U.S. Courthouse, Des Moines, IA

Des Moines U.S. Courthouse

Building History

One of a group of stately public buildings along Des Moines' riverfront, the U.S. Courthouse at 123 East Walnut Street is a significant monument in the Civic Center Complex. It illustrates principles of Beaux Arts architectural design and urban planning.

In 1902, as Des Moines initiated plans to establish a civic center based on City Beautiful ideals, the river-front was recommended as the site of a new federal courthouse. Other sites were considered in 1913 when funds were allocated, but the riverfront was still preferred as "one of the most desirable sites offered." Land was bought in 1918, but concerns over the need for additional space delayed the project until adjacent sites were purchased in 1926. The new U.S. Courthouse was finally constructed in 1927-1928 under Acting Supervising Architect of the Treasury James A. Wetmore.

When the building opened in 1929, it housed the courts and federal departmental offices including War, Justice, Navy, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Treasury, and the U.S. Post Office. The U.S. Courthouse was the site of a landmark legal decision in 1979 when Judge William C. Stuart held that it is the federal government's right to legislate travel by "long" trucks on interstate roads maintained by federal funding. The Supreme Court subsequently upheld this decision.

The U.S. Courthouse is one of seven monumental public buildings constructed along the Des Moines River. The other Civic Center buildings include: the Des Moines Public Library (1900-1903); the Post Office (1909-1910); the Municipal Building (1909-1910); the Coliseum (1909-1910; burned 1949), the Municipal Court and Public Safety Building (1918-1920), and the Armory and World War Memorial Building (1934-1935). These buildings are distinguished by their location and harmonious design. Five of the extant buildings are Classical Revival; while the Armory is Art Moderne. All reflect the City Beautiful Movement precepts by promoting civic patriotism, and enhancing urban economics and beauty.

In 1988 the riverfront area, including the U.S. Courthouse, was designated as the Civic Center Historic District and listed in the National Register of Historic Places. In 1995 a build-to-suit leased annex with addition-al court space was constructed to the building's south.


As part of a dramatic grouping of monumental civic buildings along the banks of the Des Moines River, the U.S. Courthouse holds an important role in the urban landscape of Des Moines. Sited on the river, the building occupies an entire city block and is accessed from a major thoroughfare through the central business district.

The five-story, E-shaped building is a steel-frame structure clad with Indiana limestone. Its four variations of stone finishes emphasize the aesthetic ideals of the Classical Revival style. The raised basement is clad in smooth ashlar limestone with flat-arched window openings. The piano nobile is finished with rusticated limestone pierced by semi-circular arched openings ornamented with keystones. Two-story Corinthian columns and pilasters veneered in smooth limestone mark the third and fourth stories. The recessed attic story is articulated with paneled pilasters and a banded cornice. A striking feature is the pronounced entablature at the top of the third story, featuring sloping modillions, a modestly detailed stone cornice, and molded frieze.

The primary (north) facade is the most elaborate elevation. It is nineteen bays wide with slightly projecting pavilions. The thirteen center-most bays are enhanced by fourteen massive engaged columns with Corinthian capitals. Fenestration is formally organized and includes arched windows on the first story, large rectangular windows on the second story, and square windows on the third story and attic level. The central (main) entrance is articulated with three, two-story semi-circular arches adorned by rusticated voissoirs and large scrolled keystones. Secondary entries are set within three arched openings at the center of the more austere east and west elevations. The east and west facades are seven bays wide and presented in a three-part composition that echoes the primary facade.

The interior of the Des Moines courthouse reflects the restrained quality associated with late Classical Revival design. The ceremonial entrance hall contains the original gold, black, and white speckled terrazzo flooring framed by a base of Red Verona marble. The grand stair leading to the entrance hall is composed of Napoleon gray marble treads and buff-colored marble risers. The elaborate, classically styled, cast-iron balustrade is composed of vine-like curved scrolls with floral accents, fitted between bands of floral discs and squares. The stair hall is ornamented with an intricate plaster coffered ceiling and classically inspired entablature.

The most significant space in the building is the main courtroom on the second floor, a stunning and exceptionally intact example of Classical Revival design. Restored in 1988, notable features are the original floor bordered in pink Tennessee marble, decorative coffered ceiling, and walls plastered to imitate travertine ashlar masonry. Raised on a pink Tennessee marble platform, the judge's bench sits in the center of the wall in front of a small alcove flanked by two Corinthian columns. Above the alcove in gold letters are the words, "Justitia Omnibus" (Justice for All). Adjacent to the main courtroom are the judge's chambers, which include the judge's office, anteroom, and law library.

The building has undergone extensive renovation to meet modern office requirements, including installation of new mechanical systems, rehabilitation of spaces to meet the changing needs of the courts, and construction of an addition at the rear to accommodate the U.S. Marshals Service. The relocation of the original entrances from the first floor to the basement level meets modern needs but negates the importance of the original grand foyer. Despite these changes, the beauty of the building and its public spaces continue to convey the historic significance of the building.

Significant Events

1902: The U.S. Government recommends the construction of a new courthouse along the banks of the Des Moines River.

