Colonial Revival: Des Moines’ Witmer house comes full circle11/2/2016
It was the 1960s. We had a big car and a small house. That helps explain why driving around the city was one of our family’s favorite pastimes. Perhaps we were trying to see how the other half lived, not that I really knew the difference. We would hop in the car on a warm summer evening and drive through Des Moines’ winding streets, stopping at the Dairy Queen along the way. Before seat belts were law, I sat perched with my head and arms over the back of the front seat listening to Dad tell stories about the homes we passed. He was a Realtor, so he had some insights. I was a sucker for anything old, and architecture was an interest. So a drive through older neighborhoods, under a canopy of century-old trees with the sound of katydids flowing through the car windows, was heaven. Of course, any day ending with ice cream was, and still is, a good day in the Carlson family.
My favorite drives included trips down Ingersoll or Grand Avenue. On the northeast corner of 42nd and Ingersoll, hiding behind a tall hedge, was the Pearson Mansion. I loved that house. When I heard it was going to be torn down, I was dumbfounded. How could anyone destroy something so beautiful? The trauma of losing the Pearson Mansion was the catalyst for a passion for preservation that still drives me 50 years later.
Another house that caught my attention was the Governor’s Mansion. Today most people would assume that was Terrace Hill. But from 1947 through 1976, it was a stately brick house on the southwest corner of 29th Street and Grand Avenue that was home to Iowa’s governors. Etched in my mind is a beautiful brick home with spotlights that made the curved portico glow as we slowly drove past. With majestic flags waving lazily in the summer breeze, knowing our governor actually lived there seemed to add to the mystique.
Little did I know that long before it was home to Iowa’s governors, it was home to an extended family that quite literally shaped our city to a greater degree than any of the elected occupants who followed.
NEWSPAPERS AND LOANS
At almost the same moment Fort Des Moines was being established at the confluence of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers, William Wirt Witmer (W.W. Witmer) was born in April of 1843 in Pennsylvania, the 12th of 13 children. Witmer attended Pennsylvania College at Gettysburg until he enlisted and served in the latter months of the Civil War. He studied law after the war and was admitted to the bar in January of 1867. Soon afterward, Witmer moved near Muscatine with his family and began a law practice. But he also took a strong interest in the newspaper business. In November of 1871, Witmer married Mary Stein in Philadelphia. A month later, they visited Des Moines, decided to move here and purchased what remained of the defunct “Weekly Statesman.” Witmer founded the “Evening Leader” with the Barnhart brothers and was the editor for 10 years. His strong support of Democratic politics ended up costing him some business. Between 1854 and 1933, there was only one Democratic governor in Iowa. However, Witmer’s support of tariff reform in the 1870s gave him broader exposure. In 1877, Witmer bought a group of failing small-town papers called “Ready Prints.” Within a few years, this became the Western Newspaper Union and had offices in Omaha, Kansas City and St. Paul. In 1882, he left the Leader and started a weekly paper called “The Million” that was dedicated to tariff reform, a subject he continued to promote.
But the newspaper business was hardly William Witmer’s only interest. He was a true entrepreneur. Des Moines was experiencing explosive growth. In 1860, Des Moines was a city of less than 4,000 people. In 1870, two years before his move to the city, Des Moines had a population of 12,000. By 1880 the city’s population had grown to 22,400 people. In May of that year, Witmer began buying land west of Terrace Hill, just south of Grand. It was here where Witmer built a new house, moving from the Sherman Hill area. In 1881, the area between 28th Street west to 42nd Street was incorporated as “Greenwood Park.” Not to be confused with what we know as Greenwood Park today, this was east of the park and was platted for development. Witmer purchased land from 28th Street to “Linwood Lane” — which is now 29th Street, south of “Greenwood Avenue” — now Grand Avenue. He named the development “Owl’s Head.” Witmer also developed an area north of Woodland he named “Middlesex” and another north of Kingman Boulevard he dubbed “Wessex.” In 1890, the city of Des Moines annexed Owl’s Head, along with all of Greenwood Park, and it became part of Des Moines proper.
