• Des Moines
  • Art Center
  • 4700 Grand Ave
  • Des Moines, Iowa
  • 515.277.4405
  • Hours | Directions

  • John & Mary Pappajohn
  • Sculpture Park
  • 13th and Grand Ave
  • Downtown
  • Des Moines, Iowa
  • Hours | Directions


The second Art Center building (1968) by I. M. Pei was elected to the National Register of Historic Places in 2004.

In 1966, when the trustees of the Des Moines Art Center decided to build an addition to exhibit sculpture, they turned to I. M. Pei (American, born China, 1917). Pei had already built an enviable reputation as an architect and was about to emerge as one of the most important designers of art museums in the world, designing the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York, the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and an addition and renovation of the Louvre in Paris.

Pei’s proposal for an addition to the Art Center was seemingly simple: a wing built across the open end of Saarinen’s U-shaped building on its south side. By choosing this gently sloping site, Pei was able to design a dramatic two-story gallery with a spectacular south-facing facade without overwhelming Saarinen’s low-lying building. In fact, the Pei addition is all but invisible from the front approach to the museum. Only the dramatic V-shaped butterfly roof section above the main floor hints at what lies beyond the original building.

Pei’s design for the Des Moines Art Center addition, like his designs for the Everson and Johnson museums, drew heavily on the severe, geometric concrete forms of his design for the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, built between 1961 and 1967. The Des Moines addition, of course, is much smaller than the Colorado facility; however, it incorporates the same fullness of scale, allowing for large interior spaces for the exhibition of sculpture. Pei’s plan called for three sculpture exhibition areas: a large gallery on the main floor overlooking a two-story gallery on the lower level and a small gallery at the west end of the main floor. An auditorium was designed for the space immediately under the main floor gallery.

Among the addition’s more noteworthy architectural details are the two stairways connecting the main- and lower-level galleries. One is a wide-open walkway, the other a tight circular stair that offers an intimate view to the park beyond. Also of note is the butterfly roof section that allows natural light to fill the remaining galleries and the dramatically sculpted walls enclosing the courtyard. To keep the slab walls throughout the Art Center addition from becoming monolithic, the concrete surfaces were bushhammered to a very rough finish, which establishes a strong affinity with the rough-hewn Lannon stone in Saarinen’s original building.

On a lighter side, though Pei has always denied it, it has been observed that the windows on the south face of the addition appear to spell out the architect’s name.

I. M. Pei received the Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1983.

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