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Fun with Highways: Iowa

Our four-year civic ritual begins in its official manner today, and we at CatSynth are once again following the presidential primary schedule with our “Fun with Highways” series. Today, all eyes (or at least a great many of them) are focused on Iowa. A lot will be said about Iowa, it’s cultural and geographical stereotypes. But I would like to rethink the image of the state through my own interests, and thus begin with this image of Des Moines, the capital and largest city.

From what I can tell by looking at maps of the city, this was taken looking north from a railway bridge. Des Moines is a small city but seemingly well laid out, taking advantage of its river to visual effect. It does have a somewhat dense and vertical downtown core, and a rather interesting feature, the Des Moines Skywalk.


[By Dsmspence (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

The skywalk is a highway of sorts for pedestrians, allowing easy movement around the downtown area through elevated glass-enclosed walkways. As someone who dislikes cold, I’m sure I would appreciate it in January. The skywalk does seem like it would have had a bit of a futuristic quality to it when it was built, though not the dystopian beauty of New York’s High Line. But perhaps I speak to soon. Check out these images of a desolate Des Moines on the blog lonelystreets.com, for some beautiful images of an eerie empty city from the skywalk and elsewhere.

[By Des Moines Guy (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons]

Before leaving the city, we should also acknowledge the Des Moines Art Center, an architecturally interesting complex with pieces designed by Eliel Saarinen, I.M. Pei and Richard Meier, with three differet styles of 20th Century Architecture, but all seemingly designed to take advantage of the horizontal expanse, open space and light that have long made the Midwest an inspiring setting for architects.

Just north of both the art center and the downtown core is I-235, the main highway running through the city. We will head east to where I-235 ends at a junction with I-80 and I-35, and then continue east on I-80. I have personally seen the expanses of farmland along this nearly straight stretch of highway, with the occasional road passing overhead on via artificial mounds and the connected with a diamond interchange. We cross US 6, which once stretched across the entire country but now ends in the eastern Sierra in California. We pass by Iowa City and give a shout-out to the infamous Iowa Writer’s Workshop. The program has turned out numerous winners of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, among other honors. My own experience with the world of writing is a bit limited, but it seems very different than the world of music.

As we approach the eastern edge of the state, we come to Davenport, which among other things is home to the Figge Museum.


[By Ctjf83 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons]

The museum it itself an interesting building, and has a varied collection. But perhaps most interesting is the collection from the University of Iowa that is being temporarily housed there (after the University’s building was flooded in 2008) and displayed in the exhibition A Legacy for Iowa: Pollock’s Mural and Modern Masterworks from the University of Iowa Museum of Art.

Although it seems natural to explore the state along and east-west axis, one can also travel south to north. Indeed, Iowa has what could be dubbed a “concept highway” running north-south called the Avenue of the Saints because it connects St Louis, Missouri, to St Paul, Minneapolis. It was only designated as a single route, Iowa State Highway 27, in 2001, and mostly overlaps with other longer established routes. In particular, it overlaps with I-380 from near Iowa City northward, passing through Cedar Rapids, the second largest city in the state.


[By en:User:Interiority (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons]

Downtown Cedar Rapids was submerged in the massive 2008 floods (the same floods that damaged the University of Iowa Art Building and forced the collection to move to the Frigge). Many of its cultural institutions were damaged along with countless homes and businesses. One story of particular interest the Paramount Theater. The theater was severely damaged in the flood and the console of its historic Wurlitzer organ was destroyed. It seems so many stories with theaters named Paramount or Paradise or anything else that evokes the golden age of movie palaces have tragic overtones, but some do come back. From information provided by the city, the plans are for the Paramount to reopen later this year as a cultural center. The concept renderings of the lobby look to include the best modernist elements of Art Deco.

If anyone reading this knows more about what is happening in Cedar Rapids or any of the other cities profiled in this article, please do comment.

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