During this period, Witmer entered into a business with Daniel O. Eshbaugh and Wilber F. Bartlett, forming “New England Loan and Trust Company.” Witmer kept an office in Des Moines, but Eshbaugh and Bartlett moved to Montclair, New Jersey, and operated from offices in New York City. Eshbaugh was president, Witmer was vice president, and Bartlett was secretary and treasurer. The company started business in 1882 with an emphasis on farm mortgages. By all accounts, the company did well for a number of years. Witmer financed his own Owl’s Head properties through the company. Eventually the company sold mortgages in Omaha, Kansas City, Dallas and beyond. But the Panic of 1893, and the depression that followed, proved to be tough years, especially on financial institutions. Five hundred banks failed, and unemployment tripled. In 1898, New England Loan and Trust was in real trouble. When the treasurer, W.F. Bartlett, died in August, it became clear just how bad things were. On Sept. 26., the failure of the company was announced. That same day, Eshbaugh disappeared. Nobody knew what happened to him until they found his body the following Saturday floating in the North River at Hoboken, New Jersey. About 700 bondholders also took a bath. Witmer was the only one of the three original partners who walked away from the company alive. Exactly how it affected him financially is unknown, but a few years later he built his beautiful Grand Avenue home.
THE SAVERY HOTEL II
AND THE KIRKWOOD
As if Witmer’s real estate development wasn’t enough to keep him busy, in 1887 he partnered with George H. Maish and Frank Risely to build a new hotel. On July 1, 1888, the Savery Hotel II opened. Its namesake, James C. Savery, had a minority interest in the operation. Savery built a hotel during the Civil War but lost it during an economic downturn in 1878. The new owners changed the name to the “Kirkwood,” in honor of Iowa’s former governor, senator and secretary of the interior… and Republican, Samuel Kirkwood. Witmer and Maish resented the name change and decided on the Savery name before ever asking Savery to be involved with the project. George Maish died just two months before the Savery opened. “Savery II” opened in 1888 and was 132 foot square, five stories high, had 175 rooms and featured Romanesque arches and turrets. Perhaps the most unique feature of the day was electric lighting. By 1890, Witmer controlled the Savery. The hotel lasted barely 30 years before being replaced by the “Savery III” in 1919, the hotel we are familiar with today. By the way, The Maish house at 1623 Center St. remains a showpiece of Italianate architecture in Sherman Hill, thanks to the late Ralph Gross and his wife, Martha. The house is only a block or so west of where W. W. Witmer lived before his move to Owls Head.
In 1887, Witmer also became a partner in Eureka Coal and Mining Company. The initial mine was located in “Sevastopol” and was the largest in the county at the time. The boundaries of the mine itself were South Union to the west, Indianola Road to the east, Bell Avenue to the north and Park Avenue to the south.
THE ARCHITECTURE, WEDDINGS AND HEIRS
Just after the turn of the century, William and Mary Witmer commissioned Liebbe Nourse and Rasmussen to design their beautiful brick Colonial Revival home. Formed in 1899, the firm was the successor to Foster and Liebbe. The architects designed some of the most beautiful homes in Des Moines, as well as several Carnegie libraries, schools banks and a beloved downtown icon lost to fire in 2014 — the Younkers Building. The home originally incorporated classic traditional features including that beautiful curved portico, split pediments above first floor windows, fluted pilasters, Ionic columns, Palladian windows, dentil moldings, architectural urns and wonderful symmetry.
