the 1976 Economic Development Act funds. The first attempt was rejected, until it was discovered that a clerical error, which located Des Moines in Greene rather than Polk County, had been made in the Denver office, and that gave priority standing for the second attempt. In 1977 $2,557,000 was awarded for the construction of the Botanical Center. The grant stipulated it be on unencumbered land and construction to start in 90 days. This was possible on the 1966 urban parkland with the dome plans that had been developed over the years with consultation from many existing facilities throughout this country and abroad. The acceptance of the grant was conditioned on the city using $700,000 of Revenue Sharing funds and the Board was required to secure an additional $500,000 in private funs as an endowment reserve. Since fund raising had been put on hold, as directed, the Board could not go to a loyal friend with the Meredith Corporation coming up with the first $200,000 followed by Pioneer International at $100,000. From there, the rest of the corporate community fell into place and the goal was reached. Ceremonial ground breaking took place October 29, 1977.

The DMBC is a form of geodesic dome design, with a diameter of 150 feet and a height of 75 feet. It houses a permanent collection of over 1,500 tropical and subtropical species and cultivars. Areas have been set aside for displays of seasonal arrangements. Handicap accessible ramps, bridges and walkways wind through the plantings of the main growing area. Cactus gardens, as well as orchid walls are all a part of the vast collection. A balcony overlook, 10 feet by 80 feet, reached by two gracefully curved stairways, gives a different perspective of the interior of the dome. This balcony has been used for a quiet reading, study space over lunch breaks; and it can also accommodate high school proms, wedding receptions or other festive gatherings with a view of the skyline of Des Moines and the Des Moines River.

On the historic day of October 4, 1979, when Pope John Park II arrived from Philadelphia, the DMBC also had a very special guest arriving from the same city. Everitt Miller, the Director of Longwood Gardens in Kennett Square, PA came to DM to assist in the placement of a semi-load of gift plantings from his institution along with the things that had been growing and collected in the old city greenhouse. As the work was concluding, the plane of the Pope, Shepherd I, headed for Chicago after his day at Living History Farms. It was taken as a Papal blessing when the wings dipped in the direction of the DMBC!

Opening Day was December 15, 1979, a festive day indeed. Several thousand people came after watching the “jewel rise on the banks of the river” over the previous two years, as the DM Register recorded the event. A magnificent blossom opened on a cold December morning and it has been a beautiful landmark ever since. A comment made by Parks and Recreation Director Bill Foley on that day was most appropriate, “Wow, we have a tiger by the talk!” Everyone agreed!

It has been a tremendous learning curve for all involved with the Center over years. Thousands of volunteer house have been devoted, not only cataloging the important collection of rare books given on extended loan by the DM Garden Club, (see the article in the October-December 2004 issue of Bloom, by Connie Staples, one of the 25-year library veteran volunteers) but to all aspects of making the DMBC a totally functioning unit. Other volunteers were tour docents that took school children and others on a learning experience in the dome. Some were those who transplanted plants growing in the adjacent growing houses to replace seasonal displays. Others gave time on the admissions desk or in the gift shop or on the outside gardens including the adjacent river front memorial gardens. It was also a learning curve for the city employees to learn how to work with and appreciate volunteers.

The DMBC has one of the ten best bonsai collections in the United States. Many of the trees have been trained for over a century. Ruth LaDany gave half of her family collection to DMBC, as a memorial to her husband Jules, and the other half was given to the Chicago Botanical Garden in Glencoe, IL. The LaDanys’ daughter, Audrey Hirsch, was a Board President of DMBC. After Audrey’s death in 1985, the memorial enclosure for the bonsai collection was erected. In 1999 a portion of the Susan Lydon Miller collection was given to the DMBC while the other part went to California. Unfortunately, this past year there has been another theft of part of the collection so it is now under tighter security. This wonderful addition to the Center was the origin of the Bonsai Society and it’s groups’ dedication to the care of these special trees.

The Polk County Medical Auxiliary started the first herb gardens at the Center with three small units for fragrance, culinary and medicinal herbs. When the Educational Wing was constructed these gardens were demolished but from this start the Herb Study Group took over the developed the extensive Herb Gardens to the north of the Center. This group has contributed thousands of hours of volunteer service as well as money to add the fence and gazebo, another attractive place to hold weddings and other family gatherings. It has been a valuable source of education and enjoyment for all that have visited.

As of January 1, 2004 the management of the DMBC has been turned over to the Staff and Board of the DM Water Works Park. The Friends of the DMBC have finance a new overall plan for the Center, designed by Douglas Hoerr Associates. To quote Susan Appleget Hurst, President of the Friends, in the Bloom issue of October-December 2004, who puts a positive outlook for the future, “In the past few months, Friends and Water Works undertook a master-planning process with the assistance of a landscape architect firm. Taking better advantage of our elemental and aesthetic connection with the river’ creating a more welcoming entrance for our visitors, improving the plant collections both inside and outside of the conservatory and planning for changing exhibits that both teach and inspire are parts of our dream for the future.”

A beautiful way to start the next 25 and many more years!

October 29, 2004
Polly V Moore
Past President of Des Moines Botanical Center, Inc.
(now known as Friends of the DMBC)

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