The area known as Woodland Heights was, until the late 1800’s, a semi-rural, wooded and rolling forest on countryside overlooking both the Des Moines and Raccoon River valleys.
A main feature of the Woodland Heights forest was Bird Run Creek, which ran through the forest from the north, passed nearby the western edge of Woodland Cemetery, and proceeded down to Ingersoll Avenue near 24th Street before finally entering the Raccoon River to the south. While picturesque, this stream presented a major problem: due to the forest’s rolling terrain, Bird Run Creek repeatedly flooded and was a significant obstacle not only for the newly emerging businesses along Ingersoll Avenue, but also for any new housing development near Harding Road (now Martin Luther King Parkway).
In the late 1880’s, the Des Moines Street Railway Company purchased land on Ingersoll Avenue between 23rd and 24th streets for a potential trolley barn location. They held this flood plain land for several years without development until the City of Des Moines constructed a network of storm sewers on the west side to control area flooding. With Bird Run Creek diverted underground into the new city storm sewer, most of the significant flooding in the area was corrected. Now, the trolley barn envisioned by the local transit company could be built, and construction of the trolley barn and new rail lines began on July 17, 1901. The western development of Des Moines had begun!
Prior to the trolley line’s establishment, the Woodland Heights area (known at that time as “The Woodlands”) had very few existing homes. There were a few, large family homes along Ingersoll Avenue and High Street above Bird Run Creek, but The Woodland was primarily estates with large Victorian-style homes with only limited access via long, winding gravel roads. Some of these Victorian estate homes still exist, such as those at 674 25th Street and 2707 Center Street (the original Witmer mansion, built by one of Des Moines’ founding families).
By the early 1900’s, the Des Moines trolley car service was well established and new lines were built through The Woodlands from Ingersoll north to Woodland Avenue at 24th Street. New tracks were also extended north on 25th Street to Center and then west to 31st Street.
In 1907, a Sherman Hill resident and local sash and door supplier, E.W. Percival, decided the time was right and a business opportunity existed to develop The Woodlands. He and a financing partner formed the Percival-Porter Company and purchased land between 25th and 28th Streets from Woodland Avenue to Center Street. Percival and Porter combined this land with additional parcels they purchased from the existing estates, and platted this area into 138 lots to be sold as part of a new development they called Woodland Place.
To sell their new development, the Percival-Porter Company sales brochures and advertisements in the Des Moines (Register) Leader featured the area’s convenience to the new trolley line and the natural beauty of the neighborhood’s large oak trees. Other benefits offered to the prospective homebuyer were the city’s new sewer service and water supply lines.
However, all this natural beauty and modern conveniences came at a price for prospective buyers: restrictions were placed by the developers on the value of homes that could be built in the new Woodland Place. On each lot (which sold for between $300 and $600), a new home owner was required to build a home of minimum value—for a two story home, that meant a house worth at least $1,400. Since annual incomes in 1907 averaged just $700, the intent was to create a neighborhood of quality homes in one of Des Moines’ most scenic areas. Because of the desirability afforded by Woodland Place (convenience to work, ease of transportation, its natural beauty, and the availability of city water and sewers), lots sold quickly and by 1915 the plat was fully developed.
One builder, H.H. Pharmer (who became known as the “Bungalow Man”), acquired twenty Woodland Place lots. The homes built by Pharmer were all in the newest style of the day: the “Craftsman” bungalow style of one or one-and-a-half stories. Other builders and land buyers chose to build two-story homes mainly in the Four Square type applying the new Prairie School influence or Colonial Revival style so popular during this period.
The Woodland Heights neighborhood is now over 100 years old, and is still known for the same ideals that were advertised by Percival and Porter back in their 1907 sales brochure: convenience, services and schools, close to local businesses and transit, and the area’s natural woodland beauty.
Nearly all of our homes have survived, and today the Woodland Heights neighborhood helps preserve our city’s history while serving a fourth generation of residents. As we now celebrate our Centennial anniversary, it is unfortunate to note the old trolley barn that helped spark the westward growth of Des Moines was demolished in 1983. Its location is now the site of a restaurant at the corner of 24th Street and Ingersoll Avenue.
In 1980 Woodland Heights formed an informal neighborhood organization. We wanted to be an all inclusive, and decided at that time to not charge dues so that everyone felt welcome. Anyone living in the neighborhood could come and vote on any issue before us. We elected officers and took on our first issue. The W.H.O. wanted a four-way stop sign at the corner of 24th and Woodland Ave. We took the issue to the Des Moines City Council three times. Finally, in 1996, twelve years later, we tried again and finally got our four-way stop! The Woodland Heights Organization (WHO) is still together, tenacious, and still charging no dues.
The WHO was one of the first members of the Des Moines Neighborhood “umbrella” group called Des Moines Neighbors. When the WHO helped to form Des Moines Neighbors in 1986 there were only seven established neighborhood groups in the city. As of 2013 there are 58 recognized neighborhood groups in Des Moines.
Des Moines Neighbors worked with the city to form the Neighborhood Revitalization Board (N.R.B.) and the Neighborhood Finance Corporation (N.F.C.). With these programs neighborhoods began to apply a designated neighborhood status to receive additional city planning, support, special grants and loans from the N.F.C.
Woodland Heights was one of the first neighborhoods to be designated in 1991. Since acquiring this designation status from the city in 1991 and becoming a chartered organization in 1995 Woodland Heights has used over $13,000,000 of home and neighborhood improvement funds. Nearly half of the homes in the neighborhood were rehabilitated during this time period.
Under the Neighborhood Revitalization program, Woodland Heights added 20 new homes on vacant lots. The W.H.O. and the city ensured that these added house fit the historical streetscape well and the neighborhood Character Plan.
As a neighborhood organization we have remained active to ensure the preservation and beautification of this historically precious Des Moines community.