The architecture bespoke the residents. They were steeped in tradition. The Witmers had four children, but only two made it beyond infancy. Mabel Witmer was born in 1879 and Helen in 1881. Both were married at home. Mabel married Jay E. Tone on Nov. 7, 1904. The day is made more significant because it was the 33rd anniversary of William and Mary. That evening, Mabel wore her mother’s wedding dress, and Helen, her maid of honor, wore the same dress her aunt wore as maid of honor in 1871 for her mother Mary. Ten years to the day later, Helen married Gerard Nollen at the Witmer home. This time Helen wore her mother’s wedding dress, and Mabel, her matron of honor, wore her aunt’s dress. In 1941, Helen and Gerard’s daughter, Johanna, married Lieutenant James Bragg at the Witmer home. Her sister, Sara (Sally) Witmer, was maid of honor. In 1943, it was Sally’s turn. She married Richard Kassander, and Johanna was matron of honor. Sadly, Helen had passed away at age 59 in 1940 after a lengthy illness.
William Witmer died on Nov. 10, 1916, at his home. He lived to see his city grow to 110,000 people and his family grow as his daughters wed. He was there for the birth of his grandson, Jay E. Tone Jr., in 1908. Mary, who had nurtured a successful family while her husband built his successful business empire, passed away in 1921. With the passing of that generation, the daughters and their husbands took control of Witmer’s holdings. It’s hard to imagine more capable heirs.
From 1947 through 1976, it was a stately brick house on the southwest corner of 29th Street and Grand Avenue that was home to Iowa’s governors. Etched in my mind is a beautiful brick home with spotlights that made the curved portico glow as we slowly drove past.
THE TONE BROTHERS
Jay E. Tone was born in 1873, the same year his father, Isaac, came to Des Moines. Isaac’s brother, Jehiel, was convinced that Iowa’s capital city was the place to build a new spice company. Isaac had been living in Ohio and had owned unrelated businesses. Jehiel had worked in the spice trade in Michigan. Both were natives of New York, but the West was where opportunity existed. The Tone Brothers were the first to sell pure ground pepper in the U.S. and the first to sell roasted coffee west of the Mississippi. Though he had once dropped out of high school, Jay E. Tone Sr. graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and joined the company in 1897. He developed more than 40 patents over the years but wouldn’t become president until 1939. He held that position for 30 years. If you are doing the math, you realize he was 96 when he retired in 1969. The company sold later that year, but Tone lived to age 100. Though his son only briefly held the title of president, he did inherit his father’s good genes. Jay Tone Jr. died in 2003 at age 95. Jay Tone Sr. also served as president of the Savery Hotel and helped run Witmer’s other real estate interests. His wife, Mable, died in 1960.
Helen Witmer married into a family with accomplishments that are truly legendary. Gerard Nollen’s grandfather founded Pella. Hendrick Peter Scholte left Holland with a group of people who shared in their frustration with the national clergy. After years of deliberation, they decided to start anew in the United States. In 1847, the group purchased 47,000 acres in Marion County and founded Pella. John Nollen settled at Pella in 1854. He was an assistant editor at the Pella Gazette and a cashier at the Pella bank. He married Hendrick Scholte’s daughter, Johanna, in 1864. Nollen didn’t believe this country’s public schools were best for educating his children. Thanks to their expert tutoring, the Nollen’s produced five exceptionally brilliant children. Like the Witmers, they lost two other children very young.
John Nollen served as president of Grinnell College from 1931 to 1940. He previously had been president of Lake Forest University and had both studied and tutored in Europe. Henry, the eldest sibling, became Bankers Life’s first actuary in 1893. He was a gifted mathematician, as was Gerard. Ironically, he left Bankers Life in 1912, the same year his younger brother, Gerard, joined the company. Henry went to work for the Hubbells at Equitable of Iowa and became president in 1921. The iconic Equitable Building was built in 1924. It was the tallest building in the city for 49 years. He served as president until 1939. He remained president of Pella State Bank until his death in 1942. Gerard’s business career began after graduating from Grinnell with a degree in philosophy in 1902. He started out at Bankers Life but soon left to work for Royal Union Mutual and then Equitable. In 1912, he rejoined Bankers Life, two years before marrying Helen Witmer, and two years after the death of his first wife, Laura Thompson Whitman. Nollen became president in 1926 and remained in that position for the next 20 years, overseeing the new Art Deco headquarters built in 1939. He served as chairman of the board until 1951 and remained on the board until 1957. When he joined the company in 1912, Bankers Life had assets of $20 million. When he left the board in 1957, the company’s assets totaled $900 million. Nollen was at the helm during both the Great Depression and World War II.
