Iowa – Des Moines’ Surprising Treasures

       Little things can brighten a long driving day like a stop at the Johnson County Iowa Rest Area (I-80) where we were surprised with the stack of books and the other playful art that took our minds off mileage and destinations for a moment.

We arrived in Des Moines late in the day but had just enough time to take a self-guided tour of the Iowa State Capitol with its impressive main dome covered in 23-karat gold leaf and the four smaller domes (E. Grand Ave. and 9th St; tour information is available at the Guide Desk on the Ground Floor).  The magnificent interior with 29 types of marble, beautiful woods, artworks and historic treasures provides a stimulating backdrop for a look into Iowa’s government, politics and history. 

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Be sure to look up in the Rotunda to see the paintings depicting the “Progress of Civilization” and the twelve statues representing History, Science, Law, Fame, Literature, Industry, Peace, Commerce, Agriculture, Victory, Truth and Progress.  On the second level of the Grand Staircase is Edwin H. Blashield’s painting “Westward” and above, on the third level, are six stunning colored glass mosaics produced in Venice, Italy, depicting branches of government: Defense, Charity, Executive, Legislative, Judiciary and Education.

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The Iowa House and Senate Chambers are open to tour when the legislative bodies are not in session.  Inscribed above the door to the Old Supreme Court Chamber is “Where Law Ends Tyranny Begins“ (William Pitt).  Take a few minutes to visit this chamber as well as the State Law Library with over 100,000 volumes and its’ imposing open grillwork circular staircases.

We had the good fortune of being in the city on a Thursday…when the Des Moines Art Center is open until 9pm (4700 Grand Ave.).  The museum is actually a fascinating merger of three buildings designed by Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei and Richard Meier plus surrounding grounds with sculptures that is a permanent part of the museum’s collection.  The collections were as varied as the architecture.  It is hard to name my favorite aspect of the museum.  We loved the three distinct phases of architecture, and I was like a kid making waves and photographing through the enormous ceiling to floor walls of blue beads (“Untitled Water” by Felix Gonzales Torres).  There were just enough raindrops to make perfect rippling circles in the pool under Carl Milles’ flying bronze sculpture “Man and Pegasus.”    

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Hunger finally drove us on to find food and drink.  Driving back along Locust Street we spotted Centro in the trendy urban center of the city with its art filled crosswalks.  It was just what we needed: great food, two interesting settings and good service.  We elected to sit at a window table in the bar area and a Dominoes’ delivery car drove past while we were enjoying our decadently delicious pizza that Don custom ordered from a long list of suggested ingredients (kalamata olives, onions, anchovies and mushrooms)…a vivid urban contrast that underscored what we were enjoying and our colorful setting. 

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We don’t feel we have exhausted what is to be seen in Des Moines and are looking forward to a return trip when we will visit the Iowa State Historical Building, stroll in the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park, tour Terrace Hill, the governor’s mansion, and explore more of the interesting shops and restaurants just blocks away in the center of the city.

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