For years I’ve looked at this stately building sitting across the river from Des Moines’ Simon Estes Amphitheater. Its grandeur has provided the backdrop for many photos snapped on my phone, but I didn’t know much about what was inside. I knew it housed the Des Moines Public Library for many years, underwent a renovation a few years ago, and now houses the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates. It was time to take a closer look.
What I discovered is that a visit to this building is captivating from many angles. It was Des Moines’ Central Library from 1903 until 2006. That’s a long time! In its $29.8 million renovation (completed in 2011), the wood floor of the ballroom was inlaid with a pattern showing the where the former footprints of book stacks would have been. The “mural room” in the lower level, painted in the 1930's, was preserved. The tour guide pointed out where the circulation desk sat for many, many years.
The interior is elegant and beautiful, with an original stained glass dome above the rotunda. Art aficionados can appreciate the murals, the glass work, sculptures, mosaics, and a roomful of paintings commissioned for the World Food Prize by Iowa artists.
Of course, the tour guide also explained the mission of the World Food Prize itself. Dr. Norman Borlaug, a Nobel Peace Prize winner from Iowa, established this annual award in 1986 to recognize “those who have improved the human condition by increasing the quality, quantity or availability of food for the world.” There is an interactive, educational exhibit in the building’s lower level highlighting the challenges and advances made in trying to feed the world.
I was delighted to have a tour guide to myself, but that’s not to say the building was empty on this weekday afternoon. A delegation from Italy was being hosted on their own tour, and the staff was preparing for an FFA event to be held later in the day. The building is often used for private events, according to my guide.
Another aspect that was fascinating to me is the building's LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) Platinum certification, earned out of the renovation. There just aren’t many 100-year-old structures with this distinction. Solar panels were installed on the roof, 102 geothermal wells were drilled, and (my favorite) a 8,000-gallon cistern was installed to catch rainwater, which is then used for irrigating the gardens and flushing the toilets. Signs in the restrooms explain this and account for the yellowish tint of the toilet water. It was a good clarification.
I also enjoyed an exhibit of photographs taken around the world by Howard G. Buffett (son of Warren). The collection is titled "40 Chances," the idea being that each of us is given 40 chances in our lifetime to make a real difference in the world. (A typical farmer would have 40 annual harvests in his or her work years.)
A visit to the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates can be enjoyed by those interested in history, architecture, agriculture or art. Or just those who have been looking at the building from across the river, wondering what's inside.
Free, guided tours are offered on Tuesdays, and self-guided tours on Saturdays. More information at worldfoodprize.org.