Lesser known are the two Nollen sisters, Sara and Johanna (Hanna) Nollen. The sisters never married and more closely followed their brother John’s scholarly path. They both taught and studied in Europe. They started a school in 1914 and taught the children of the Hubbells, Inghams, Merediths, Darlings and other well-heeled patrons. Helen Witmer Nollen taught with the sisters during the five years the school existed. The sisters continued their education, and educating others, throughout their lives.
The area around 29th and Grand remained a family compound for the next generation. The Tones moved into the original 1880 family home at 450 29th St. after they married. Later they moved into the larger home at 2900 Grand before moving to 35th Street. Gerard and Helen built a home on the south end of the original homestead property in 1914, the year his father died. The beautiful brick Colonial at 402 29th St. later became the home of Henry Nollen. Gerard and Helen built a “double house” at 2848-50 Grand, immediately east of the Witmer home across 29th Street. This was originally the Scholte Nollen School that Sara and Hanna Nollen founded. To the south, at what was 465 29th St., was a home that at one time or another housed the Nollens’ widowed mother, Johanna Scholte Nollen (who lived until 1928), Sara and Hanna Nollen and even Henry Nollen. Gerard and Helen lived in the main home after the Tones moved, following the death of Mary Witmer in 1921. As mentioned, Helen also died at the home in 1940. In 1946, Gerard was a retired widower. His daughters were married, and he was living in a 6,000-square-foot house. As successful as both Gerard and Henry Nollen became, they were still very conservative men.
THE GOVERNOR’S MANSION AND IGHSAA
In December of 1947, Gerard sold the Witmer Home to the State of Iowa, and it became the Governor’s Mansion. Gerard moved into one side of the double house he built for his sisters 33 years earlier, while his sisters remained next door. Gerard Nollen died on Sept. 4, 1965. Hanna died on the last day of 1965. Sara died on Valentines Day in 1967.
Though it was Gov. Robert Blue who sought a home for Iowa governors, it was his successor, Gov. William Beardsley, who was the first governor to live in the Witmer House. The state paid $27,200 for the house and spent another $22,421 to furnish and decorate the home. With inflation, that purchase price is still only $290,000 in today’s dollars. Over the 29 years the state owned the house, seven governors lived in the home.
In 1976, the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Association paid $150,000 ($632,000 in today’s dollars) and made it the association headquarters. The kitchen was removed, and the home became more institutional. However, the mechanicals were maintained. In 2011, the association put the home up for sale. Though it still maintained much of is grandeur, there was work to make it a home again.
ENTER JOHN BEARD
Beard is no stranger to huge projects. He has renovated homes in Sherman Hill, the Kingman area, Highland Park and River Bend. In fact, compared to the Colby House at Sixth and Arlington (another Liebbe Nourse and Rasmussen design), the Witmer House is a piece of cake. When he spotted the “for sale” sign in the yard, the adrenaline rush began for Beard. And the roller coaster of selling his previous home and closing on the Witmer House was a ride he’d just as soon forget. His passion for preservation drove him across the finish line. Familiar with Grand Avenue’s history, Beard knew a developer will happily erase a historic landmark for the right price and replace it with another mundane, multifamily cash cow. With that in mind, he persevered. Thanks to his design skills, the place has become a showcase for his antiques. Along the way, he’s put a little twist on tradition. John and his partner, Mark Harrington, were married in the house New Year’s Day. And, like the Witmers, they hope they will die in the house — after a long, happy life, of course.
Fifty years later, it’s now my wife and I who enjoy our drives through Des Moines. Like Dad, I have a few stories to tell along the way. The Witmer House still glows at night. And thanks to the conscientious effort of the home’s new private owners, I can sleep a little better knowing it won’t end up like the Pearson Mansion any time soon. Of course, ice cream always helps. ♦