1913: The Public Buildings Act of 1913 allocates $350,000 for the construction of a new Federal building in Des Moines.

1918: The U.S. Government purchases a site along the Des Moines River for a new U.S. Courthouse.

1926: Land adjacent to the 1918 Courthouse site is purchased to accommodate space requirements, allowing the project to begin.

1927-1929: The U.S. Courthouse is constructed.

1979: The building is the site of a landmark decision on the Federal Government's right to legislate travel by "long" trucks on interstate roads maintained by Federal funding.

1988: The U.S. Courthouse is recognized as a contributing resource to the Civic Center Historic District; the building undergoes historic rehabilitation.

1995: A build-to-suit Annex with additional court spaces is constructed to the south of the building.

Building Facts

Architect: James A. Wetmore, Acting Supervising Architect of the Treasury

Construction Dates: 1927-1929

Landmark Status: Listed in the National Register of Historic Places

Contributing building to the Civic Center Historic District

Location: 123 East Walnut Street

Architectural Style: Classical Revival

Primary Materials: Indiana limestone

Prominent Features: Engaged Corinthian columns and pilasters; Main courtroom

Des Moines U.S. Courthouse

The U.S. Courthouse is located at 123 East Walnut Street, along a major thoroughfare through the central business district of Des Moines, Iowa. The steel frame building, constructed in 1927- 1928, occupies an entire city block at the southeast corner of East First and East Walnut streets. The building fronts East Walnut Street to the north. The west elevation of the Courthouse faces the Des Moines River, with the main axis of the building parallel to the river.

The 206' x 85' building is constructed of concrete encased steel columns with a concrete rib-slab floor system. The entire building is clad on the exterior with Bedford, Indiana limestone veneer that is attached to a masonry shell. The building is five stories high, including a basement that is four feet below grade. A flat roof encloses an attic level that houses all of the mechanical equipment for the building. A small penthouse observatory is located on the southwest quadrant of the building.

The U.S. Courthouse follows the typical layout of a Beaux Arts building, with four horizontal layers each featuring different stone finishes: a raised basement clad in smooth ashlar limestone; a first story clad in rusticated limestone; a middle, two-story section of smooth limestone; and a tall attic story with a flat roof. Another significant Beaux Arts feature is the pronounced cornice at the top of the third story featuring mutules and a modestly detailed stone entablature. The parapet at the attic level is accentuated with a raised limestone coping. The entablature throughout has a flat frieze with "UNITED STATES COURTHOUSE" carved in the center of the entablature on the north, east and west elevations.

The U.S. Courthouse has an E-shaped footprint, but the three-dimensional effect from the front is a rectangular block with a flat roof. The principal facade faces north onto East Walnut Street and is the most elaborate of the four elevations. The main entrance area is located on the north elevation, with secondary entrances on the east and west elevations. The east and west elevations are simplified versions of the primary elevation. The rear elevation is primarily clad in brick with stone end pavilions echoing the primary elevations.

The modification of the original entrances on the first floor to the basement are the most significant alterations to the building. The new primary entrance on Walnut, negates the original grand entrance space on the floor above, and presents a cramped, and modern entrance with the addition of security equipment. The remaining public spaces particularly the courtroom lobby and corridors remain intact. Offices have been extensively modernized over the years, and few original details remain in the offices. The courtroom remains a grand and elegant space with classical detailing and a elaborately coffered plaster ceiling.

The organization of the site and its landscape is fairly straightforward. The building is marginally set back from East Walnut Street and East First and East Second streets with only a thin strip of grass located between the sidewalk and the building. Shade trees have been regularly planted at the curbside. The rear of the building abuts a paved parking lot. Smaller shade trees adorn the sidewalk adjacent to the building at the rear. Massive lights at the edge of the lawn mark the entrances on the east, north, and west elevations. Metal lanterns with glass inserts surmount urns of metal which appear on large granite pedestals.

Des Moines U.S. Courthouse

The U.S. Courthouse is located at 123 East Walnut Street, along a major thoroughfare through the heart of the central business district of Des Moines, Iowa. The five-story, steel frame building, constructed in 1927-1928, occupies an entire city block at the southeast corner of East First and East Walnut streets. The front elevation of the building faces north onto East Walnut Street. The west elevation of the U.S. Courthouse faces the Des Moines River, with the main axis of the building parallel to the river. The courthouse contains courtrooms and judges' chambers for the U.S. District Court, as well as offices for various federal agencies.

The building was constructed in the Beaux Arts style under the administration of James A. Wetmore (1863-1940). Wetmore served as the Acting Supervising Architect for the Treasury from 1915 to 1933. Wetmore began his career as a law and court reporter in Hornell, New York. In 1885, he moved to Washington, D.C. to study law at Georgetown University and took a job in the Treasury Department as a stenographer. By 1896, he was associated with the Supervising Architect's office as the chief of the law and records office, the same year he gained his bachelor of law degree from Georgetown University. Wetmore was hired as a temporary replacement for Supervising Architect Oscar Wendroth after Wendroth's resignation in 1915.

