Terrace Hill prepares for enhanced role in the 21st century

For more information go to the Terrace Hill website at www.terracehilliowa.org
by John Busbee

“Mr. & Mrs. B. F. Allen at home Friday Evening, January 29, 1869 – 7 1/2 O’clock. Terrace Hill.”

More than 1,000 such simply stated invitations were sent out, to as far away as New York City. That’s all the information the recipients needed. Thus were the doors first opened to one of America’s most impressive mansions, and also opened to one of Iowa’s greatest stories. Today the former Allen home stands as a compelling piece of state history, majestically incongruent with the muted Iowa demeanor, yet ultimately built and developed upon the foundation of the Iowa hallmark: its work ethic.

As the towering mansion, dubbed “The Palace on the Prairie”, nears its sesquicentennial birthday, its history, its special place as an Iowa icon, and its vital role in Iowa’s future should be embraced. The story about Terrace Hill is more intertwined with Iowans than the stonework, wood, bricks, glass, nails and mortar that bind this incredible edifice together.

Terrace Hill is a cultural crossroads, bringing many people together, and is a binding force for all Iowans to celebrate. It occupies a special place as one of America’s pre-eminent historic sites and governor’s residences – a status other states imitate but cannot surpass.

The style and scope of Terrace Hill is impressive. A stunning example of Second Empire architecture, this 18,000 square foot building now serves the dual purpose of official residence for Iowa’s first family and a National Historic Landmark. Its grand three stories feature a signature north tower, reaching almost ninety feet into the sky, with a footprint of more than eighty feet across at its greatest width and depth.

The exterior is highlighted by octagonal and circular elements, capped by the distinctive Mansard roof. It also provides a unique portal into a bygone Victorian era. Situated on the majestic crown on one of the region’s high points, Terrace Hill continues to stand guardian over Iowa’s capitol city, and was built by Iowa’s first millionaire, Benjamin Franklin Allen.

Allen arrived at Fort Des Moines in 1848, coming on the advice of his uncle, Captain James Allen. In 1843, Captain Allen had established an outpost at the convergence of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers. His orders were to protect the Sac and Fox Native Americans from white squatters trying to claim lands belonging to these tribes. He also protected his own interests, having opened the first coal-mining shaft and stone quarry in Polk County, a saw mill, a grist mill, and other ventures. Before his nephew, B. F., arrived, however, orders took Captain Allen from the Iowa Territory to recruit Mormons from the Midwest to march into Mexico. He undoubtedly planned to return to his Des Moines businesses, but fell ill on this assignment, and died in 1846.

Upon his arrival in Iowa, young B. F. was not a destitute young man. He brought capital with him, some saying up to $15,000. He inherited much from Captain Allen’s estate, including ownership interests in several businesses. With earlier training from another uncle, Robert Allen, a quartermaster for the U.S. Army, B. F. was well positioned to begin building an empire which, at its peak, was estimated between $3 to $4 million.

B. F. quickly grew his wealth through land speculation. By the late 1860s, in addition to his bank and other businesses, B. F. owned more than 35,000 acres of land in 35 Iowa counties. In Polk County alone, he was involved in more than 1100 property purchases and sales. One business linked B. F. with another rising business star, Frederick Marion Hubbell – the Equitable Insurance Company. Equitable was formed in 1867, a year after Allen’s initial plans for his dream home, Terrace Hill, were unveiled. This year also marked divergent paths in the future fortunes of Allen and Hubbell. But in 1866, Allen had the resources and passion to push Terrace Hill from vision to reality.

Allen hired renowned Chicago-based architect William W. Boyington to build Terrace Hill. Perhaps Boyington’s most famous remaining structure, the Old Chicago Water Tower, was also built during Terrace Hill’s construction. Lavish praise for the architect’s plans appeared in the April 28, 1867, Daily State Register, claiming the residence and its grounds would be “equal to anything west of New York”.

Much of the material for the construction was hauled in by 16-mule teams from the railroad terminus on the Mississippi River. The flooring and woodwork were magnificent. Massive 12-foot tall round-topped doors, trim and intricate flooring inlays were made from cherry, walnut, oak, butternut, maple, rosewood, and pine. Lavish fireplaces, marble and bronze statuary, drapery, custom furnishings, tapestries and more extravagances pushed the final costs, including the out buildings and grounds, up to $400,000.

