By Michael Swanger
Standing on the corner of Sixth Avenue and Walnut Street in downtown Des Moines on the morning of Sunday, March 31, felt like a funeral procession for the 115-year-old Younkers building that had been destroyed the previous day by a massive fire.
Cars slowed to a crawl to afford gawking passengers a glimpse of the smoldering ruins at 713 Walnut Street while passersby on foot stopped to stare and gasp with dismay before taking pictures with their smart phones.
The scene looked like a bomb had exploded in the heart of downtown Des Moines and all that remained from the Younkers building that was erected in 1899 was a pile of burned bricks and mangled steel as small, charred remnants of the blaze tumbled down a windswept Walnut Street cordoned off by police.
Talk about Sunday morning coming down.
Yet like many funerals in Iowa, mournful conversations about the deceased soon turned to stories of “Remember when?” as Iowans began recalling years of dining and shopping there with a hint of joy in their voices.
They stood on the streets that day reminiscing about it and in the weeks that followed, they weighed in with their recollections of the old building in stories gathered by the media and posted fond remembrances on Facebook.
Memories of Younkers abound within many Iowa families and mine is no exception.
The day after the fire, I was driving my mother, my mother-in-law and my wife — three generations of Iowa women — to my son’s piano recital when stories of Younkers dominated the conversation during our drive. They used words like “grandiose” and “exquisite” when describing the building and spoke about their experiences there with reverence.
They traded mouthwatering anecdotes about dining at the Tea Room where they ate trademark rarebit burgers, sticky rolls and chicken salad served in halved cantaloupes to the sounds of a local musician tickling the ivories of a baby grand piano.
My mother and mother-in-law talked about riding the bus that would pick them up in Valley Junction and take them downtown so that they could shop at Younkers and other retail stores. Each time they got on the bus they were dressed up because “that’s what everyone did when they went downtown, it was a big deal.”
My mother’s memories of the Younkers building dated back to her childhood during the 1950s and the vivid images of its window displays at Christmas and the sounds of its elevator man who would announce to riders the merchandise that could be found on each floor as it stopped there.
“That’s when life was all downtown, before Merle Hay Mall was built,” she said. “For us, everything was in Valley Junction or downtown Des Moines.”
My mother-in-law concurred, and like so many Iowans, her first experience riding an escalator was the one that Younkers installed in 1939.
Both women remembered walking across the alleyway between the vast buildings that Younkers occupied; shopping upstairs and downstairs in the “bargain basement”; eating at the basement lunch counter; and buying records there.
The loss of the building was tragic. It was undergoing a $37 million restoration that would have allowed future generations of Iowans to get a glimpse of the old Younkers that closed in 2005. No doubt, developers will start from scratch to erect a new building that will fulfill its own legacy.
The Younkers building resonated with Iowans because it was where generations of them gathered for more than 100 years. When you lose a building like that, everything around it becomes more important. You realize that it can’t be replaced.
Though the Younkers building might be gone, its memory lives within those who frequented it.
At least, that’s the way it felt that Sunday morning.
Thanks for reading.