Iconic State Fair architecture
By DARCY DOUGHERTY MAULSBY
DES MOINES – The Iowa State Fair is a homecoming for Iowans, and the historic buildings that grace the fairgrounds in Des Moines provide iconic venues for this statewide family reunion.
There’s also a lot of surprising history behind many of these structures, from the Agriculture Building to the Livestock Pavilion.
“The Iowa State Fair connects generations of Iowans,” said Gov. Kim Reynolds, who spoke during the opening ceremony of this year’s state fair on Aug. 10. “There are so many wonderful memories and traditions here at the fair, which showcases the best of Iowa’s agricultural and cultural heritage.”
While the first Iowa State Fair was held October 25-27, 1854, in Fairfield, supported by a total operating budget of $323, the fair moved to its present location in 1886.
“The state fair moved to this site in Des Moines after the State Legislature and the city of Des Moines appropriated funds to purchase Calvin and Arminta Thornton’s farm,” said Leo Landis, state curator for the State Historical Society of Iowa, who helped lead an Iowa State Fair walking tour on Aug. 10. “One building original to the Thornton farm remains – Grandfather’s Barn, which is on the far eastern edge of the fairgrounds.”
Between the time the Fair Board purchased the land in June 1886 and when the fair opened in September 1886, crews constructed 67 buildings.
“Of those, Pioneer Hall is the only one that remains today,” said Landis, who is also the museum curator at the State Historical Museum.
By the 1900 Iowa State Fair, most of the buildings built for the 1886 fair were still in use. They were beginning to show signs of decay, however, and roofs were particularly bad. It was time for the Iowa State Fair to clean up the fairgrounds.
One of the first new buildings, added more than a century ago, was the Livestock Pavilion. Back in 1901, more than 650 cattle were shown at the Iowa State Fair – only about 50 less than were shown that year at the International Stock Show in Chicago, Landis said.
With future Iowa State Fairs expected to have even more cattle, the Iowa Legislature appropriated $37,000 for a fireproof steel-and-brick stock pavilion, similar to one that had just been constructed at the Illinois State Fairgrounds.
The Livestock Pavilion was the first major brick-and-steel structure built at the Iowa State Fairgrounds.
“By constructing buildings out of these materials, the Fair Board gave the fair a sense of permanence and safety at this location,” said Landis, who noted that the new Livestock Pavilion officially opened for the 1902 fair and has been used for stock judging, lectures, entertainment and more for decades.
A new Agriculture Building came along two years later, in time for the 1904 Iowa State Fair.
Located at the intersection of Grand Avenue and Rock Island Avenue, the Agriculture Building was built along the route to and from the State Fair from the Rock Island Railroad depot.
From the beginning, the Agriculture Building has been used as the agricultural, horticultural and dairy building. It’s home to the famous Butter Cow and other butter sculptures, which have been part of the Iowa State Fair since 1911.
The Homestead, a well-known farm newspaper of the late-1800s and early-1900s published in Des Moines, touted the new Agriculture Building as “one of the finest structures for exhibiting products of the farm that can be found in the Central West.”
The building’s design was inspired by the Exposition Halls at the Columbian Exposition, the world’s fair held in Chicago in 1893.
“Building a structure of such grand scale – with 33,800 square feet of floor space – suggested to visitors that the Iowa State Fair was an event of both civic and social importance,” said Jessica Rundlett, special projects and outreach coordinator at the State Historical Museum of Iowa, who assisted with the Iowa State Fair walking tour.
When a new Swine Barn was constructed for the 1907 Iowa State Fair, the roof covered 185,000 square feet of stalls, exhibition areas and two central show rings that could seat more than 800 people.
“The Homestead newspaper said you had to see it to believe its grand size,” Landis said.
The state appropriated $75,000 to build the Swine Barn. The building’s roof profile is designed to provide superior lighting and ventilation. The long open windows at roof level and open exterior walls draw in fresh air.
Today’s fair visitors can see the Big Boar at the Swine Barn, as well as the Avenue of Breeds, which is coordinated by the North Polk FFA.
The Horse Barn was completed in 1912 for $25,000 and renovated in 1929.
Measuring 156 feet by 224 feet, the new barn could accommodate 132 draft horses and a like number of ponies, according to the Homestead newspaper. The article also noted the new barn was equipped with water troughs, wash stands, sanitary feed mangers and automatic hayracks, according to Landis.
The Iowa State Fair’s building boom of the early 20th century included the new Cattle Barn, which opened for the 1914 fair.
While the original barn could accommodate 108 head of cattle, the barn now has ties for 1,600 cows, thanks to multiple expansions through the years.
Among the early proponents of Iowa’s cattle industry was Iowa Gov. William Larrabee, of Clermont, Landis said.
Larrabee helped introduced Brown Swiss dairy cattle to Iowa after studying the breed and concluding Brown Swiss were best suited for Iowa’s climate.
Today, the Cattle Barn is named for John Putney, a farmer from Gladbrook who was also a longtime cattle exhibitor, president of the Sale of Champions and beef superintendent. Putney was appointed the first executive director of the Blue Ribbon Foundation, which has raised more than $135 million in the last 25 years to renovate and preserve the Iowa State Fairgrounds.
During the Golden Age of Agriculture, state funding was available to construct a wide range of livestock barns at the Iowa State Fair.
In 1915, the State Legislature appropriated $14,000 to build a sheep pavilion. The Sheep Barn opened for the 1917 Iowa State Fair. The building is notable for the detailed terra cotta designs on the east facade, including a row of rams’ heads near the roof.
The legacy lives on
The Iowa State Fairgrounds was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1987. It’s a fitting honor for a unique venue filled with many architectural marvels.
“The late Bill Wagner, a preservation architect from Iowa, noted that ‘the complex contains a representative collection of almost all architectural styles for most of the past 200 years,'” Landis said.
Historic buildings are just one of the many reasons the Iowa State Fair is the best state fair in the nation, according to Reynolds.
“I’m extraordinarily proud of this tradition,” she said. “Remember – nothing compares to our great Iowa State Fair!”
The Iowa State Fair Walking Tour can be found on the Iowa Culture app. Either download the app, or log onto dcaapp.com. Click on the featured tour “Star” button on the right and look for the “Iowa State Fair tour.”
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