Although Terrace Hill anchors the Des Moines skyline today, there were times when its destination might have been nothing more than memories in faded photographs. During B. F.’s financial collapse and subsequent bankruptcy proceedings, he attempted to sell Terrace Hill to the Presbyterian Church as the anchor for another idea: “Allen University”.

This proposal was coolly met by the Presbyterians, and Terrace Hill was ultimately included in a blanket mortgage to protect the property from creditors. Had the Presbyterian deal gone through, Terrace Hill may have ultimately become a relatively short-lived footnote in Iowa’s architectural genealogy.

However, the paths of these two Des Moines business pioneers – Allen and Hubbell – ultimately converged at Terrace Hill in 1884. Terrace Hill would become the most lasting symbol of Allen’s empire. The mansion’s next owner, Frederick Marion Hubbell, shared Allen’s passion for Terrace Hill, and brought stability for its future. This not only completed a transfer of Iowa’s premier property from one self-made man to another, but symbolically represented the transfer of financial power from Iowa’s first major success story, which collapsed around its architect, to the heir apparent, Hubbell.

F. M. Hubbell arrived in Des Moines in 1855 with his father, Francis, to do some speculating in the newly opened lands in the territory. The younger Hubbell remained, with a $5 gold piece in his pocket and soon took a position with the U.S. Government Land Office, a job that paid $8.33 a month plus board.

Within a year, F. M. was in Sioux City, where his diary entries noted he recorded 640 acres of land. He had to implore his father to return to Iowa to complete the purchases, as he was too young to legally own land. His success in land development continued, including an incident when he and his father slept on one piece of land as it was necessary for them to live on the land.

“Mosquitoes are very thick. Could not sleep any. Had a rain in the night. Got wet” were the entries in his diary telling of that acquisition.

Hubbell returned to Des Moines in the 1860s where, as one historian noted, “F. M. believed the way to get rich was to acquire property and let the growth of the community raise its value.” Hubbell’s instincts told him where to buy, and the development of Des Moines proved him correct. He was an astute, multi-faceted developer: land, banking, the Des Moines Water Company (the privately-owned predecessor of the Des Moines Water Works) and railroads were key building blocks for his Des Moines-based empire.

One signature business founded by Hubbell, the Equitable Life Insurance Company, not only connected him to Allen, but also several other key early Des Moines leaders – Hoyt Sherman and his brother Lampson, Jefferson Polk, Judge Phineas Casady, and Isaac Cooper. Such a who’s who of Des Moines business pioneers shows how such leaders were so intertwined in collectively growing what would become Iowa’s greatest city.

By 1884, Allen’s poor fortunes left him with few options for his cherished Terrace Hill. Hubbell, however, had carefully built his wealth and was able to fulfill a dream – ownership of Terrace Hill. On May 9, 1884, Hubbell and his wife bought Terrace Hill from Allen for $60,000. This secured the preservation of Iowa’s landmark home well into the 20th century. As Hubbell’s biographer noted, “Only such a man as Fred Hubbell would have bought Terrace Hill in the first place … Fred Hubbell loved Terrace Hill as he loved his family.”

F. M. had married Cooper’s daughter, Frances, in 1863. They had three children; Frederick Cooper, Beulah, and Grover in the span of twenty years. In 1903, the legendary Hubbell Trust was formed, which provided a way for F. M. to preserve his wealth not only for himself but for his heirs.

Terrace Hill was singled out for special attention – a significant move to assure his property would be preserved well into the future. A key point in the trust was that the mansion “shall be and remain the homestead of the Hubbell family, and in the possession of the eldest male lineal descendent (of F. M. and Frances) so long as any descendent lives.” A 1907 Iowa Supreme Court ruling upheld the legality of this trust, which would protect its creator’s wishes for himself and his wife, and their children and grandchildren.

Grover Hubbell eventually became the master of Terrace Hill, with a great love for the grand property, also serving as the senior trustee of the Hubbell estate, until his death in 1956. The trust would end upon the passing of the last male descendent, James, who died in 1962. James did not live in Terrace Hill. His death marked the beginning of the mandated 21-year countdown to the end of the Hubbell Trust, perhaps leaving the property’s future as uncertain as when Allen faced his financial collapse.

