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New Era For Iowa's First Skyscraper

From the outside, it looks the same as it did on opening day in 1924 when one and a half million bricks became the headquarters of the Equitable Life Insurance Company. In its prime, just about everyone in Des Moines came here to see a dentist or doctor, buy a wedding ring at Josephs, or a milk shake at King's Pharmacy.

Iowa's original skyscraper is about to re-open as a residence, four years after a Kansas City developer took possession of the 19 story office tower. It is no longer the state's tallest, but it retains something else that comes with time: history and admiration. 

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The building's  original, manually-operated elevators have been replaced by new ones.  For our tour, developer Shawn Foutch chose an old staircase to start in the basement, in the enormous boiler room which also provided steam heat for neighboring buildings.

"This boiler room had a full time staff of up to 20 guys who were constantly bringing in coal, stoking the boilers and taking out ashes to the alleyways south of the building," according to Foutch.

The Foutch Brothers, from Woodbine, Iowa, are renovation specialists. They bought the Equitable for under $500,000 cash and Shawn says they're pouring in $40 million for the conversion to luxury apartments, with commercial tenants on the street and skywalk levels. 

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The building still offers commanding views—especially from the top, more than 300 feet high, where a party deck is being built.

The signature Gothic cupola, which was Iowa's highest point for a half century, still encloses a gigantic water tank. New apartments have one, two and three bedrooms; starting at $1,050 a month. Leasing agent Angela Heldt is seeing empty nesters, boomers, retirees and downtown workers.

"A lot of people have been in the building prior," she says. "When I say, 'do you know about the Equitable Building?' they say 'yes, my dentist was here, or my lawyer was here.' We still get mail delivered to old law offices."

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From the beginning, the Equitable was an exclusive address, and where Doug Hutchison practiced dentistry for 34 years.

"We had a view of 6th and Locust out my corner window," says Hutchison. "And of course that afforded you any views of accidents, or parades, flooding. The waters came pouring in, flooded up the basement, put us out of work for several weeks. We did see a car wash down the street."

The building's legacy includes a damaging fire, a scandal over asbestos removal and tragic deaths. 

"We had Lamson Brothers, a brokerage on the second floor of this building, and during the depths of the depression several people jumped off the building," said Bill Joseph in a 1999 interview.  He is  the late president of former ground floor tenant Josephs Jewelers. "They'd go up to the tower and jump off, and one of them went through the roof of a car parked right in front of our store."

The notorious history is now part of the appeal, along with the Equitable's enduring charm; the terra cotta, the terrazzo floors and perhaps owner Shawn Foutch's favorite, the imposing foyer; its brass lanterns dripping with memories.  

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"You know, tall ceilings, great big lobby, marble everywhere, it should be a very elegant feeling to the first floor." Foutch added, "You walk into any part of this lobby on the first floor once it's done and you'll feel like you're in a grand old building."

The Equitable Building's first residents will move in next month, 92 years after the original dedication.  A public open house is being planned next winter, for old timers to ponder the past, and for newcomers to envision the future.