Saved for a Worthy Cause

The Des Moines Central Library stood abandoned and decrepit. Now it’s a grand, freshly gilded home for the World Food Prize Foundation.

Written by Kelly Roberson
Photos by Duane Tinkey

Those of us who’ve been around Des Moines any length of time remember the original Central Library, looming alongside the Des Moines River. It was, as teenagers say, old-school: imposing in its dark, dank way, and unfathomably organized. It had long survived the early-20th-century glory days of the “City Beautiful” movement, but its magnificence had abandoned it.

Six years ago, when a gleaming new library rose to its west, the 1903 beaux-arts building sat empty—and I wondered what would become of the place. I love architecture as much as (well, probably more than) the next person, but buildings, like people, have life cycles. The Central Library’s dusty charms, I came to believe, were perhaps best left in memory.

Fortunately, I was wrong. The building has been renovated and reopened amid much anticipation as the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, home to the World Food Prize Foundation. The $29.8 million renovation aimed for lofty goals. Architects, contractors and sponsors committed to reviving the once-grand edifice sensitively, while realistically addressing modern-day energy concerns (in fact, the building is expected to attain LEED Platinum certification). They intended to draw our distracted perceptions of the city back toward its wide, central waterway, and also to showcase the achievements of scientists, economists and leaders from around the world who’ve fought to improve the quality, quantity or availability of our global food supply.

Iowa native Norman Borlaug, whose vision created the World Food Prize in 1986, emerged from a family farm near Cresco, Iowa. His Food Prize struck the endnote to a lengthy career that took him to the poorest, hungriest places on the planet. Borlaug’s aim was to research and develop varieties of crop seeds that would be more hardy and nourish more people. His reputation—he was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, among other honors—is such that a statue of him symbolizes all of Iowa in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. The Food Prize he established was intended to celebrate those who continued his work when he was gone.

In 1990, trucking industry magnate and philanthropist John Ruan dramatically rescued the World Food Prize from fiscal doom and relocated it to Des Moines. Since then, the World Food Prize Foundation has continued to extend its reach—but even so, most Iowans would probably admit they don’t know what it really does, or, for that matter, who Borlaug and Ruan really are.

That’s likely to change, given the World Food Prize headquarters’ recent infusion of gilt and dignity. The building’s renovation took equal parts detective work, re-imagining the missing details, and expert refurbishment of the parts and pieces that had stayed intact. Now, the building is a thought-provoking destination.

All that was faded but stately about the Central Library—those lavish materials and gracious public rooms—shines brightly. The entry’s original 10,000-piece stained-glass skylight was meticulously washed and repaired. In a mix of old and new, the skylight has been complemented with four lunette-shaped paintings representing scenes in Borlaug’s life. A 20-foot-high stained-glass window at the top of the grand staircase depicts a harvest during classical times.

The structure’s current emphasis, of course, is as much on its contents as its architecture; the library stacks gave way to art and artifacts. While the designers and staff members chose and arranged the rooms’ contents, they paid attention to the tiniest details. For instance, when you examine the frame around Borlaug’s official portrait in the Borlaug Ballroom, you’ll discover that it’s patterned with the asterisks he used in notebooks to evaluate varieties of wheat. In the Ruan Laureate Room, contemplate the global artworks that portray farming scenes and symbols, such as African sculptures of antelope. (In Mali, this animal embodies agricultural productivity.) On the second floor, the Iowa Gallery exhibits 20 commissioned works by Iowa artists. Their paintings, drawings and mixed-media pieces trace the state’s agricultural heritage.

Long obscured by stacks of children’s books, the expertly restored lower-level mural, “A Social History of Des Moines,” can now be viewed as a unified artwork and also examined in segments. Funded by the New Deal Works Progress Administration, the mural was painted by several artists between 1937 and 1941. Their efforts were supervised by Grant Wood, then the Iowa Director of Mural Projects for the WPA. Passages of this mural trace Des Moines’ development from prehistoric times through the mid-1930s. Overall, the mural contrasts images of war and peace, simplicity and sophistication, individual greed and group cooperation.

Anyone familiar with the Central Library will experience moments of deja vu; mine was a reunion with the Depression-era murals in the basement. Much of these vibrant paintings, extending across all four walls, had previously been hidden behind bookshelves. Now you can easily follow their unobstructed views of Des Moines from prehistoric times through the 1930s. The artists who executed the murals were supervised by Grant Wood, and his forthright style of portraying people and events is palpable.

Outside, the most significant restoration was the east, river-facing facade, complete with exterior steps and doorway. Removed in 1956, this facade was entirely re-created with stone from Minnesota that matched the original material. On the building’s west, the cramped library parking lot has been transformed into an urban garden, centered on a fountain and colored by seasonal plantings.

The World Food Prize building, with its saga of redemption and its immaculate luster, couldn’t be more prepared for its 21st-century purpose. It enshrines the role of agriculture throughout history, but also, and vitally, reminds us that our obligation to sustain our fellow humans is far from over.

If You Go

Visitors can tour the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates on Tuesday or Saturday mornings. On Tuesdays, docents lead tours from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. On Saturdays, from 8 a.m. to noon, you’re welcome to explore the building on your own, although guides in each room are ready to answer questions. Free admission.
100 Locust St., Des Moines
515.245.3783; worldfoodprize.org.

Landscape architect Doug Hoerr designed a garden on the building’s west side, which replaced the old Central Library’s parking lot. The garden contains 110 trees and 2,200 shrubs, including hydrangeas, rhododendrons and viburnums. At its center are an expansive granite map of the world and a circular fountain.

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