During his Tenure as the Supervising Architect, Wetmore was responsible for the passage of the 1926 Public Buildings Act which prompted the construction of the $300,000,000 Federal Triangle project and other important buildings in the District of Columbia. As Supervising Architect Wetmore is credited with overseeing the construction of more than 2,000 post offices and other public buildings across the country.

The U.S. Courthouse in Des Moines is one of seven Beaux Arts style public buildings constructed on the east and west banks of the Des Moines River in an area known as the Civic Center. The other six buildings within the Civic Center complex include: the Des Moines Public Library (1900-1903), the U.S. Post Office (1909-1910), the Municipal Building, the Coliseum (no longer standing), the Municipal Court and Public Safety Building (1918-1920), and the Armory and World War Memorial Building (1934-1935). These buildings are distinguished by their river front locations and by their harmonious design, style, scale, use, siting, and materials. Planned at the beginning of the twentieth century following the principles and aesthetic ideals of the City Beautiful Movement, the buildings were intended to blend together, to work as a planned unit, rather than to stand apart as individual monuments to one architect's design. The civic buildings on both sides of the river join the independent cities of East Des Moines and Des Moines (NARS, RG121, Box 243, Folder Des Moines, IA, New Courthouse, 1902-1903, Letter to Hon. Leslie M. Shaw, Secretary of Treasury from James G. Berryhill).

The planning of these civic buildings reflected a renewed national interest in civic planning known as the City Beautiful movement. Beginning in the late nineteenth century, this movement was an urban-oriented, and "ambitious effort...on the part of civic-minded Americans to achieve for their own raw cities something approaching a cultural parity with the distinguished urban centers of an older, grander European civilization" (Thomas S. Hines "The Imperial Mall: The City Beautiful Movement and the Washington Plan of 1901-1902," from "The Mall in Washington, 1791-1991, ed. Richard Longstreth, p. 79). The City Beautiful movement concerned itself with fostering an ordered and cohesive urban identity realized through the sequential arrangement of public spaces, unified groupings of buildings, the use of a monumental scale, and the employment of the Classical language of architecture often expressed in the Beaux Arts style. Although the first decade of the twentieth century marked the heyday of the Movement, interest in the City Beautiful persisted through the 1930s.

As early as 1902, Des Moines' river front was recommended as the site for a new federal courthouse. The Public Building Act approved on March 4, 1913 allocated $350,000 total for the new federal building in Des Moines; $100,000 was allocated for the purchase of the site and $250,000 for the construction of the building. However, much debate ensued concerning the selection of the site from 1913 to 1915. Newspapers reported that there was strong public sentiment in favor of building up the river front. Although more than five sites were considered, a riverfront site was noted as "one of the most desirable sites offered," by James A. Wetmore in his survey report to the Secretary of the Treasury (NARS, RG 121, Box 243, "Des Moines, IA, New Courthouse 1902-1903," undated report.) Wetmore's only misgivings about the site was that it was on the opposite side of the river from Des Moines' growing business district.

The site, 170' x 180', was purchased by the U.S. Government in 1918 for a total of $65,000, and by June 1919 the land was officially condemned. It was soon evident that the newly purchased site would be too small for the needs of a federal courthouse. In December 1926, additional lots were purchased adjacent to the site along East Walnut for $65,000. The new expanded site was now 180' x 280'. The purchase of this additional land was one more step in the Civic Plan, adding to the Public Library, the Coliseum, the U.S. Post Office, and the City Hall.

Construction of the U.S. Courthouse began in the fall of 1927. Throughout the construction phase, many reports and articles were written concerning the shoddy workmanship and materials being used for the building. In 1928, the cornerstone was laid, and construction was nearly 75 percent complete by April 1929. The building was officially occupied on September 26, 1929. At the time the building opened, the various federal departments housed in the new building included: the War Department, the Department of Justice, the Navy Department, the Interior Department, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Commerce, the Treasury Department and a sub station of the U.S. Post Office.

In 1988, the river front area was nominated and approved as the Civic Center Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places. These buildings in the Civic Center district share a uniformity in color, rusticated stonework, round-arched windows, limestone cladding, and Corinthian capitals.

Description Architect
1927 1929 Original Construction James A. Wetmore, Supervising Arch.
1982 Masonry Cleaning, Pointing, Door Replacement
1985 Electrical Renovations GSA - Region 6
1985 Roof and Gutter Repairs
1987 U.S. Courtroom Restoration & Office Modification Brown, Helay, Bock
1990 Chiller Replacement Batheja & Associates
1991 Montgomery Elevators Dana, Larson, Roubal, Learch, Bates
1993 1993 Renovate Judge Longstaff Courtroom & Chambers
1993 1993 Replace Roof
1993 1993 Security Requirements - Judge Longstaff Courtroom
1993 1994 Interior Painting
1993 1994 Upgrade Basement Room to Office Space
1994 1995 Court Realignment
1994 1995 Replace Fire Alarm System
1994 1995 Install Fire Sprinkler System
Last Reviewed: 2017-08-13