“For most of my formative years in Des Moines in the 1950s and 60s, Terrace Hill was just a big, gloomy, unoccupied house on a big hill,” recalled Des Moines’ best-selling author, Bill Bryson. “It was a miracle that it didn’t burn down or get torn down – and what a loss that would have been. Its restoration is one of the best things to happen in Des Moines in decades, if you ask me.”

This sentiment grew as others across Iowa and beyond recognized the special place this grand mansion occupies for the state.

Although closed to the public during the 1960s, much positive response from private tours and events then spurred Hubbell trustees to begin refurnishing some of the rooms with furniture from the mid to late 1800s. During this decade, many wanted to save Terrace Hill, and everyone had ideas on how it should be used. Nobody would make a commitment towards its preservation, however. The Hubbell trust documented that from 1949-1969, extensive work had been completed on the infrastructure of the mansion and its grounds.

This diligence set up a perfect storm for Terrace Hill’s final transfer of ownership to the State of Iowa.

James W. Hubbell, Jr., the family’s spokesperson, is still very involved with efforts to prepare Terrace Hill for a vibrant future. He had recognized that by the late 1960s, Victorian architecture had come of age. Terrace Hill was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Iowa was at a crossroads about the inadequacies of the then-governor’s mansion at 2900 Grand Avenue, and Governor Robert and First Lady Billie Ray were enthusiastically in favor of supporting Terrace Hill as the next first family residence.

The final generous action was taken by the Hubbell family when it decided to donate Terrace Hill to Iowa. Things moved quickly at this point and, in 1976 the Rays moved into the third floor apartment at Terrace Hill.

Bringing a unique perspective, coupled with an irresistible passion, to preservation efforts for Terrace Hill is returning First Lady Chris Branstad. She warmly recalls her family’s first residency (1983-1999), waxing nostalgic about “this old house”, which included a cover appearance on Bob Villa’s book by the same name.

“We are thrilled to be back ‘home again’ at Terrace Hill,” the first lady enthusiastically proclaims. “We spent 16 years of our lives, raising our children, entertaining officials and dignitaries not only from all of the United States but worldwide as well, hosting meetings and fundraisers for the Terrace Hill Society and the Terrace Hill Foundation. Terrace Hill is a warm, inviting and relaxing location for all to enjoy and to bring people together.”

Terrace Hill plays an important role when hosting dignitaries from across the nation and around the world. Obviously proud to represent Iowa, Branstad truly enjoys “sharing the beauty and magnificence of Terrace Hill with any and all. Terrace Hill remains one of the most unique and beautiful governor’s residences in the country, with a long and proud history”.

Our fellow Iowans should very pleased and proud that Iowa has this wonderful showcase.

This historic landmark is not just Iowa’s governors’ home; the people of Iowa can call it home as well.”

Every year thousands of Iowans are given the opportunity to tour, attend a reception, dinner, tea, historic walk, outdoor concert or garden tour. The events scheduled are coordinated by the administrative staff and the boards of the Terrace Hill Foundation and Society. These two groups are nearing a merger to best leverage the foundation’s non-profit status for Terrace Hill’s future. A legion of loyal and well-informed volunteers serve as guides, hosts and loving caretakers for this exquisite property.

Now it is possible for more Iowans to connect with Terrace Hill. Support from individuals, small businesses and corporations will keep the grandeur of this special property sparkling for future generations to be proud of, to learn from and to enjoy. Iowans are encouraged to join a tour, a tea or any event.

“One’s experience is often elevated to almost magical levels, thanks to this special setting,” said a member of the Foundation’s board. “Terrace Hill can be a leading example of how a public-private partnership can perpetuate such a uniquely appealing destination as one of Iowa’s greatest state treasures, and a great place to develop an historical relationship.”

You can see more information by visiting the The Terrace Hill Foundation website at www.terracehilliowa.org.

John Busbee is the CEO of The Culture Buzz, an independent gateway cultural resource delivering better understanding for Greater Des Moines’ and Iowa’s cultural assets through stories, critiques, interviews and news. John recently was named co-director for a new Iowa film fund, Project Cornlight. As an advocate for enhanced economic development through inclusion of arts, history, literature and culture, John serves on the boards of the Iowa Cultural Coalition and the Terrace Hill Foundation.www.theculturebuzz.com.