The Des Moines Register will move to Capital
Square by the end of the year, Cityview is told,
and a group of businesses and businessmen is
forming to buy the Register’s property and some
other vacant buildings downtown in hopes of
hurrying along the revival of the city’s core
The move apparently ends an unpleasant fight
between the Register and the family of Dick
Levitt, which has owned part of the land under
the Register’s buildings for the past five years.
The lease on the chunk owned by the Levitts
— all the land under the 13-story tower and
a small strip under most of the four-story annex
— expired a few weeks ago, and negotiations
to extend it fell apart. In March, in a story
that went unreported, the Register sued the
Levitt company, known as Locust Land LLC. Negotiations
between Register publisher Laura Hollingsworth
and one of Dick Levitt’s sons were described
by people as ranging from spirited to unpleasant.
The suit has not yet been dismissed.
Land under much of downtown was historically
owned by various family trusts, but many of
those deals were peacefully settled decades
ago. The Register, though, under both the Cowles
family and Gannett Co. ownership, never got
control of all of the land under its buildings.
When the leases would expire, a day that many
thought would never come, the landowner would
get control of the building.
The Polk County Assessor currently lists six
owners of the land under the Register’s buildings,
including the Register itself, which appears
to own only the land under the building atop
the parking lot and truck bay at 8th and Grand.
Word is, however, that the Register has reached
an agreement to buy everyone else out, which
probably would be necessary before the business
group takes ownership. Leases under the annex
still have several years to run, Cityview is
The Register tower was built in 1918, a handsome
twelve stories of white Bedford stone atop a
story of polished granite, and it was a model
of a modern newspaper plant of the time. Its
legacy, if not its architecture, is historic.
As well as being the home of the Register during
its heyday — Sunday circulation once topped
525,000 — it was the home and birthplace of
two radio stations, KRNT and KSO, and the first
home of Channel 8, then known as KRNT-TV. (The
“RNT” in the stations’ names stood for Register
‘n Tribune.) Look Magazine was started there,
with a staff of four, and the Register and Tribune
Syndicate prospered there as a marketer of comic
strips (“Family Circus,” among others) and columnists.
Ding Darling, Frank Miller and Brian Duffy drew
there (and, briefly, a guy named Tom Carlisle),
and Harlan Miller, Elizabeth Clarkson Zwart,
Gordon Gammack, Herb Owens, Sec Taylor, Maury
White, John Carlson, Donald Kaul, Rob Borsellino,
Chuck Offenburger, Marc Hansen and others wrote
their columns there. Picture Magazine was born
and died there, and The Des Moines Tribune was
The four-story annex along Eighth Street was
built after World War II, from the top down.
It was planned to be seven stories, but Cowles
family elders chopped it to four stories, planning
to add the other three “when construction costs
come down.” At the time, the building was not
air-conditioned because the newspapers’ business
manager, a man named Art Gormley, said that
in an average summer there were only three days
that were hot enough to warrant air conditioning.
The first summer it was open was especially
hot, and each day editor Ken MacDonald would
ask Gormley, “Is this one of the three days?”
Air conditioning eventually was added.
The land and buildings cover two-thirds of an
acre — half of a block — and are assessed at
$3,510,000. No sale deeds have been recorded,
and it’s unclear what the Register is paying
for the leases or what the downtown group will
pay for the land and buildings. The Levitts
appear to have paid about $400,000 for their
land in January of 2007.The tower building isn’t
in very good shape, but without it the annex
is pretty useless, since the elevators are in
the tower building. Demolition of the whole
thing is one option. It’s also unclear what
will happen to the large, iconic globe in the
lobby, though it probably will end up someplace
like the Science Center or the state historical
The buying group probably will work with the
city to package and subsidize the property —
either vacant or with the buildings — to entice
developers to the corner, once one of the busiest
and most important corners in the city. It’s
unclear how long that might take, but the development
group, which is reminiscent of the old Des Moines
Development Corp. that spearheaded a downtown
renaissance a generation ago, is structured
to be patient. ...
Iowa Democrats gathered to congratulate one
another and do some party work over the weekend,
but the talk invariably turned to Congressional
candidate Christie Vilsack’s performance on
public television’s “Iowa Press” the other day.
It wasn’t very good.
In fact, said one astonished elder, it was dreadful.
She spent almost the entire half hour bobbing
“Didn’t anyone prepare her?” asked another old-timer
who is high in the party.
Asked repeatedly about the President’s health-care
initiative, she danced. Panelists Kathie Obradovich
and Kay Henderson — neither known for Yepsen-like
probes — got frustrated.
Obradovich: I’ll ask you one more time — is
there anything in particular that you would
change? Anything you have in mind that you would
want to change no matter what happens with the
Vilsack: Well, I think there are probably a
lot of small things.
Obradovich: But no one big —
Henderson: So you support the mandate?
Vilsack: No, I think there are a lot of — I
think there are a lot of different ways that
we can go about this creatively. I think we
need to make sure that everybody has access
to care. Everybody does have access actually,
it’s just people can go to the emergency room.
So everybody has access. But we need to make
sure everybody has access that is affordable
to all of us so the rest of us aren’t having
to pay for it.
Obradovich: Are you saying you don’t support
the mandate then?
Vilsack: I think that we’re going to see a lot
of different ways that we can make sure that
everybody has access. So, it might be the mandate,
it might not be the mandate.... We’ve got a
lot of great minds. We can figure out how to
do this, mandate or not. We need to make sure
that people have access.
Henderson: We’re journalists, though, we like
black and white. Are you for the mandate or
are you against it?
Vilsack: I don’t — I’m not for it or against
it. I think we need to figure out a way to get
everybody access to health care, affordable
health care. And so we won’t know what happens
with the Supreme Court. When they do decide
what they’re going to do then we’ll move on
with whatever they have decided.
Then, surprisingly to Democrats, she danced
around gay marriage, never saying whether she
was for or against it. Ultimately, it came down
Obradovich: “...As a resident of Iowa if the
Iowa legislature asked for a constitutional
amendment to require marriage to be between
a man and a woman only would you vote for that?
Vilsack: Well, that is a state issue. I’m running
for Congress, and so I’ve told you how I would
vote in Congress. I would vote to make sure
that people had the opportunity at the state
level to make that decision.
Rep. Steve King quickly issued a press release
saying Vilsack’s answers were the political
equivalent of the children’s game “Duck, Duck,
Goose.” That, of course, is not the version
Nancy Sebring was playing with her tattooed
Meantime, as the Register seems poised to print
still more on Sebring and her so-far-anonymous
friend, one thing seems clear: These days, the
former school superintendent probably has a
better chance of getting a date than a job.