Sixth Avenue renaissance8/19/2015
Earlier this decade, rumors floated that American Enterprise Group (AEG) might leave its historic Sixth Avenue headquarters and move to the western suburbs. Des Moines City Councilwoman Christine Hensley recalled the reaction to that news among downtown chauvinists.
“They weren’t admitting it, but I knew it was true. We had to try to persuade them to reconsider,” she said.
What ensued became significant for Des Moines. A package of incentives for historical building credits, energy savings and future property value aggrandizement was put together by city and the state organizations. Some $30 million later (Hensley said it’s actually closer to $35 million), a fully restored Gordon Bunshaft building reopened this month. Had the company moved, 132,000 new square feet of badly outdated office space would have likely depressed downtown’s rental market. At least 300 jobs would have been lost, too.
Instead, Sixth Avenue is now in full renaissance. The area is looking grand again with Principal Financial Group’s $250 million campus extension to the west and the YMCA’s new building just south of AEG. Both add much green space. At AEG’s grand opening, comedian Joey Libido suggested a new T-shirt for the avenue: “Hey, it’s not just for hookers anymore.”
AEG headquarters itself is a veritable art museum. Bunshaft’s original construction featured two walls with no windows and two with floor-to-ceiling natural light. The stark look of white walls, concrete and steel convinced American Republic (the company name before acquisitions, mergers and rebranding) chief Watson Powell Jr. to invest in bright modern art. He did so in a most timely manner. Outgoing CEO Mike Abbott said the company archives include a letter from Andy Warhol. “He requested an advance on his $6,000 commission because he was behind on his mortgage.”
One Warhol piece, a portrait of company founder Watson Powell Sr., would later be swapped for the company’s signature work — Amaldo Pomodoro’s “Sphere Within Sphere,” which greets visitors at the outside entrance. Its companion piece does likewise at the United Nations headquarters in New York. The collection includes all but six of the original 74 pieces Powell bought in the early ’60s, plus 300 others added since then. No one I talked to would attempt to estimate their total value today. It’s a big number, though, with Claes Oldenberg, Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein represented indoors, and Ivan Chermayeff’s “Construction” anchoring the delightful sculpture garden. (Chermayeff also designed American Republic’s two eagle logo, plus NBC’s peacock.) “We certainly could not afford to buy this collection today. We’re just an insurance company,” Abbott admitted.
Yes, however, aesthetics sometimes trumped practicality in this remodeled building. Many executive suite desks are gorgeous and historically appropriate for Bunshaft’s time but appear dysfunctional today.
The grand opening program was held in two adjoining conference rooms that used to store computer hardware. In 1963, state-of-the-art computer equipment was deemed too expensive for an insurance company to buy. It was leased from IBM. Today, Abbott said, it would all fit on a single laptop computer.
Moberg Gallery’s “Make Their Gold Teeth Ache” is a nationally significant exploration by African-American artists trying to develop black identities in a culture that celebrates white aesthetics. The show brings together some of the most famous and controversial African-American artists. Disparate works stick to the theme. Ames’ Mitchell Squire, Chicago’s Eliza Myrie, New York’s Rico Gatson and Los Angeles’ Loren Holland and Koshin Finley all feature farce and/or sarcasm. New York’s Dread Scott (“a professional name — my mother is too nice to have named me that”) and Florida’s John Sims are in-your-face activists who have drawn the ire and attention of the Ku Klux Klan. The show plays through Aug. 23. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.